I couldn't help but feel a little nostalgic when the headlines proclaimed that Kodak had filed for bankruptcy protection. Many of us remember the exciting mystery of that little brown box, the Brownie, which introduced us masses to the simplified fun of taking pictures.
The Brownie, followed by the wondrous Instamatic, led to generations of snapshots of families and friends. Those pictures charted our lives through decades from infants to teens, recorded holidays and birthdays, remembered Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa. Not to mention all the many dogs and kitty cats that trail closely behind us through life.
We all have big, cumbersome photo albums and special boxes or drawers where we store a lifetime of legacy snapshots. But as for nowadays, well, not so much. After all, Kodak made film. And when exactly was the last time you bought a box of that?
Kodak's demise wasn't a surprise to anyone in the know, as they say. Big Business school professors and financial analysts and journalists stood by with pre-prepared obituaries, detailing their thoughts on why Kodak did not transition to the digital age. Apparently, Kodak was on the watch list for a long time.
All the experts point to Kodak's refusal to see even a short distance view of the future. In 1975, one of its engineers invented the first working prototype of the digital camera. Reportedly, when he presented it to management, they responded: "That's cute — but don't tell anyone about it."
Later, another engineer claims to have developed a digital camera that fit in a phone. He, too, was marched off to the ranks of the silent, as management feared cannibalizing the core business: good old film.
In another wave of marketplace insight, Kodak sold its imaging business in 2007 because "it did not want to spend the money to evolve the health care business to all-digital technology." That turned out well.
Other analysts point to more nuanced cultural, but interesting, additional theories. The 130-year-old company was steeped — or possibly smothered — in history and tradition. George Eastman was an iconic figure, Kodak an iconic brand. Modern management simply didn't believe the company could fail — didn't believe all those loyal customers would desert them. But desert them we did — quickly and in droves — for the convenience and ease of digital photography. We agreed: digital was cute.
Then there was "The Kodak City." The company is ensconced in a 1,200-acre, park-like industrial complex with its own railroad system, heaven knows how many buildings, and at its peak, 60,000 employees. The complex felt safe, secure, unassailable — and isolated. Kodak tried to navigate a way forward in a quickly changing world, but failed to engage new global players, technologies and ideas — even their own internal pockets of innovation. Rochester was comfortable.
We, too, seek a way through changing times. We have storied histories, honorable traditions and impressive edifices in familiar communities. But now is not the time to retreat to the walled garden and disengage from learning and new ideas. In the pure business sense, we don't want to have a Kodak moment.
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