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HP Discover 2012 Report Card Finding: HP Can--and Must--Do Better

HP Discover 2012 has ended its five-day run in Las Vegas, and the world's largest IT vendor has bid farewell to the 11,000 customers who attended. But what will they take back with them? What will Hewlett-Packard's customers, prospects, partners, employees and competitors now think about the struggling vendor?

With HP Discover coming just days after the company reported disappointing financial results and announced it will be cutting 27,000 employees, or 8% of its workforce, this was the time and place to send a strong message that HP has some challenges to manage but is essentially sound and gearing up for even greater success. That was the message president and CEO Meg Whitman tried to communicate, as did her cohorts, but I think the best that can be said is they had limited success. If I had to grade HP's performance, it would be a "D," with the words I used to dread on my report cards: "Can do better!"

Prior to HP Discover, a number of analysts provided their thoughts on what the company needed to do this week and going forward. They believe HP is in better shape than most people realize, but that there is no shortage of areas of concern--among them, rationalizing its strategy and forming a board of directors that can be part of the solution, not the recurring problem it has been.

Mark Peters, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, agrees that while HP seems to be lurching from one corporate disaster to another, it remains fundamentally strong, with an improving enterprise product set, plenty of committed customers and a capable management team. "If HP can get--and keep--its act together, I think it will remain both relevant and dangerous."

During the conference and trade show, HP introduced a number of products and services, primarily in cloud and storage. It added a mid- to high-end NAS storage array, and claimed bragging rights over EMC in the deduplication segment. While its cloud-related news was more modest in scope, HP appeared to have solid offerings that addressed existing and emerging customer needs. What none of the product announcements seemed to do was articulate a strategy or pay more than lip service to the company's commitment to its three pillars--cloud, security and information management.

From a positioning perspective, this was largely a missed opportunity to quell everyone's concerns that everything is basically sound and secure at HP. Whitman's keynote speech on Tuesday was an attempt at displaying leadership--both from her and the company. Instead, it was long on generalities and platitudes, and short on specifics. It wasn't so much what she did, including stumbling multiple times over product and technical terms, but rather what she didn't do: She demonstrated no passion and little vision.

I remember a keynote from former IBM head Sam Palmisano immediately after he replaced Lou Gerstner, and how effective he was in communicating his grasp of the company's situation and where it was going. You can argue that he was a veteran IBM executive, whereas Whitman is more of an IT neophyte, somewhat akin to Gerstner, who knew a thing or two about turning companies around. But she is a veteran executive, with stops at eBay, Hasbro, FTD, Walt Disney and consulting firm Bain & Company.

Perhaps, like Gerstner, she works better behind the scenes. Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group, characterized it in this way: Whitman is a good leader, but she doesn't seem to get image management or marketing. Unfortunately, that weakness was one of the dominant impressions of HP Discover 2012: It was the wrong messaging at the wrong time and place.