New American visionaries at IBM and Cisco

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It’s become customary to bash American business. Global analysts talk about a secular decline. And yes, US business has become a bit sad and dreary if you’ve spent any time around Detroit lately. But new US business leadership is emerging. Not from small start-ups this time, but from large corporations.

Take IBM. Yes, IBM. Lou Gerstner famously ridiculed the quest for a corporate “vision” in the early ’90s. His vision was only to serve customers and buy back the stock. I still get goose bumps just thinking about it. But Sam Palmisano and his team have crafted a true vision for the company. These guys believe in global collaboration. You can say it’s self-serving, since IBM sells hardware, software, and consulting services that rely on collaboration. But all good visions are self-serving. After all, IBM is a business. The vision of Palmisano’s team also goes beyond business. Their view of the future is centered on humans living on the earth, and how the interaction between both can generate new opportunities for IBM and for its clients.

I like the human centricity and breadth of ambition it conveys. It’s vintage American brassiness on a planetary scale, with a new 21st-century sensitivity. The basic belief is that if you engage a large number of people in a firm – say, 50,000 people in a large corporation — with a large number of its customers – say, another 50,000 – you’ll see new opportunities pop up from this massive co-creation of ideas. IBM has a process and technology called Innovation Jam that makes this Web-based dialogue happen over a period of 72 hours. It’s a messy process – structuring meaningful initiatives out of it is no picnic, and IBM understates the importance of live interactions — but it’s the first approach I’ve seen that approximates global democracy in business.

Taking a (good) page from the Gerstner book, IBM has first transformed itself using this mass co-creation approach internally. They shaped their new values and strategy by connecting the software technician in his Armonk cubicle all the way to the management team. The company’s omnipresent sales force is now running around the world telling customers that IBM has done well using this approach, so now it’s their turn. It’s a bit early to know how successful the approach will be. Because of Innovation Jam’s massive mobilization power, companies tend to use the approach for big issues, such as social responsibility or sustainable development, giving America an opportunity to provide new thought leadership in areas where the US has arguably been lagging (remember Kyoto?).

John Chambers and his team are largely doing the same at Cisco, where the company vision is about the “human network.” Again, Cisco has a vested interest in selling routers and other equipment that equip this human network with hardware, software, and consulting services, but there is a rich, humanistic backdrop to the business which captures the imagination of many. Cisco has even jumped ahead of IBM in thinking through the organizational implications of this new view of innovation. Their experiments provide the freshest ideas in organizational design I have seen in years.

You out there betting on the death of American thought leadership in business do so at your own risk…

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3 Responses to “New American visionaries at IBM and Cisco”

  1. Larry Irons says:

    Interesting observations about IBM. And I agree that their approach understates the importance of live interaction in making sense of collaboration efforts. I’d be very interested in reading an analysis about how the process works. I’d also be interested to know whether they used it in their last downsizing to determine who was let go.

  2. Francis: Thanks for the highlight on Innovation Jam; this forces me to stop and think about what an extraordinary company IBM is. Remember the near-death experiences they’ve seen, and the number of brilliant, market-changing transformations? I believe global brand businesses need to understand how strands of culture are weaving together and be part of that fabric. There simply is no way to make market decisions without insight into how humans are changing together and separately. Co-creation of this kind is remarkable in that it offers a break from the mindset that digital is another way of coercing and grabbing customers and ‘eyeballs’ rather than creating value through and with them.

  3. Nice post Francis. Sitting here in Silicon Valley, and doing business with people around the world, I have zero sightings of a lack of thought leadership, lack of innovation or a that we loose our ability to perfectly execute. However -- number and size of obstacles are both increasing and showing some quadrupling effect when we look into two aspects:

    1) US LAW
    It forces millions to navigate around an incident of one. It’s great to protect a minority but it is inadequate to have a majority suffer because of some crazy singularities. It’s not about the cat in the micro wave it’s about the wave that followed. A recent article in Wired: “Need cash sue Google” says it all.

    2) Protectionism
    The US society has a lot to loose -- hence more and more people protect what they have. The amount of time, energy and money that goes in protecting the status quo is increasing and potentially exceeds the time, money and resources we spend to advance which means leave behind what we have and grow.

    Innovation and thought leadership can still happen under those two circumstances -- but we won’t be able to harvest the fruits. I won’t bet on the thought leadership of US business leaders -- But I’m not so sure that we can develop thought leadership on a macro economic level that allows this nation to reinvent itself, the same way IBM reinvented itself numerous times in the past.


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