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Meg Whitman talks corporate culture, tech future at Stanford event

The Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research hosted a conversation with Meg Whitman, former gubernatorial candidate and current Hewlett-Packard chieftain, who discussed technology and how she is changing HP's culture and planning to capitalize on technology trends.

L.A. Cicero Meg Whitman

Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman speaks at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research about the importance of corporate culture.

Meg Whitman knows a challenge when she sees it.

And she has a new one. The CEO of Hewlett-Packard and former gubernatorial candidate talked about the importance of changing the culture at HP during a Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research event.

Symbolism matters, even at one of Silicon Valley's oldest computing titans. When Whitman took over HP's reins in late 2011, one of her first moves was literally taking down the walls and dividers in the offices and parking lots in an effort to bring everyone together. She also placed a new and stronger emphasis on customer service and communications.

"You have to connect with the people," Whitman told an audience at the Koret-Taube Conference Center. "And it's about the stories you tell to illustrate a point."

For a 75-year-old computing company that had endured three highly publicized CEO turnovers in three years, the stakes were high, she  acknowledged. When she arrived, employees were demoralized and the business end was suffering. "There's no question this company has been through a lot. We're in the second of a five year plan to turn things around," she said.

It has not been easy. Sometimes people forget the scale at which HP operates, Whitman said, noting that it is a $112 billion company with more than 275,000 employees. And that means plenty of customers as well. Last year, she made a point of personally meeting with more than 1,000 of them, she said.

Turning a huge company like HP around involves capitalizing on technology trends, said Whitman, who has held corporate leadership posts at eBay, Hasbro, Stride Rite, Walt Disney and Bain.

"We helped build the IT world as it is today, and we're helping to build the IT world of tomorrow," she said.

Whitman found that the "HP DNA" was innovation. To build on this core strength, she focused the company on breakthrough discoveries and finding solutions to rising tech issues. To freshen up HP leadership, she brought in nine new people for her 12 direct reports.

Every 10 to 15 years, the technology world experiences tectonic shifts, she said. "We're on the cusp of another gigantic change" as issues like web storage services, mobility, the cloud and big data predominate in the computing landscape.

"We want to pivot the entire company this way," Whitman said. "And we will darken the skies for customers."

In a world experiencing an "explosion of information," the issue is that companies will run out of space and money in trying to build data centers. "This path is not sustainable," said Whitman, adding that "we've got to figure out how to make better use of server technology."

She suggested that HP's Moonshot System – a software defined server – could fundamentally change the economics of server technology and computing. "We're excited about the future. There's a lot of heavy lifting ahead," she said.

But neither the challenge nor the prospect of failure fazes Whitman.

"You might remember I ran for public office," she said with a grin, "so nothing hurts my feelings."