Off with their heads

July 25, 2011, was the worst kind of Monday for the people headed to work at 50 Innovation Drive in Bedford, Nova Scotia. One of them, tuning into CBC Radio as he always did, was stunned to hear that his employer, BlackBerry creator Research In Motion, was laying off 11 per cent of its global workforce. He continued along his regular route, parked his car in the company lot and headed inside, making it to his workstation without incident. By the end of the hellish week that followed, close to 30 friends and co-workers wouldn’t be so lucky.

One woman, on her first day back to work after a two-week vacation, was intercepted by security on her way in, escorted to HR, then shown the door. She’d been with RIM for six years. Another staffer, a newlywed returning from his honeymoon, reportedly punched a few hours before he, too, faced the firing squad.

It was a startling turn of events for a company which, on another 25th day in the not-so-distant past (November of 2005, to be exact), was hailed as “a leading designer, manufacturer and marketer of innovative wireless solutions for the worldwide global market.” At that point, just six years after the initial launch of BlackBerry, RIM boasted a customer base of over four million subscribers – and growing.

More relevantly, in the eyes of the Halifax citizenry, the month before Christmas 2005 was a time of celebration. That was when RIM announced it had chosen HRM as the home for its new technical support operations centre. The official press release crowed about the estimated 1,200 people who were to be hired at the centre over the next five years, a feat which many believed deserved the provincial government’s pledge of a $14-million payroll rebate and $5-million recruitment and training incentive package. Nowadays, they might not be so sanguine.

This has not been RIM’s year, to put it mildly. The rising popularity of Android and Apple have pulverized the once-invincible BlackBerry – seriously, is there anyone who doesn’t want an iPhone? – and RIM’s response has been to release “new” products that are essentially upgrades of existing models. Excuse me while I yawn.

While clients are left less than impressed, shareholders are screaming for someone to do something about the rapidly depleting market share and at least one analyst (Ironfire Capital’s Eric Jackson) predicts the company will be dead by 2013.

And what motivating, inspirational word has been issued from on high to help defuse the tension? Bupkiss.

Speaking as an industry outsider, it seems as though both RIM co-CEOs, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, have lost their mojo. If there’s any truth to an “open letter to BlackBerry bosses” from an anonymous senior executive – and there must be something to it, as RIM issued an official response (read the original post and company response at bgr.com) – outside opinion may well be accurate.

The “open letter” states that staff at all levels have lost confidence in the company. It also argues that the company has essentially forgotten how to be innovative. Sure, there have been rumours of a marvellous, showstopping QNX operating system that’s going to wow the heck out of consumers and take RIM back over the top, but customers are tired of hearing that song. According to “open letter,” QNX should have been released several years ago.

It’s a situation that would typically be described as actions speak louder than words – except RIM management doesn’t appear to be either talking or listening, not even to their own employees.

A staffer at RIM Halifax agrees: “We’re afraid to say anything, speak up or voice objections anymore. Everyone’s afraid of going on the chopping block or getting passed over for opportunities.

“I can go on for days about how our higher-ups have no idea about technology and where the industry is going. We are numbers and as long as we answer the phone, it (innovation) doesn’t matter anymore.”

Yet, incredibly, there’s nothing that RIM staff want more than to get “their” company back – the business they were proud to work for, the firm whose confident leadership epitomized techie cool, the international corporation that boldly went where its competitors hadn’t dreamed of going before.

It’s likely that many more heads will roll before RIM gets back on track. So far, they’ve been the wrong ones.

Dawn Chafe
About Dawn Chafe

For the past 19 years, Dawn has been editor of Atlantic Canada’s most award-winning and largest circulation business magazine: Atlantic Business Magazine. Under her editorial direction, Atlantic Business Magazine has won 14 Atlantic Journalism Awards, three TABBIE international business press awards and two KRW national business press awards.

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