Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Book Review: Inside IBM

IBM was the world’s leading provider of information technologies for much of the twentieth century. What made it so successful for such a long time, and what lessons can this iconic corporation teach present-day enterprises?

James W. Cortada—a business historian who worked at IBM for many years—pinpoints the crucial role of IBM’s corporate culture. He provides an inside look at how this culture emerged and evolved over the course of nearly a century, bringing together the perspectives of employees, executives, and customers around the world. Through a series of case studies, Inside IBM explores the practices that built and reinforced organizational culture, including training of managers, employee benefits, company rituals, and the role of humor. It also considers the importance of material culture, such as coffee mugs and lapel pins.

Cortada argues that IBM’s corporate culture aligned with its business imperatives for most of its history, allowing it to operate with a variety of stakeholders in mind and not simply prioritize stockholders. He identifies key lessons that managers can learn from IBM’s experience and apply in their own organizations today. This engaging and deeply researched book holds many insights for business historians, executives and managers concerned with stakeholder relations, professionals interested in corporate culture, and IBMers.

Inside IBM will be published October 31, 2023. Columbia University Press provided an early galley for review.

I spent the first eighteen years of my professional life working for IBM (six months in 1986-1987, then 1988-2004). I remember how excited I was to land my first job there. This was a company known for its culture, its employment-for-life mindset, its excellence. This is why I was instantly attracted to this upcoming book.

But, as recapped in the rather lengthy preface and introduction chapters here, Cortada outlines many of the struggles the company faced (as he further detailed in his 2019 book IBM: The Rise and Fall and Reinvention of a Global Icon. These were things I observed first-hand during my tenure with the company as well. By the time I hired in, the famed corporate culture for Big Blue was already starting to struggle. The first chapter very much continues to lay out the thesis of the author's topic with an overview of what is to follow. For me, this all felt like a really long build up (fifty-four pages or about sixteen percent of the book) before we got into the meat of the subject.

I did appreciate the discussion around the "dress code". While I had my "uniform" in my wardrobe, I definitely only broke it out on specific occasions. By the nineties, the look was a bit more relaxed in my division, and it was not too long before the "business casual" policies kicked in (at first just on Fridays and then later to every day we were not interfacing with customers in-person). I also found it interesting to discover the source of the intelligence tests that IBM administered to everyone upon their first interview for full-time employment (I remember taking that test when I interviewed in the Fall of 1987).

Overall, there is a lot here. Those interested in the evolution of business will definitely want to give this one a look. I think it will also appeal to current and former IBMers; just hitting a reasonable fraction of that group would make it a big seller.

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