It's a Good Time to Be an Innovator

A conversation with Mike Wing, Vice President, Strategic and Executive Communications, IBM
By Jo Grogan
The economic downturn is not negatively impacting the innovation climate at IBM. Long a proponent of innovation and a case study in successfully reinventing itself, IBM has turned in recent years to the use of "Jams" for everything from setting company values to identifying the next best thing.

Mike Wing was there from the beginning with the Jams, and explains the philosophy and process behind them in this interview.

Jo Grogan (JG) : In light of today’s global economic climate, are you seeing any changes in innovation and the way companies innovate? What role do you believe innovation plays or should play in this climate? How is this role reflected at IBM?

Mike WingMike Wing: If anything, our company leadership believe that this is the most enormous opportunity that we have seen in a long time. It is not often that you get across an entire planet the consensus of a need for fundamental change. The climate is fertile for innovation, and we can accelerate where we were going already.

IBM has been in a similar situation and time before. When IBM reinvented itself, it was gutsy for Watson, Jr. to gut the company, but necessity or crisis is the mother of invention and innovation. We all grew up knowing what IBM was. In 1964 we took the first systemic approach to Information Technology systems. Before, when companies would create a computer, it was task-specific and hermetically sealed. An upgrade was more like an overhaul. Then came Watson, Jr., and the System 360. It was a turnkey system – mainframe, hardware, software, service, the works. You formed an ongoing relationship with the company. Once this idea took off, IBM became the IT Industry, the Roman Empire of Technology. It was powerful, and then it collapsed.

During its heyday, it was the poster child for an innovation model, entirely contained within the company, integrated with other technologies, a 400,000-employee monolith and a model of proprietary control. This continued through the 80's and early 90's, and then it nearly died.

When Lou Gersther saved the company instead of breaking it up, the experience was a deep and ongoing quest and re-examination of fundamental assumptions. It paid off. IBM has more patents by a large margin than any other company on earth, and instead of being such a model for proprietary control, as in the past, it is now a proponent of open source and has relearned how to operate in and respond to new markets.

We shifted to inherently collaborative innovation. Instead of an individual inventor in a garrett, we seek out diversity in disciplines, modes of thought, and intelligence. The world has become smaller. The systems by which the world operates are being infused with intelligence through electrons – this is how billions of people now work and live.

The transistor is 60 years old. There are now 4 billion mobile phones and 30 billion RFID tags, sensors and tags are embedded in our ecosystems – throughout the supply chain, and in health industries – literally one half of the planet is using the Internet. In San Francisco, there are sensors in parking spaces!

All of these advances have generated an exponential increase in useful data, which gets us into mega-powerful systems for detecting patterns. IBM has Road Runner – it runs on Linux . Computational power is being placed in any place with large capacity information processing available to everyone.
Innovation is different than it has been in any time in the past. The industrial model had its place and was needed, but the model was very costly, with a strong need for capital and capitalists. Now, any literate person can be globally published in minutes! The new functionalities permit someone to mix-and-match their software and hardware to meet their individual needs in a relatively inexpensive way.

Because of these abilities, it has created an imperative to be right, not necessarily first, in the marketplace – to deliver unique differentiations of services.

We have progressed from a competitive landscape once characterized by trade barriers, multi-national corporations, hub-and-spoke models to a new business model of nodes and networks with rapidly changing partnerships and relationships – we are now global innovation enterprises, not specifically products and services.

There is a shift – from Intellectual Property to Intellectual Capital. The legal and policy regimes are looking for different ways to support, encourage, and leverage inventors. Wikis are available to global leaders, scholars, and tech experts to improve the quality of patents and protecting inventors while supporting a collaborative structure. When implemented, we have more efficient, fair, open, transparent, and better approaches.

There have been other shifts, as well. IBM has a philosophy that our employees need to be successful global citizens – to succeed on their own in the global commons, to acquire better skills, more global expertise, teaching, working with NGO's. The company now provides a 401(k) for learning, with a company match.

JG: How and where do you find your new innovative ideas? Do you use any ideation/thinking/problem solving/creativity tools/innovation software?

Mike Wing: We have Innovation Jams, and we use Thinkplace – a virtual suggestion box on the Intranet for bubbling ideas, which are peer evaluated and people take on roles as catalysts to help develop and champion ideas.

For the Jams, the collaboration is in the open (within the company). About 150,000 people participate over a 3-day period. We have a robust extraction technique for sorting through themes in real time. It helps us overcome a challenge or organizational caution or fear – once you open up the thinking of the company in a radically democratized way, such as our jams (Values Jam – aimed at the big questions; Innovation Jam for pragmatic new products; and our early jam to capture best practices), the simple idea of breaking down organizational barriers to success can be overcome. A simple idea – large companies like IBM are intractably bureaucratic, but the Jams break down the barriers – the collective intelligence of our employees formed a force of collaboration – the Jams are a way to share it, and use it for good.

In May, 2001, we held the World Jam. Some in the company were nervous about shaking up our model. It was not instantly easy for people to accept this new model, and there was anger and fear. But then, we reached a level of openness and authenticity that we get nowhere else. The Values Jam allowed a balanced perspective to come in. There were some who were very intensely passionate about the old IBM, who thought something precious was lost in the reinvention of the company. That's why the Values Jam and its process were very important.

The entire company came together to create our new values, including those for whom IBM and the old model were a way of life and the newer IBMers who had experienced life outside of IBM – we used the share perspectives from this jam, that were representative of the entire population of the company, to develop a set of shared values. What the new IBM-ers heard, some for the first time in their careers, was the emotional affiliation people have with this company – the employees have with this company. It was a mutual epiphany that could not have occurred in another environment.

In today's world, very few companies can engender a familial feeling and sustain it across a large bureaucracy, and most people today do not carry loyalty to their companies in the way we do here. IBM can sustain and foster that kind of environment, and the Jams help us do that. When you read over employee submissions during and after a jam, you can actually watch culture changes taking place as if you saw it in stop-frame photography. Through the Values Jam, our emotional center of gravity shifted to the positive side, with a sentiment that "this IS the company I wanted to join" – manna from heaven for our leadership!

JG: Are the jams a free-for-all, or are goals stated up front?

Mike Wing: Our Jams tend to be focused – the first was on values, then innovation, then world issues, and we hold them to help us stay in touch with where we should be heading, and to keep our employee engagement at high levels over time.

The jams and our model for them are so successful that now, we're running them for other organizations and companies – for the UN, Canada, a Habitat Jam, and the World Urban Forum.

JG: How do you rate the ideas from a jam and select those for further development?

Mike Wing: There are general criteria, such as: What is it's utility? Would current or future customers be interested and willing to buy; Is it ready,can we take it and do it without executive authority or funding?; or is it almost ready, meaning that it needs a little development or work. And then, the ideas are rated by peers in real time.

There is a danger, and we recognize it, that some viable ideas might not be seen or get great visibility when you have so many participants, so we also do information cascades and network analysis during and after the jam. We distill the best ideas to a list of 200 or so after a week or two, then rate the top 35 ideas. Those ideas are then given an executive sponsor and a team to implement them.

JG: What books, articles, blogs, or other media on the topic of innovation have you read? Are there any that you recommend to employees of IBM?

Mike Wing: We have internal blogs, tags, external wikis. The place LIVES online – forming teams for solving problems all over the world. We read industry publications, Harvard Business Review, and other publications of interest, but our learning is becoming a part of our socialization process, as well.

JG: Are you familiar with virtual collaborative innovation communities such as, and other networks that bring together experts, facilitators, and product developers for confidential collaborative creation? What has been your experience with this type of collaboration? What are the barriers to using such services? How might they be overcome?

Mike Wing: Yes, we have, but because we already have more patents than anyone on the planet, and continue to generate more every year through our jams and other methods, we don't feel the need to use these services. We have the infrastructure to support innovation at a very high level. These types of services could have great utility, however, for smaller businesses who do not have the infrastructure and funding to have their own teams.

JG: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share about innovation at IBM – what's the next big thing?

Mike Wing: We have launched a new initiative for a smarter planet, the culmination of what we think and see needs changing or help. We have a deeper notion of Web 2.0 and the long tail.

There is radical democratization under way now and incredible growth, with huge shifts such as the emergence of middle-class China and India – a human shift. We need to engage in that growth and progress. IBM is setting the bar again as it did in generations past, seeking to engage at a different level across global society at large – to influence, through a range of approaches, including collaboration, blogging, new open sourcing, procreation of business relationships with shared control, and value creation. It's an exciting time for innovation, and an even more exciting time to share it all at IBM.

Mike Wing helps shape IBM's communications to investors, employees and the public at large, including communications and strategic counsel for IBM’s chairman and CEO. Previously, Mike was Vice President, Worldwide Intranet Strategy & Programs, responsible for the strategy and development of, IBM’s corporate intranet, which he guided from a small publishing site to the company’s primary medium for information and a key engine of culture change, during IBM’s turnaround in the 1990s and continuing today. Mike developed IBM's global online "jams" for large-scale brainstorming and decision making – both internally (e.g., ValuesJam, and externally (e.g., HabitatJam).

Before IBM, Mike worked in employee communications at Time Warner Inc. and CBS, Inc. In graduate school, he was a member of the faculty and administration of Vico College, an interdisciplinary undergraduate humanities program at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he was a doctoral candidate in English, concentrating on Shakespeare. He graduated from Swarthmore College with High Honors in 1970. Mike is co-author of The Kissing Place, an original film produced for USA Network.

Feedback Welcome: If you would like to comment on the above article, please feel free to contact Jo Grogan. If you would like to suggest other innovation decision makers for me to interview, please just let me know.

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