The technology behemoth turns 100 today. Celebrations have been going on for some time now and if you follow IBM you’d have read enough and more about the company’s accomplishments in this journey. The Economist has a start-to-finish report and others have done their bit to salute this “Elephant” which has indeed shown that it “can dance”.
So while Kal and Aaj are pretty clear, what is interesting to ponder is the next Kal. IBM has been one of the first, if not the first, big corporations to realize the new dynamics of innovation which sunk some large tech ships, those that failed to sail in the vast sea of change that technology industry has had to swim through.
After a near-death experience in 2000, it’s currently doing very well, with revenue poised to cross $100 billion this year. Ironically, it’s also a time when its younger peers like Microsoft, Cisco, Nokia and SAP are busy managing their midlife crisis. Even if it were an “Elephant”, what must be going through its mind? Who will succeed Sam Palmisano? What should the strategy be for the next decade (can’t say century as the tech industry is extremely ruthless, ideas and products become obsolete even before their potential is realized)?
As for succession, a few top executives are in the race. But I think what if Virginia M Rometty, the 53-year-old star executive, gets to the top seat? Will having a woman as CEO change anything at IBM? Perhaps not. But no big technology company has seen a woman at the helm. The first, and so far the only one, has been Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard, an aggressive executive who believed in being the game changer. Though she couldn’t keep the Board’s support for long and was shown the exit door, H-P reaped the benefits of her decision to acquire Compaq after she left and helped the company steal the thunder from Dell.
Ann Livermore has been a pillar and a promising candidate (not necessarily for CEO) but yesterday we learnt she has been inducted in the Board and is no longer handling the enterprise business. Is she shunted? Carol Bartz of Yahoo! has been around for a few years, but Yahoo! is a much smaller company and is still navigating troubled waters. Beyond that we haven’t seen women CEOs in technology.
Why is that so? Is it just a question of supply – leaky pipeline and all that?
We’ll see the IBM succession as it unveils but there’s another area where IBM is crafting fundamental change – in services. In the following decades we’ll see another major shift, especially in IBM’s employment mix. As data analytics gains momentum, IBM would lean toward more analysts on the consulting and services side. In fact, IBM has already embarked on making services a serious discipline, “services science” as they call it. Manish Gupta, head of IBM Research in India, says by this approach IBM “would do to services what it did to computing 40 years ago”.
Will that also mean facing challenges, of a higher order of magnitude? Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter thinks, “there will be no single big challenge, but rather a series of smaller challenges that will have to be addressed continuously.”
Now that will test the flexibility of the longest living IT company on the planet, once again.