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IBM's Message is Pitch Perfect

IBM has taken a deserved share of flak over the years on a variety of fronts; for trying to be too much to too many (sometimes overbundling products and services); for buying many more vendors and products than it could develop or orchestrate; for denying it was a software company even for years after it bought Lotus; for shuffling employees who've met new faces many times at the company. ("I've Been Moved" was one alternate definition of the name for many years.) 

I personally know people working in various parts of IBM who've arrived at different times from different places and all seem pretty confident in their corporate backbone. I would be too, listening to the way they send a message from the top.

That's all the more impressive when you've made scores of acquisitions in the last decade or two. When you compare this outfit's message with the tenor at HP or Oracle, it feels like you've gone back to some vertically integrated lifetime corporate employment tower of the 1960s.

And once again, with the cool orderliness of a brain surgery team, IBM's board of directors has turned a high-profile transition into a ho-hum day. The announcement that Virginia Rometty was taking over Sam Palmisano's CEO job came so smoothly and silently it barely topped the announcements coming out of IBM's Information on Demand conference. There were no analysts lobbing bombs, and the blogosphere pretty much packed up and made plans for lunch. I almost pictured banquets and gold watches of my grandfather's era to come, even if Palmisano is sticking around to keep an eye on things.

One reason they're good at what they do is that they are short on loud or grandiose announcements and long on acquisitions that retain autonomy and continuity in the context of their professional services group, a few likely integration points and, of course, sales. They made their huge transformation from hardware (and a time when Selectric typewriters were the General Motors of the written word) in a rather quiet way that has delivered more hagiographic books than tabloid stories. There had to have been some big egos left on the table. Not every company could do such a thing. 

I'm not trying to be over the top. A lot of big companies are well-run great places to work with well-focused leadership. But I can't tell you how many pundits I've seen say that HP now pines to be another IBM and Larry Ellison said as much for Oracle last year - and he was referring to the IBM of 1960.

You will hear the odd gripe about Gerstner versus Palmisano or John Akers, but they are mostly about who deserves more credit. See if you can find anything like Jeffrey Immelt saying of Jack Welch that, in the 1990s, "a German shepherd could have run GE." The distinction of IBM appears to be that the crises must either be quiet ones or handled with great temperament.

Compare this to the public retracements at HP, the executive swapping at Oracle, the silences of Microsoft or the sporadic messaging from SAP. I could mention the cultures of some big Internet-era companies also, but I am generalizing and don't wish to insult the professional contacts I have at these places. You probably recognize most of this anyhow.

Maybe it means that, even in the Internet era, not everything has to come disruptively. Immelt now consults for the Obama administration, which is, I guess, one way to compare the ship of state to this particular ship of industry. Like governments, IBM goes back far enough to have some baggage in its closet from earlier regimes like anything so big and old will have, and criticisms will continue.

But they do know how to communicate, and it might be something if the government knew how to air its laundry as well as IBM does. Internally, they are social media pioneers. As an editor, I can tell you their PR machine is the envy of PR machines in making themselves relevant and available. If I have a complaint, it's that they send me too many worthy items and could prioritize internally a little better out of respect for my bandwidth.

It's no easy thing to steer a diverse, global complex corporation with six figures worth of employees so smoothly, but if you're looking for an example of how you do it well, you just saw one.

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