Case Study of a Failed M&A—The Role of Behavior in HP’s Acquisition of Autonomy

Autonomy’s work culture was different from what HP anticipated. HP found Autonomy’s culture to be more task–based and confrontational than HP’s culture. These behavioral problems were never resolved and resulted in friction and distrust.

Characteristics

Task-based vs. Relationship-based. Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map, suggests that in business settings, the U.S. is more highly task-based while the U.K. is more relationship-based. A task-based culture focuses prioritizes getting the job done; whereas, relationship-based cultures need to build trusting relationships before work can be performed. In the case of HP-Autonomy these values were flipped, which could be a result of the maturity of the companies.

Although HP is a large company, Whitman appeared to be more concerned with building relationships than the typical bureaucratic CEO. After being named CEO of HP, Whitman said, “Relationships really matter. Not only your husband and your children, but the relationships you build along the way. It’s a small world, and always treat other people the way you would like to be treated yourself.”1 Whitman attempted to bring this relationship-based attitude into HP soon after her entrance as CEO; “One of the first things I did was tear down the fence and move all of our executives into cubicles. We now walk in the same door as the rest of our employees. This was symbolic of the kind of culture that we wanted to build.”2

Whitman was focused on bringing a relationship-based environment to HP, but this was a big difference compared to how employees at Autonomy were used to working. At Autonomy, Lynch was a task-based leader: “Business partners and attorneys close to the case paint a picture of a hard-driving sales culture shaped by Mr. Lynch’s desire for rapid growth.”3 Lynch cared more about getting the job done than he cared about building strong employee relationships. “Mr. Lynch is known as an exacting task-master with a ruthless attention to detail. People who have worked for him joke about “needing a hard hat” when called into his office.”4 This theory is supported by an unnamed executive who said Lynch, “told his people, Meg, anyone who’d listen, that HP should not get involved with Autonomy.”5 Lynch obviously did not care about building relationships with those at HP. “Mr. Lynch has little affection for US-style networking. Instead he relishes the pose of nerdy outsider, making waspish observations about Silicon Valley schmoozing.”6 The clash between Whitman’s relationship-focused versus Lynch’s task-focused style of leadership caused another cultural divide between HP and Autonomy.

Confrontational vs. Avoids Confrontation. Distinct cultures handle confrontation differently; some cultures welcome debate in order to create harmony while others see confrontation as rude. Meyer’s framework portrays the U.S. business environment as, generally, more confrontational than the U.K. However, Autonomy and HP’s characteristics contradict Meyer’s position. Autonomy’s environment is considerably more confrontational—with management described as confrontational towards employees. An employee review on Glassdoor stated, “The previous leadership prior to the acquisition by HP was confrontational and rough on employees but great energy has been spent to turn away from that legacy.”7 During interviews with the Wall Street Journal, former Autonomy employees, “describe [Lynch] as a domineering figure, who on at least a few occasions berated employees he believed weren’t measuring up.”8 Lynch has also been described as “a brilliant man known for his brutish office manner….”9

In contrast, Meg Whitman is calm under pressure and agreeable to employees. For example, in a shareholder meeting, Whitman responded to confrontational questions by simply stating HP just needs to keep doing better in the future.10 In this case, Lynch’s more confrontational manner conflicted with Whitman, and—as a result—it was hard for them to work together.

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  1. Forbes, M. (2011, September 23). Meg Whitman, Hewlett-Packard’s CEO: Leading With A “Bias For Action”. Forbes.
  2. Whitman, M. (2013, April 23). The Power of Transparent Communication. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20130423170055-71744402-the-importance-of-transparent-communication
  3. Worthen, B., Sonne, P., & Scheck, J. (2012, November 26). Long Before H-P Deal, Autonomy’s Red Flags. The Wall Street Journal.
  4. Palmer, M. (2009, August 18). Tech Prophet Preaches to US. The Financial Times
  5. Hardy, Q., & De La Merced, M. J. (2012, November 20). Hewlett’s Loss: A Folly Unfolds, by the Numbers. The New York Times.
  6. Daniel, C. (2000, September 18). Escapist with a Midas touch: Essential Guide to Mike Lynch. Profile Mike Lynch: The UK’s first software billionaire tells Caroline Daniel of the barriers he faced as a 1980s entrepreneur. Financial Time, p. 14.
  7. Anonymous. (2014, May 5). Glassdoor Employee Review Hewlett-Packard. Retrieved from Glassdoor: https://www.glassdoor.com/Reviews/Employee-Review-Hewlett-Packard-RVW4172844.htm
  8. Worthen, B., Sonne, P., & Scheck, J. (2012, November 26). Long Before H-P Deal, Autonomy’s Red Flags. The Wall Street Journal.
  9. Hardy, Q., & De La Merced, M. J. (2012, November 20). Hewlett’s Loss: A Folly Unfolds, by the Numbers. The New York Times.
  10. Holman, T. (2012, March 22). HP: “We need to be more like Apple”. Neowin. Retrieved from https://www.neowin.net/news/hp-we-need-to-be-more-like-apple