Our strengths and weaknesses are often the same

A discussion had over breakfast with Robert Madge

There's a fine line between commitment and focus on one hand, and obstinance and myopia on the other. Or perhaps there's no line at all. Maybe they only differ when the context differs.

That's the lesson I took from the 16th World Congress on Information Technology in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where I moderated a couple of CIO panel discussions. Those discussions were phenomenal, as was the entire program of the three-day congress. But the lesson I took away didn't come from the proceedings. It came from a discussion I had over breakfast one morning with Robert Madge.

Chances are that name rings a bell, if a very distant one. Madge founded Madge Networks, a highflying networking company in the late '80s and better part of the '90s that built its fortunes on the strength of the Token Ring networking protocol championed by IBM. In an interview I conducted with Madge in 1994, he predicted that his company would overtake IBM as the Token Ring market leader within three years. He was right.

The only problem was that Madge's accomplishment was akin to overtaking Sony to become the Betamax market leader in 1985. Because of its high cost and complexity compared with Ethernet, Token Ring was on a downward slide and would never recover.

Madge left the company in 2001, and in 2003 Madge Networks filed for bankruptcy protection. It was subsequently restructured as Madge, and in 2006 it was acquired by Network Technology in the UK and merged into that company's Ringdale arm. Robert Madge went on to take an interest in RFID and other tracking technologies, and he now serves as president of IDtrack in Barcelona.

Over breakfast that morning, Madge recounted a fascinating tale of the rise and fall of his namesake company. Its rise came on the strength of a singular focus on Token Ring technology, and a commitment to principle that was epitomized by his refusal to pay patent royalties to Olof Soderblom, the IBM scientist who pioneered Token Ring. Madge insisted that Soderblom's patent didn't cover what his company and others, including IBM and NCR, were doing with Token Ring.

It was a costly battle, and Madge's US sales dried up for nine months. But he eventually prevailed in court, and, according to Madge, the other companies were able to stop paying the royalties.

"That gave us huge credibility in the business afterwards," Madge said. "We were the moral leader in the sector, which had an impact on all aspects of our business."

Yet it was that same determination to stick to his guns that led to his failure to prevent his company's collapse.

"If you step back and look at it," Madge said, "a logical move for a company whose technology is going into decline but has a customer base, and hasn't been able to find a way to evolve the company, would be to merge with or be sold to another company. In hindsight, it would have been the logical course."

But despite the urging of some members of his management team, it was a course that Madge never pursued.

"To me, the company was very personal," Madge said. "I put my name on it, and I came from a culture where companies were for life. So I'm sure that emotionally, I wasn't in a good position to consider objectively whether it should be sold or not."

The lesson was clear.

"People's weaknesses and strengths are normally the same things. It all depends on the context whether they turn out to be strengths or weaknesses," Madge said. "The reason why I didn't see the writing on the wall when the best thing to do was to sell the company is probably the same reason why I built the company in the first place."

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