IBM's Century Of Achievement And The Next 100 Years

IBM is proudly celebrating its 100th year of existence, and with good reason. Set aside any factional differences or carping about the warts that any organization has over its lifetime, and take into account the bigger picture. In that larger perspective, all of us owe IBM a debt of gratitude, not only for what it has done for us individually, but for what it is likely to do for us even if we do not regard ourselves as IBM customers.

David Hill

June 16, 2011

5 Min Read
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IBM is proudly celebrating its 100th year of existence, and with good reason. Set aside any factional differences or carping about the warts that any organization has over its lifetime, and take into account the bigger picture. In that larger perspective, all of us owe IBM a debt of gratitude, not only for what it has done for us individually, but for what it is likely to do for us even if we do not regard ourselves as IBM customers.

As IT professionals, we have a belief that technology in general--and information technology in particular--has possessed, and will continue to possess, overwhelmingly a positive, transformational value for civilization, society and individuals that is reflected in our success, wealth and daily lives. Now this is not an unmitigated good, but no carping--the pluses far outweigh the negatives.

And IBM is the company that comes to mind as the only high technology company that we can say has been center stage for most of the 20th and all of the 21st century. Now, "Ma Bell" might have had a case with an even longer run, but the telecommunications industry no longer has a bellwether company.

No other IT company has stood the test of time, although HP has had a notable run. Even during the last 50 years, companies that were once household names, such as Digital Equipment Corp. (minicomputers), Sun (Unix) and Compaq (personal computers), have now been consigned to the history books. Many other IT companies have contributed in the past, are contributing now and will continue to contribute in the future. Yet IBM’s place in the history of IT has been ensured with what it has done, and that situation is likely to continue in the future.Many things give IBM the distinction that it deserves, but let’s briefly discuss just three: its technology development, its products and its values. These are reflected in its past, but are present today, as well, and bode well for ensuring a successful future:

  • R&D — IBM proudly points to a long history of innovation as reflected in its patent portfolio; what we should be most grateful for is that IBM still believes in basic research (in addition to more short-term, market-driven research) where specific projects may or may not directly deliver revenue-producing products but may result in scientific or technological breakthroughs that spark significant transformations. These types of activities are the seed corn for future innovations, but few companies have the financial resources or ongoing commitment to long-term benefits necessary for such efforts to succeed. Today, IBM’s Watson supercomputer is the poster boy for IBM Research, but most people, including futurists who should have a better comprehension of the situation, simply do not comprehend fully the implications of that system’s natural language capabilities. Moreover, news of other IBM Research activities, such as in the semiconductor space, bubble up from time totime and portend future technological wonders.

  • Products and services — On one summer job many years ago at the start of the mainframe era, I did the legwork for a market research study where I interviewed companies about why they acquired a particular brand of computer. One respondent told me, "I bought IBM because if the computer is down, senior management would say the computer is down, but, if I brought in some other brand of computer and it went down, management would say, 'Who was that idiot who ordered that brand of computer?'" That substantiates the old saying, "Nobodyever got fired for buying IBM." A little later, as a newly minted graduate, I was an operations research analyst who used an IBM mainframe system for simulation modeling and regression analysis. Yes, that was batch, and, yes, I had to use punched cards. But guess what? Those mainframes helped me deliver real business value to my employers. And when I had a technical problem, IBM was always there to help--in person if necessary, and not just over the phone. Today, IBM continues to provide products and services that affect all our lives. In fact, I think that we would be surprised to discover how many ways IBM touches our lives each day.

  • Values — IBM has a distinct culture but it is not a monoculture. Yes, it is a for profit company that focuses on being profitable, but it also makes decisions about how it conducts its business, whether in R&D, with customers, and with employees. Even though the days of white shirts, ties, and dark business suits are long gone, the company still reflects the values instilled by the Watson family, and that is a good thing when economies have their ups and downs, products change, and strategies change, but basic values that are instilled and followed are ongoing. For example, from the T.J. Watson, Jr. Equal Opportunity letter dated September 21, 1953 "Under the American system, each of the citizens of this country has an equal right to live and work in America. It is the policy of this organization to hire people who have the personality, talent and background necessary to fill a given job, regardless of race, color or creed." As a side note, IBM is a truly international company with customers residing across the globe, company production and R&D facilities scattered everywhere and employees located around the world, many of whom have reached the executive ranks. Wouldn’t it be nice if countries really understood globalization in the way that IBM and a select number of other international companies do?

If a person reaches the grand age of a hundred, their best days are behind them, but a company does not suffer from those limitations. IBM can look back at its past and point to a huge number of accomplishments. However, today the company appears to be as strong, if not stronger, than it has been at any time in its history. I do not mean from a market dominance perspective as in the mainframe era, but rather from what it should be able to achieve and accomplish, such as its Smarter Planet initiative.

There is a Swedish song that is sung at all birthdays and one of the lines is “May you live a hundred years.” So we should sing IBM that song and hope for our sake that the next 100 years are at least as successful. Happy birthday, IBM!

IBM is currently a client of David Hill and the Mesabi Group.

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