Reinforcing common values can be challenging across a huge company—but as the case of IBM shows, technology can make the process easier.
Companies often start with their founders’ noblest of aspirations and grandest of dreams. Decades later, their employees may number in the thousands and work across the country or even globe. How do leaders reinforce the originals goal of doing good for workers, customers, and the world?
Nearly a century after its founding, with more than 400,000 employees worldwide, IBM found itself in just this position.
The company’s first CEO, Thomas J. Watson, and later his son, Thomas J. Watson, Jr., valued excellence, customer service, and respect for the individual. They wanted employees to express these values as well.
One famous strategy was the creation of a songbook that put IBM-related lyrics to well known melodies. First thing in the morning, songs like “IBM One Hundred Percent Club” would be sung to the tune of songs like “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” in praise of the company.
That was a bygone era. Today, new strategies fueled by innovation have been put into place. IBM puts its own sophisticated technology to use evoking and enacting its core values.
In 2003—long before social platforms like Facebook or Twitter took hold—executives held a worldwide IBM values “jam” to engage its huge global workforce to refresh the company values. During three days, tens of thousands of employees logged onto a company intranet site that let them observe and participate in instant-message-style sessions about corporate values and how they shape what employees do.
“It was the largest experiment IBM had ever done in terms of engaging employees on a global scale.”
Thousands of these participants posted, chatted, or shared their personal experiences about IBM values and how they’ve been lived out. “There was certainly a tremendous amount of enthusiasm surrounding the jam at the time,” says John Preli, IBM director and trust and compliance officer. “It was the largest experiment IBM had ever done in terms of engaging employees on a global scale.”
Over the next two months, the jam discussions were analyzed using textual analysis tools. As a result, the company got a snapshot of how employees saw IBM values and how they translated into behavior. The words “trust,” “invention,” “innovation,” and “client” were among those used most often during the jam, the supercomputer analysis found.
The company got a snapshot of how employees saw IBM values and how they translated into behavior
Based on the results, the company then updated its “basic beliefs” to resonate in the modern world. Customer service translated into “dedication to every client’s success.” Excellence today meant “innovation that matters for the company and the world.” And respect for the individual became “trust and personal responsibility in all relationships.”
“I talk about values as roots of the tree,” Preli says. “People ask how you can change the roots of a tree. I say we didn’t change the roots of the tree—we just repotted it into a larger pot.”
Other companies can apply technology (IBM’s, others, or their own) to refreshing their values, too. Refer to the Key Points section on this page for some of the key lessons IBM learned.