Former IBMer laments about creeping short-term mentality

Pride, fear and loathing inside the biggest ship in the roiling tech ocean.

Through all the years of change and revolution -- mainframes to minis, minis to PCs, client/server, the internet, the cloud, big data and mobile -- IBM has stayed on top. Often without the constant media glare accorded to the Microsofts, Googles and Amazons of the world, IBM basically still maintains the market lead in just about every category -- including, these days, enterprise cloud platform offerings such as Platform as a Service and Infrastructure as a Service.

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But market dominance is a fleeting thing in today's world. In a new book, Peter Greulich, a veteran of IBM's sales and product marketing organization, unveiled the radical shifts that have been shaking and reshaping IBM's core. In A View Beneath the Dancing Elephant: Rediscovering IBM's Corporate Constitution, Greulich discusses, in sometimes hour-by-hour detail, the fears and trauma that accompanied the painful restructurings that have taken place within Big Blue over the past two decades. (The book's title is a play on former IBM Chairman Lou Gerstner's business biography, Who Says Elephants Can't Dance, which documented Big Blue's turnaround in the 1990s.)

The force that holds IBM together and keeps it in the lead isn't due to all the downsizings and repurposing of product lines it has undertaken in recent years, Greulich believes. Rather, it is a corporate culture that its late Chairman Thomas Watson, Sr. laid out many decades ago, which consists of three words -- respect, service and excellence: "respect for the individiual," "superior customer service," and "excellence in everything we do." Technology may change at a breathtaking pace, but these fundamentals of corporate culture should not, he believes.  However, he observes in the book that, IBM's 21st-century leadership is having trouble adhering to these "Basic Beliefs" as closely as previous generations.

It's difficult to keep an innovative edge while running a large corporation with hundreds of thousands of employees within the world's most fast-paced industry in an unforgiving and volatile global economy. Greulich reports that IBM, internally, has been having a hard time with this. "IBM's 21st century leadership is of a singularly financial mind, and there's no easy way to convince this financial mind that culture was once its economic engine," he states. Big Blue needs to get back to its roots, he continues: "IBM's Corporate Constitution created a monopoly through the 20th century -- though it was a monopoly on culture, not computers, and no government ever named it in an antitrust suit. Every corporation sought employees who exhibited independent thought and action in alignment with its goals, yet few implemented the means to achieve that end. IBM achieved it..."

The takeaway here is that fast-moving tech disruption will humble even the most tech savvy of organizations sitting on even the most lucrative markets. When all is constantly being tested or stripped away, all that is left and remains constant are core organizational values. Organizations led by inspired, forward-looking management, open to innovation, tolerant of failure, obsessed with quality, and willing to engage with customers at all levels will keep succeeding in today's environment. Organizations that get mired in hidebound, bureaucratic cultures with CYA management focusing only on the next set of financial statements will have their clocks cleaned in the next tech wave.