IBM celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011 by looking backwards and forwards. In the past it has invented many of the IT products and services we use today – mainframes, server virtualisation, the disk drive, the PC for instance. It has a uniquely research-based approach to the industry, illustrated by its invention of Point Of Sale (POS) bar codes in 1949 – we needed several decades before lasers were developed to read them and make them such an important part of retailing today.
However IBM also has an old and big business-oriented image, not helped by the offloading of its PC business to Lenovo in 2006, its avoidance of playing directly in consumer markets and an ageing staff in most of its mature country markets. Even its efforts to changing the balance have sometimes been clumsy – in the UK for instance where it effectively forced early retirement on many of its older employees. It claims to be hiring around 500 younger workers a year in the UK now and it’s clearly going to go through a major change its internal age profile over the next ten years.
While it is not a direct player in the consumer electronics markets, its components are widely used there (its PowerPC chips power Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft gaming consoles for instance) and it has helped large users provide new services through new private Cloud deployments.
It is a truism that new users (‘born into technology’) don’t question the differences between IT offerings to the same extent as older ones – many data centre builders start with an x86 design, ignoring the Unix and mainframe alternatives. While IBM continues to attract attention from IT scientists, conservatives and those who can calculate the TCO of systems at the workload level – smart users of all ages. However we believe it needs to take specific action not to box below its weight with the majority of future IT buyers.
Our advice is for IBM is to build a task force amongst its newer employees and to reach out to generation X and Y users, with the aim of making its long-term commitment to research and innovation in technology ‘cool’. Otherwise it is likely to fall behind younger suppliers such as Apple and Google as the market evolves. One idea would be to investigate the use of gaming Internet sites as a prototype for future business communities, extending its early involvement with Second Life a decade ago. IBM shouldn’t change its idiosyncratic approach, but needs to make its advantages clearer to those who don’t spend as much time thinking about technology as their older colleagues used to.