My dad was a 20+ year IBMer. He was an employee of the blue suit era – where people whispered if you wore striped ties. Former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner worked hard to teach the IBM elephant how to dance, transforming the company from a computer manufacturer to a solutions provider. This transformation was not easy nor was it without casualties, including IBM’s culture of “employment for life” and pensions – painful changes for my dad’s generation. Gerstner recognized that IBM had to change it’s fundamental economic model and re-engineer how they did business or go out of business. IBM successfully branded and built their solutions business, and is pioneering exciting AI work with its Watson system. On IBM’s homepage they promote the power of Watson:
With Watson, you have the AI platform for business. Uncover insights, engage in new ways, make decisions with more confidence and do your best work with Watson, today.
IBM choose not to put its latest business disruption on their website: the decision to end remote working. On May 19th IBM announced, “In many fields, such as software development and digital marketing, the nature of work is changing, which requires new ways of working.” The problem IBM has identified is the need to drive greater innovation, improve communicate and make faster decisions. Their solution is to require all of their almost 400,000 employees to work on location. I strongly disagree with this decision, and think it is counter intelligent. Instead I would advise IBM and all companies to follow Watson’s recommendations: uncover innovation insights, engage in new ways of communications, and make decisions with confidence so that employees can do their best work wherever they work.
Uncover innovation insights. IDEO is an award winning product innovation company. Their success comes using empathy to uncover insights. By observing user behavior and putting yourself in the end-user’s shoes, you collect invaluable insights. Remote teams can help companies know and go to your customer across a large footprint. Leverage vs. eliminate remote teams to foster better customer collaboration. Innovation comes from shifting from “we can’t” to “we can if…”. It thrives when we welcome diverse perspectives and collaborate under constraint. Remote teams live in this petri dish and can help companies create best practices for innovation.
Engage in new ways of communication. The article News Flash From IBM. There IS a Downside to a Remote Workforce points out that it is more challenging to communicate on remote teams. It is hard to have impromptu conversations or to drop in on peers when you work remotely. But does harder mean impossible? Global employees communicate across a complex network of remote customers, suppliers, and contractors everyday. Instead of opting out of this challenge, companies can and should apply the same principles for working with global teams and use them with remote workers. Create clear strategies. Connect the team’s work to those strategies. Check in frequently and personally with individual team members. Create space for unstructured, impromptu discussions in your calls and meetings. Invest in building good leadership and communication skills vs. dismantling remote work structures.
Make decisions with more confidence. Watson’s power is its ability to analyze multiple sources of information and derive insights and recommendations. On its website, IBM states, “Watson can understand all forms of data, interact naturally with people, and learn and reason, at scale.” The good news is teams, remote or co-located, don’t need a supercomputer to improve their decision making skills. We can understand data by staying objective and focusing on facts. We can interact with others to understand connections, implications, and lessons learned. We can learn and reason by using industry trends and experts in our field, then applying our knowledge of our company and customer to form a hypothesis. Good leaders know success doesn’t come from obsessing about the right decision but rather from making timely, confident decisions.
Watson is an incredible breakthrough for IBM and has thousands of exciting applications, including cancer research, aviation, and energy. The Toronto Raptors are partnering with Watson to analyze the play of their roster, determine what skills are missing, and recommend the best players that suit its needs. Watson will include both basketball skills and team camaraderie skills in its analysis. I’d encourage IBM and all companies to apply this same logic to its workforce. Given it’s current employee roster and skill set, is it more advantageous to focus on clear goals, expectations, and engagement for remote teams or to let them quit and work for a competitor? IBM- and all employers- have the ability to uncover innovation insights, engage in new ways of communications, and make decisions with confidence so that employees can do their best work. Let’s make the intelligent decision.