Posts Tagged ‘IT’

New American visionaries at IBM and Cisco

Monday, October 26th, 2009

IBM Cisco 3

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…

Endangered species in IT and advertising

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Yesterday, I spent the morning with IT people at a large European multinational, and the afternoon with some advertising people at a Top 5 global advertising agency. Both groups were attempting to work with their clients – internal for the IT group, external for the advertising agency. Both were struggling. The IT group had set up a whole intermediate function to connect the nerds from IT with the suits from the business. Of course, this group had credibility with neither side, but was trying very hard to earn it by showing they could elicit specifications from users with exquisite precision. The word “specs” is a tip-off that co-creation will be an uphill battle.

With advertising folks, the agency had established not one, but two layers of intermediaries between the client who actually wanted to develop a campaign and the creative people who would eventually design it. One layer was the account manager, while the other was what agencies call “planners” – people meant to represent the client’s point of view inside the agency – as if the client couldn’t do that themselves more effectively. Both exist to help develop “the brief.” The word “brief” in advertising is a surefire signal that co-creation is not wanted there.
At both workshops, I asked why the producers of code and creative advertising material could not engage directly with business people. I learned how fragile both populations were, and why they had to be protected from predator clients who had the audacity to believe they might contribute directly to the process, if it were made transparent to them. “We had an application guy on-site once” an IT senior manager told me, “and he nearly resigned because the client kept wanting to change the specifications.” Recoiling the horror of it all, he added: “Apparently, the client loved it, though. And it was done very fast.”
The account manager in advertising was dishearteningly honest. “If the creative people spoke directly with the client, what would be my job?”, he asked. One could see he was trying very hard. “My job is to simplify the number of ideas, bring it down to one or two, and brief the designers.” He could see he was perceived as a bit defensive. “Well, my job is also to elicit the passion of our designers. They have to be highly enthusiastic about what they present.” I suggested the executives who were footing the bill might also be looking for a chance to express their passion during that process. Wouldn’t their sense of engagement be as important as the designers’? I even suggested maybe some graphic artists could draw live sketches or concepts as executives were devising possible elements of positioning. By now, my advertising account manager looked ready to cry.
Of course, I’ve had many chances to ask actual IT developers and creative advertising people whether they’d like being exposed directly to their clients. The vast majority of them would jump at the opportunity. The endangered species may not be the animals after all, but the zookeepers.