Engineering Systems Solutions to Real World Challenges: An Overview

author: Linda Sanford, IBM
published: Sept. 3, 2013,   recorded: October 2006,   views: 2361

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Of 1,000 companies tracked from 1962 through the late 1990s, only 16% are still around. Linda Sanford attributes such corporate survival to innovation. The pace and unpredictability of change has increased dramatically, and only companies that rise to this challenge can make it.

Corporations must undergo complete transformations in order to innovate properly – no “tweaking” says Sanford. They must break from 20th-century notions of innovation --inventions cooked up in labs by engineers or scientists – and embrace a larger definition. Good ideas must be “married to business and social insights and deliver real social or economic value,” says Sanford. Further, these ideas can’t prosper in companies where there’s little collaboration among departments or disciplines, or between the firm and outside partners. And companies must take advantage of knowledge and expertise around the world. “Innovation engines” can drive top line revenue growth, assures Sanford.

At IBM, such a transformation is in progress. This sprawling international technology power is fundamentally changing its business model and management culture to remain nimble and competitive. New technology must solve a real problem, and evolve with appropriate business processes. IBM eliminated its multinational business structure, where each country had its own “soup to nuts” operation in favor of a global approach that aims to leverage skills and talent around the world. Sanford describes how financial operations are in Brazil, procurement in China, HR in North Carolina. More power now resides in the hands of “front office” people, the sales force, who can make immediate decisions “on behalf of what’s right for the client,” employing data and analytics provided by the “back office.”

To benefit from its global pool of 330 thousand employees, IBM holds real-time, online chat sessions, which Sanford calls “Value Jams.” There are online sites for developers and other employees to test new ideas, and opportunities for others to respond in blogs and forums. The company routinely offers MP3 podcasts of meetings so that far-flung branches of the company can monitor developments elsewhere.

Sanford says IBM demands that employees not simply offer new ideas, but critique them and find ways of acting on them. “If you don’t follow through and do something with it, you will lose credibility with the broader population.” Says Sanford, “The worst thing is to unleash the creativity of people and do nothing about it.”

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