Innovation & Design

Thinking the Future, with IBM


By most traditional measures, IBM is one of the most innovative companies in the world. Year after year, it gets more U.S. patents than any other company. It's responsible for many of the key technology breakthroughs in the info-tech industry. And it runs the largest private-sector basic research operations in the world, with more than 3,000 scientists and mathematicians.

But in spite of those accomplishments, the company is by no means complacent. In fact, it seems determined to help lead the way in a new era in which innovation is being fundamentally redefined. "At its core, the nature of innovation is changing. It's global, multi-disciplinary, and collaborative," says IBM (IBM) Senior Vice-President Ginni Rometty.

Rometty was one of a handful of speakers at a "salon" IBM organized in New York on Mar. 8 to discuss issues that have emerged out of its Global Innovation Outlook project. It's a multi-year effort to get some of the brightest people in business, government, and academia to come up with solutions for business, economic, and social problems. More than 180 organizations have participated so far, in 15 idea-gathering sessions held in New York, San Francisco, Beijing, Zurich, São Paulo, and Bangalore. IBM plans to host another series of salons around the world over the next couple of months.

NO STRINGS. The focus of the New York event was the future of the enterprise. It brought a handful of IBM executives together with an eclectic bunch of panelists, including a college professor who's a video gamer in his spare time, a video gamer who also works for a Silicon Valley startup, and a lawyer who also works for the Wikimedia Foundation.

While they came from very different walks of life, all of the panelists agreed that big changes are afoot -- and that companies and individuals need to size themselves up and figure how to participate. One of the most intriguing ideas was that people will increasingly see themselves as free agents, moving through life from employer to employer and morphing their skills to adapt to changing demands and their own changing interests. Somebody called it an age of "1 billion enterprises."

The best lines of the day, in order of appearance:

Nick D'Onofrio, executive vice-president, innovation & technology, IBM, on how the role of IBM employees is changing: "In the 20th century, at IBM, we were all about engineering and technology. But now, we define innovation differently. We tell our employees, 'You may not be an inventor or a discoverer, but you will be an innovator.'"

Michael Teitelbaum, vice-president, Sloan Foundation, on how small groups can have tremendous power (for example, al Qaeda): "Very small networks can amass global power for business purposes or destructive purposes."

Kevin Werbach, assistant professor, Wharton School, on how companies can innovate and protect their creations in a collaborative environment: "We can't hold intellectual property closer to the vest. The key is having innovation in the culture and driving it out into the market, not holding onto a lot of patents."

Jean-Baptiste Soufron, chief legal officer of Wikimedia, on how people have to prepare themselves to thrive in the new collaborative environment: "The first thing is to be humble, and to realize that you're one in a billion and you can be replaced. Be modest, but be good at what you do."

Helen Cheng, a recent graduate of Stanford University, gamer, and employee of seriousity.com, on what should motivate young graduates: "People who do what they're most interested in will be most successful."

D'Onofrio again, on whether American young people are motivated enough to succeed in a much more competitive global landscape: "This is a big issue for me. I go to India and China and look into their eyes and see a passion. It says, 'I'm going to do better.' But in the U.S. and Europe, you don't see the same passion. It's worrisome."

FISHING FOR IDEAS. IBM doesn't just talk about collaboration -- it practices what it preaches. The company contributes in major ways to open-source software projects and patent commons, and is also democratizing innovation internally. Nine months ago, it started up something called Think Place, a Web site where IBM employees are encouraged to suggest innovations. If the company takes them up, the employees get bonuses. The global services organization, which Rometty co-runs, is about to launch a project called The Innovation Community, where employees, on a voluntary basis, contribute ideas on how to serve clients better.

I spent a few minutes with Rometty after the event. My main question: How does the changing nature of innovation affect her job? Rometty says she'll have to make substantial changes in the way she organizes and leads people in the coming years. "We're facing a dramatic change in the workforce. The challenge for people like me will be to figure out how to motivate the people who will work with us -- many of whom won't even be our employees. There's a war for talent, and it will only become more difficult." And in a war, every innovative edge helps.


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