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Published: July 15, 2002

 
 

Diary of a Change Agent

You don’t have to be a CEO to create an environment that supports action. You just need a flair for imaginative networking.

Illustration by Lars Leetaru
I thought I knew a lot about how change happens in large corporations, and then I read Barbara Waugh’s recent book, The Soul in the Computer: The Story of a Corporate Revolutionary (with Margot Silk Forrest, Inner Ocean, 2001). It’s a corporate networker’s slalom ride — a memoir of encounters with one vivid individual after another at Hewlett-Packard Company during the course of Ms. Waugh’s 18-year career there. She started in personnel, then became worldwide change manager at HP Labs, and currently has the title of researcher, with a focus on new ventures. Each encounter described in her book leads to some small epiphany or innovation, often with implications for the future of the entire company.

For example, Ms. Waugh tells the story of a Vietnamese-born engineer named Tan Ha, a former refugee now working at HP Labs in Palo Alto, Calif. Mr. Ha regularly sent money back to a Buddhist  orphanage in Vietnam, only to have it disappear en route. Then he learned about a new HP project called World e-Inclusion (since renamed e-Inclusion Solutions), which Ms. Waugh had helped to instigate. Inspired by Muhammad Yunus’s renowned Grameen microbanking system in Bangladesh, this venture is developing low-cost telecommunications and computing services (through such venues as village kiosks) for the high-volume but low-margin market of 4 billion poor people around the world.

E-Inclusion Solutions is HP’s bid for what C.K. Prahalad and Stuart L. Hart call the “biggest potential market opportunity in the history of commerce” — providing tools, infrastructure, and financing for entrepreneurial self-development in impoverished regions. (See "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid," by C.K. Prahalad and Stuart L. Hart, s+b, First Quarter 2002.) Although the initiative enjoys support from some of HP’s top leaders, it was started at a grass-roots level within HP Labs, and its momentum depends on the continued involvement of Hewlett-Packard managers and employees who have some connection with the Third World in their personal lives.

Which is where Tan Ha comes in. About two years ago, he called Barbara Waugh (who was personnel director for HP Labs at the time and had a reputation for getting things done) to beg her to get the e-Inclusion group to “do something” about his money transit problems. “No,” she told Mr. Ha, the e-Inclusion group could not solve the problem. He would have to get involved himself, which meant going to the lab director, Stan Williams, and asking HP to subsidize Mr. Ha’s time to work on the project.

At first, Mr. Ha demurred. But when Ms. Waugh mentioned that Mr. Williams’s favorite restaurant was a Southeast Asia noodle house near HP’s offices, Mr. Ha, preferring a different one, decided to invite his boss to lunch at his own favorite noodle house. Over lunch, Mr. Williams agreed to have 10 percent of Mr. Ha’s time sponsored for e-Inclusion Solutions work.

One thing led to another, and within a year, two scientists at HP Labs took up Mr. Ha’s quest and designed new financial software and filed patent applications for it. If HP ends up developing it, the software will, for the first time, allow people to send money securely to such developing countries as Vietnam, Mexico, and Ghana. “Because the lab director trusted me,” Mr. Ha recently told me, “I felt so charged about and committed to fixing this technical problem — and that made a difference to our research in nanowires. It was a career breakthrough for me.”

The critical detail in this story, for me at least, is the noodle house and Ms. Waugh’s knowledge of it. That tip was the kind of subtle, incisive spur to human contact that leads people to feel that they can stick their necks out without much risk. Conventional wisdom tells us that the direct approval of a CEO — or, at the very least, a “zealot”-like senior executive — is needed to protect innovative projects and give them “air cover.” But Ms. Waugh’s story shows that people can generate a sense of safety from lower levels as well if they have a flair for networking and the requisite imagination.

 
 
 
 
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