Deconstructing Innovation for IBM’s second century

I’ve long believed that IBM is one of the most innovative (and inventive) companies in the technology industry. IBM also happens to be my employer – however – I don’t think my view on this topic would differ if it weren’t. I also recognize that given IBM’s size, scale, longevity and name recognition, opinions on this subject would be numerous and varied. So, I’ll just state my perspective. To me, innovation as a concept dies of isolation unless put next to its timeless pal, namely, context. Something that can be construed as innovative for a child, might be laughed off as triviality for an adult, yet re-construed as novelty for a 95 year old. For instance, visualize a one year old standing up and supporting herself on a nearby toy that she’s meant to play with.

‘Oh that’s so cool.. where’s the camera!!  This goes on Ytube!’.

What if it was an adult?  ‘Uh, you’re going to break the toy.. Did you pull a muscle?’.

How about a 95-year-old?  ‘Hey look! Grandma just stood up all by herself!’

In our industry, innovation at a startup might be a combination of survival, bootstrapping and profitability. As it starts to mature, perhaps becoming public over time, context shifts and expectations change. What was once considered innovative, ends up being routine and mundane. Then, at some point, the technology landscape shifts – perhaps moving away from mainframes, large-form PCs to mobile, or computing silos to a fully networked world. Context shifts again, forcing a shift in interpretation of what it means to be innovative.

For an enterprise that’s over 100 years old (average Fortune 500 company hasn’t lasted over 15-20 years), IBM has not only needed to innovate on what its making/selling but also re-invent itself organizationally several times over (circa 1980, 1993). Add to that, billions of dollars spent on research, an unparalleled patent record, Nobel laureates in the ranks and technology that underlies some of the world’s most critical systems, IBM is undeniably one of the most innovative companies. But, what does it mean for a 350,000 employee strong company to be innovative?

Well, what does it mean for a nation state to have a certain characteristic trait? Arguably, it means that each city, town and village have systems and infrastructure put in place that nudge the people to cumulatively reflect that trait – the weighted sum total of that one trait at least equals all other. Anyway, I digress…

Perhaps the real (and only) innovative strain that runs thru a company with 100+ year history is the collective framework of the systems that have been put in place to aid its employees innovate. I use ‘perhaps’ because I’m hypothesizing – I don’t know if it’s true. I can’t because I didn’t exist for a majority of those 100 years. What I do know, however, is that such systems do exist in IBM of present… and that brings us to the ‘actionable’ part of this write up.

IBM has long focused on protecting its core technology and freedom of use by encouraging employees to actively invent. It  has systems in place to achieve this thru a controlled idea disclosure and review process. It has systems in place that let those employees turn into experts at the art of identifying and/or defining novelty, with the implicit expectation to mentor other employees.

When people use the systems to amplify the trait for which the systems were put in place to begin with, the trait would invariably survive.

So, that’s my call-to-action for early-tenure IBMers. Make use of systems like these – IBM Master Inventor Program – to help continue the legacy into the second century. IBM has been a patent leader for 23 years straight with only a fraction of it’s employees contributing as inventors. If for some reason, you do not believe in patents, there are other ways to drive innovation. I could’ve written this write-up relative to offering management, product development, lab services, consulting, data science, or operations and still led to a similar conclusion and call-to-action. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter – the idea is to utilize the systems that exist within your discipline and innovate.

I’ve provided a slide deck below, which hopefully helps catalyze action. It is a few years old but still relevant.

Lastly, to the 3.2 billion people with internet connectivity (minus the 350,000 or so IBMers) – call-to-action for you is to do what you have to do in order to build and/or use your own systems to amplify the trait that you care about – the deck below has enough generality to extrapolate it to the incubation/conceptualization process of your choice.



Leave a Comment