13th September 2012
This involves delving into the softer factors that influence Apple's culture in order to determine the extent to which it is, as has been claimed, the corporate embodiment of the company's founder and CEO Steve Jobs, who died in October 2011.
This culture has frequently been described using phrases such as ‘innovation', ‘(obsessive) secrecy', ‘(ruthless) attention to detail', ‘(overly) intensive work ethic' and ‘casual dress code'. Not perhaps the most glowing of character reviews, but it somehow seems to work for the company. The products in all their clean-cut splendour, the slick marketing, the trendy Apple Stores with ubiquitous glass staircases and technical wizard help sessions are visible to all. These are the obvious signs of a company on song, confident and comfortable.
Having previously filled the top role on a temporary basis during Jobs' illness-enforced absences, Tim Cook has now been appointed on a permanent basis. An authorised biography, published shortly after the founder's death, points to the fact that Jobs had the final say on most issues. However, Cook's leadership, in conjunction with contributions from his lieutenants, Philip Schiller and Jonathan Ive, brought stability at important times and suggests that there is an ingrained, highly-centralised mode of decision making – the backbone of the Apple culture – which remains in place and should provide stability.
So what is Apple's secret? What drives the innovation? And how does that sit with the clinical management of the supply chain and the apparently ruthless efficiency with which they ensure that the latest ‘must have' offering is available in the shops as the desire and hype build?
It is certainly not by being like other companies. Apple doesn't conform to the popular management approach where the CEOs spend much of their time keeping their workers happy – a look at the cultural profile confirms that. While that style of management works for many technology companies (Google for one), Apple is more in the mould of the traditional autocratic engineering firm, the top tier of management keeping tight control and micromanaging every facet of its products and services from design all the way through to persuading customers to pay up for a better experience. Jobs was famously demanding of his staff, but inspired loyalty. Those who worked with him argue that his immense drive and charisma countered any ill feeling that his autocratic leadership style might otherwise have generated.
Cook, who joined from Compaq in 1998, revolutionised Apple's supply chain and inventory management, abandoning direct manufacturing and warehousing for a preference to build partnerships with external contract suppliers. This has led to a reduction in Apple's inventory of goods holding period. Apparently, Cook has said that inventory is "fundamentally evil," and he likens its management to being in the dairy business – "If it gets past its freshness date, you have a problem."
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