Apple and the perils of success – lessons for public management

The shine has just come my Apple experience. I still think they produce the best computers, but my experience over the past week points to some potential problems for them, and some lessons for public management.

A week ago our house was the subject of a ‘smash and grab’ raid at 4.30 in the morning. I had stupidly left my MacBook Pro in view through our dining room window. So we got a brick through the double glazing and the computer nicked.

Of course, like most of us I hadn’t backed it up properly for ages. So I lost some things like our holiday snaps from this summer. But I was able to fairly quickly piece together most of my “e-life” on a back up MacBook Air that I hadn’t used for a while. But that’s when the real trouble started.

The last thing I did was update the Air’s operating system – and it crashed to a blue screen and nothing would get it going. Now I really was in trouble because all the apps and data I need to function properly were on that machine. And so began what turned into a 5-day saga of trips back and forth the Apple Store and numerous phone calls.

Let me say two things straight away – Apple are brilliant to even provide the sort of support they offer in their stores and thru other channels and the individuals who work there are nearly always polite, knowledgeable and eager to sort out your problems. And by now you will sense a big “but” coming.

But it is pretty clear Apple are becoming a victim of their own success. My local store (in the Trafford centre) is always busy and getting an appointment now usually stretches 2-3 days ahead (its getting like the NHS). It has expanded and there are now dozens of staff, working shifts because its open 10-10 most days.

The sort of problems I ran into have been ringing the store and not being able to speak to the right person; messages not getting passed on or not replied to; my ‘job’ being passed from one person to another and crucial information getting lost along the way; being told the jobs done when it was only half finished; etc.

All of these appear to me to be symptoms of a system creaking under the strain of success. The volume of Apple sales and the run away success of the iPad and iPhone has started to overload their systems.

To be fair, I am now (almost) fully sorted out and one guy has proved enormously helpful (thanks Steve). But is has been an unexpectedly frustrating experience and wasted a lot of my time, and even more emotional energy, than I would have expected from the usually so helpful Apple.

And to be sure this may be an entirely idiosyncratic experience. I hope I’m a good enough social scientist not to assume my experience is necessarily the whole story. But I’ve spend enough hours in the Apple store over the past week, and observed enough of what’s going on around me, to guess that it isn’t just my bad luck.

The lesson I draw from all this for public management is simple. Don’t assume success is replicable or expandable. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard politicians in the UK proclaim that they will allow successful schools, hospitals, or whatever expand, take over failing neighbours, transfer their leaders into troubled organisations (“super heads”), etc.

Rarely do they offer evidence that this will work, just ‘common sense’ explanations of why it is obviously right. Even more rarely do they seek to find out if it did work (usually the evidence is equivocal at best when these things are studied). What my Apple experience suggests (and a lot of organisational research supports I think) is that what makes for success in organisations is a complex configuration of internal and external factors and what works now might not work later when the content or context are changed. I don’t suppose glitches in customer service are going to bring Apple crashing down. But merging schools, or hospitals, etc on the assumption that the ‘good’ will triumph over the ‘poor’ is worryingly naive assumption.

One thought on “Apple and the perils of success – lessons for public management

  1. I agree – the trafford centre store looks fantastic, but finding someone to help amongst the 20 staff running around demo ing products or grouping and chatting to one another.
    I just wanted to pay and it’s not clear where to do so. I literally stood in the centre of the shop for 3 minutes just looking for someone to take my money from the 5 colleagues having a chat.
    Who 2 weeks earlier were clear to tell me the store had closed at 5 to 10
    The air con is poor or not on as the store is hot, sticky and stinks.

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