IBM turning 100: smarter planet, social media and meat chopping

2011 is quite a year for IBM. It marks its one hundredth year as company; as a brand.

What does this mean to me. Partly a reflection on what a brand means. Especially as I’m one of the newer entrants and wasn’t around when Big Blue was busy innovating punch card systems, typewriters, mainframes and the PC. Coming from an acquisition which only completed in the last two years, I have a much more recent relationship to the IBM eight-bar logo.

I was part of the web team that hoisted that infamous logo onto our website (before we transitioned over to the IBM.com domain for real) and from one point of view, that really was the extent of the change. Our teams remained intact and the day-to-day duties of the marketing organization remained largely unchanged: we had to continue our efforts of guiding prospects interested in our technologies. As always, we bemoaned the poor decisions of upper management and whined about the inflexibility of our business tools and processes, but now we just had a new object for our venom. So at one level I’d say the change has been superficial. A rebranding feels like little more than painting the lounge. Or a fresh application of lipstick. I had worked for a relatively large technology company. Now I work for a very large technology company.

But a brand goes beyond that.

It exists in our culture; our imagination. Hell, even my next door neighbor (an early-retired teacher) launched into an anecdote of how when he was studying at college he produced his essays on a shoestring budget by cobbling together bits of second hand IBM Selectrics typewriters he picked up at garage sales into one workable machine.

Currently IBM is driving a concerted push to create a ‘Smarter Planet’. I originally had my doubts around this campaign given my background in search marketing – we normally look to the market to find keywords to chase that fit our business objectives. This all felt a bit backwards. At the time (two years ago) ‘smarter planet’ didn’t even register as a search term. No one was talking about it.

I had yet to see the power of a major brand in exerting thought leadership.

Promotions appeared everywhere: from major newspapers to airports. But this was more than just an advertising campaign – internal business projects got on board too. This has given birth to such wonders as a machine that can compete at Jeopardy.

What has been the result? The Smarter Planet initiative is still very much a work in progress but just take a look at how search volumes have mushroomed on Google:

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The concept of a ‘smarter planet’ is now in our consciousness (or at least our Google-brain).

This level of cohesion and singularity is even more astounding given the dispersed nature of the IBM workforce. There are very few big hubs and campuses: around half of the workforce work remotely. This leaves little scope for water-cooler discussions but rather a heavy use of telecoms and social computing to bring teams together over teleconferences, screen share sessions or even ‘idea jams’ (short-term online discussion forums covering a set topic).

Internal communications also bleeds out onto the external web. As analyst Charlene Li points out in Open Leadership, “In 2005, IBM led the way… as one of the first companies to put in place blogging guidelines” and in December Mashable listed IBM as one of the top four companies to work for if you’re a social media professional. The nature of the organization has created the demand for social computing. Being one of the homeworkers, I’ll often find out about IBM initiatives through platforms such as Twitter.

So, it’s funny to think that with humble roots in the meat chopping business, IBM is now a global B2B technology force with an indelible print on our culture stretching back 100 years. And it continues to leave its mark: whether it’s easing congestion in major cities as part of the smarter planet initiative, or creating a large social media footprint. And I get to play my small part in this evolving story.

Daryl Pereira is a web and social media manager at IBM who tweets from his little corner of the B2B technology industry @cagedether. For more on the IBM Centennial, search Twitter for #ibm100

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