Davos – Business Week, IBM and Global Workforce

What do you get when you cross Davos, Business Week, IBM and Global Workforce? An interesting article with implications for KM practitioners and researchers alike that doesn’t use the term ‘knowledge management’ once; but is teeming with KM ideas.

There was an interesting article in the January 17th issue of Business Week. It was buried in a Davos Special Report and more specifically in a series focused on Managing the Global Workforce. What caught my eye was an article on IBM (“International Isn’t Just IBM’s First Name“). In this article, without a singular explicit reference to Knowledge Management, there were several exemplars that would make the best KM professionals proud.

I would encourage you to read the entire article from end to end, but I thought I would summarize some of the key points that I took away from reading this excellent piece.

But, before giving you my summary, allow me to digress and give some (recent) historical context. I remember, almost to the day, when I first saw an IBM print advertisement that read “IBM Means Services” where the “s” at the end of services was scribbled in a handwritten fashion to emphasize the not so subtle change in their organization (from “IBM Means Service” to “IBM Means ServiceS”). At this point, as a Management Consultant who grew up in a world where there was a clear demarcation line between consultants and professional services and the world of hardware and software, I realized that my world had changed. IBM was now a potential competitor. Later, as my Firm broadened its range of services to include various Business Process Outsourcing offerings the notion of IBM as our competitor was again underscored.

Despite this, IBM has made a remarkable transition over the last fifty years from being a hardware manufacturer, to (in addition) being on of the largest software companies and now in its latest incarnation, to also being one of the largest global professional services organizations.

All Professional Service Firms (PSFs) can learn a lot from IBM. Whether you are in law, accounting, consulting, engineering or any form of PSF, we share a number of similar characteristics. With this in mind, there are a number of key points (quoted text in italics) that caught my eye:

    Their output is information” – for most PSFs, the main product is information – some might even argue this is a by-product of or precursor to ‘knowledge’.

    IBM “… is reorganizing around the principle that it will perform work for customers where the jobs can best be done—tapping the right talent at the right price“. Isn’t that the challenge most organizations and in particular PSFs face today? Indeed, I remember David Maister making the point that well organized PSFs made sure that work was done by the most cost-effective resource.

    With respect to human capital, Chief Executive Samuel J. Palmisano says: “The big issues for us are: Where do you put them? How do you retain them? How do you develop them? How do you move work to them or them to work?” Is there a law firm of any size out there that does not have this challenge?

    The article says: “Moffat and his colleagues also have used their manufacturing experience to keep track of IBM’s far-flung employees. Just as every component used in an IBM computer is described in detail on inventory and planning documents, new databases contain profiles of employees that list their capabilities and their up-to-the-minute availability. Yet while a computer part doesn’t change over time, people do. So the databases can be continuously updated by employees and their managers as employees gain skills and experience.” I find it interesting that they used the manufacturing metaphors as a basis for attacking this problem. In any case, the idea of having expertise databases is something that many organizations have been looking at in recent years. The big debate is around whether each person should self-identify expertise or whether this is something that should be deduced from other activities – such as writing articles, papers or producing work product. Why not both?

    Having worked on the concept of e-knowledge markets since the late nineties with Bryan Davis at the Kaieteur Institute For Knowledge Management as a key building block for KM, I find the concept of a marketplace as articulated illuminating: “Before, project managers assembled teams largely made up of people they had worked with. But as IBM expanded around the globe, managers found it harder to pull teams together. Now project managers post detailed requests in one of the databases called Professional Marketplace that lists more than 170,000 employees along with their skills, pay rate, and availability. Other managers monitor the database and serve as matchmakers between jobs and people. The databases have shaved 20% from the average time it takes to assemble a team and have saved IBM $500 million overall.” One of our basic hypotheses is that the market metaphor is better than the sharing metaphor in a corporate setting – people trade knowledge more so than just sharing it.

    They talk about the challenges of dealing with a distributed workforce via collaboration tools such as email and video-conferencing: “Strangers don’t readily share knowledge. ‘A big problem is trust,’ says Dirk Wittkopp, director of IBM’s Boeblingen lab. ‘It works better if you can go out to dinner with somebody and have a beer. But we can’t put people on planes to visit each other all the time.’ …” Hmmm.. sharing knowledge and trust – a central challenge for KM practitioners.

    Onto the use of social networking tools: “So Big Blue is trying to bridge the gap with software that borrows heavily from social networking. A new program called Beehive is essentially a corporate version of Facebook. IBM employees create profiles and post photos, list their interests, and comment about company events or happenings in their private lives.” I draw your attention to other organizations such as British Petroleum and Hill and Knowlton who have used ‘personal pages’ as a key for linking people together and engaging them in relationship building well before the advent of MySpace and Facebook.

    Then there is “search” … the holy grail for KM practitioners: “Another program, called Small Blue, is a search engine for finding experts within the company. The software scans employees’ blogs, e-mail, instant messages, and reports, then draws conclusions about each participant’s skills and expertise.” … “Last month, IBM introduced a version of Small Blue called IBM Atlas for sale to customers.” I have not looked at that product yet but am curious to.

The bottom line? Three thoughts:

  1. We often get caught up having to talk about KM explicitly – but, one of my key hypotheses is that we will have done our job best as KM practitioners when this is fully in the context of the business and business strategy. Rather than think about KM and knowledge in a separate way like is done today; good business strategy embodies ways to leverage and optimize the return on an organizations key knowledge assets – including human capital. We will know we have arrived when we stop talking about KM strategy separate from business strategy. We don’t have to call it KM to make it work.
  2. We can learn from other professionals – the cross pollination of ideas is critical the development of KM for practitioners. Even an organization as large as IBM has lessons for most of our smaller professional service organizations.
  3. IBM is cool again. Having worked at IBM as a newly minted undergrad, I have watched the transition of that organization as it opened up but ceded ground in the PC marketplace but then regained its ground in the nineties. It is their approach to managing people, their knowledge and expertise that gives them staying power. Similar management and knowledge practices will pay dividends for other organizations as well.


  1. Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I am new to this site so I will have to hold some of what I’m inclined to write for another time, after I’ve gotten to know more about what takes place here. What I’m interested relates to reputations. When you described the changes IBM has gone through – I can relate because in my corporate life I had to compete against it from many product fronts – typewriters, copiers, pc’s, printers and other stuff. As I worked for Xerox.

    As I stated above my interest is reputations as a function of corporate to stakeholder conversations – which include customers, suppliers, and all the usual suspects. My question for you is as you look out on “knowledge” how much worth would place on a company’s reputation to provide “space” to make the kind of transitions IBM has made over the years?

  2. Thanks for the question. You have opened up a door to the related discussion of intangibles and the role they play. Our colleagues who focus on Intellectual Capital argue that human, relationship and structural capital are important unrecognized assets for most organizations.

    Within this spectrum, reputation (in its many forms) is important. It is coupled with notions of trust. It is tied to other intangibles such as: brand, social & community, innovation / creativity, and network capital.

    Intangibles and Intellectual Capital, and indeed key amongst these relationship capital, provide a strong buffer for organizations to maneuver. IBM has certainly benefited from its market position, its reputation, its Intellectual Capital and a huge corporate chest full of cash to make several transitions through its history.