When 1000 IBMers and guests assemble under a tent on the grounds of the IBM Research lab in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., this afternoon, they’ll be celebrating a remarkable achievement: the company has been in existence for 100 years. Hopefully, the IBMers will be thinking critically about what it will take for their company to last another century.
The occasion is reminiscent of a much smaller gathering of IBM executives in 1955. About 50 of the company’s top managers had gathered for a 4-day “IBM Executive School” at the Skytop Lodge in the Pocono Mountains, 100 miles west of New York City. The gathering marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. Thomas J. Watson Sr., IBM’s longtime chief executive, praised the men who had been with him in the beginning and urged IBM’s current leaders to set ambitious goals. He told them: “You can’t get anywhere without vision and courage.”
While Watson Sr.’s mood was valedictory, his son, Thomas J. Watson Jr., who was then the CEO, was focused on retooling the organization for the future. The purpose of this meeting, he said, was to lay the groundwork for a new IBM. But, he, too, called on the executives to be bold. He read a quote from architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham, which he kept on his desk as a reminder: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood, and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim and hope and work…” A couple of minutes later, he said of his father: “T.J. Watson has never made a small plan in his life.”
It turned out that IBM’s best days were still ahead. The organizational changes that Watson Jr. would put in place in the next few years combined with his huge risky bet on the System 360 mainframe in the early 1960s would establish IBM as a dominant force in the computer industry for decades to some.
IBM’s biggest bet today is its Smarter Planet strategy. By harnessing the power of sensors, networks, analytical software and cloud computing, IBM aims to help companies, communities and governments make the world’s natural and human-made systems work better. It’s difficult to imagine a higher calling for a tech company–nor a more daunting task.
Will IBM persevere for another 100 years? Impossible to predict. But it has a couple of characteristics that seem to promise longevity. First, you will not see complacency among IBM’s executives. The company has internalized the lessons learned in the early 1990s, when it nearly failed. Second, there’s a determination to constantly transform, to survive and thrive–come what may. During an interview for IBM’s centennial book, Making the World Work Better, CEO Sam Palmisano was asked what was the most important lesson that anybody could learn from IBM’s story. He didn’t hesitate: “You have to be willing to change your core, and you have to be ahead of the shift.”
Palmisano was a young executive at the time of IBM’s near-death experience. Since then, he played a leading role in rebuilding IBM and making the big bets that enabled it to thrive again. He personifies the company’s culture. It’s led by people who are hugely ambitious, willing to take risks and absolutely relentless.
Today at the centennial celebration, I expect a next generation of IBM’s leaders to be pondering the company’s future. They’d better be thinking big, too. That’s what it will take for the company to last another 100 years.