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IBM – a Case for Inclusion by Telle Whitney, CEO Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology

IBM is viewed by many, including me, as the Gold Standard for a company that reinvented itself in order to meet its business objectives, but whose culture was transformed to be inclusive to all of its employees. Their story is documented in a several articles in the Harvard Business Review.

IBM is viewed by many, including me, as the Gold Standard for a company that reinvented itself in order to meet its business objectives, but whose culture was transformed to be inclusive to all of its employees. Their story is documented in a several articles in the Harvard Business Review.

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The IBM story is compelling, and demonstrates how a visionary leader, Lour Gerstner, can lead to systemic cultural change. Over the past 15 years at IBM, as of 2004, change has resulted in a 370% increase of women executives worldwide and a 233% increase in ethnic minority executives. Lou Gerstner’s plan for change focused on four areas: (1) Demonstrate leadership support, (2) Engage employees as partners, (3) Integrate diversity goals with management practices, and (4) Link diversity goals to business goals. When Lou Gerstner became CEO in 1993, he understood that for IBM to be competitive in the future, the company needed to change dramatically. Its worldwide customers were an increasingly diverse group of people, including minorities and women, and he saw that his senior leadership did not reflect the customers or employees. Their plan sought to change IBM’s culture by uncovering and understanding differences among minority groups. IBM established task forces for each of the minority groups including women, with a broad inclusion of employees, but ensuring executive participation. Each task force developed recommendations for making IBM a more inclusive environment. The recommendations were synthesized into an overall plan. A key part of the success was for the executive management to regularly review its diversity charter as a part of its management practices, and to regularly review its workforce pipeline. Although these changes were company wide, IBM always included a focus on its technical talent.

In the six years that I have run the Anita Borg Institute, I’ve had the honor of meeting an unusual number of women technical executives at IBM, which is one of the reasons that I see the change at IBM. I remember the IBM of my youth – men with white shirts and ties, no women in sight – that has changed. The number and percentage of women fellows at IBM is larger than most other companies (many have zero), and includes Fran Allen, who was the first women fellow at IBM, and became the first women to win the Turing award (http://awards.acm.org/homepage.cfm?awd=140), the Nobel Prize of the Computing community. Fran has often talked to me about how helping others are an important part of the IBM culture. She regularly mentors at least five younger scientists she mentors – this practice of mentoring is one of the reasons IBM develops so many women and minority executives. In a discipline where it is still uncommon to see African American engineers, at IBM, I’ve met bright and successful African American executives, such as Mark Dean, the former head of IBM’s Almaden Research lab.

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