IBM Creates Volunteer Teams
IN THE LEAD
By CAROL HYMOWITZ
Al Chakra just completed a four-week assignment for International Business Machines that was different from anything he had done in his 14 years at the company.
The software-development manager from IBM's Raleigh, N.C., office spent July in Timisoara, Romania, where he helped a furniture manufacturer become more efficient and more computer-savvy -- offering his expertise for free. With Mr. Chakra in Timisoara were eight IBM colleagues from five countries. Each was assigned to help a different company or nonprofit organization, sharing their distinct work proficiencies and cultural backgrounds with the local staffs and one another.
They were among the first volunteers in IBM's new Corporate Service Corps program, which aims to stretch the company's vast global reach while building a network of international teams. "The premier new emerging markets are in places where most big companies don't yet do a lot of business -- and we want to build a leadership cadre that learns about these places and also learns to exchange their diverse backgrounds and skills," says Stanley Litow, vice president of corporate citizenship.
Over the next three years, IBM, which last year derived two-thirds of its revenue from outside the U.S., will donate the time and services -- valued at about $250 million -- of about 600 of its employees for monthlong projects in countries where it wants a bigger footprint. Among the countries are Romania, Turkey, Ghana, Vietnam, the Philippines and Tanzania. The company uses a nonprofit organization, Citizens Development Corps in Washington, to connect it with the overseas groups.
Many multinational companies, such as Procter & Gamble and General Electric, also are doing volunteer projects overseas or tapping rising stars for international assignments. But IBM, with clients in 170 countries and two-thirds of its work force outside the U.S., is the first to combine international community service and team leadership development in one program.
"I felt like I won the lottery when I got accepted," says Mr. Chakra, who manages a large group of software developers and has more than 55 patents. More than 5,500 IBM employees applied for 100 spots on six teams being sent out this year.
Mr. Chakra and his eight colleagues were lodged in a guest house in Timisoara, known as Romania's Silicon Valley because of the local technical university. Together, the team represented a wealth of business and global experience. Keiji Takeda from Tokyo, for example, is an engineer knowledgeable about network integration. Bronwyn Grantham, an Australian who lives in London, has expertise in financial management. Chitra Andrade, a neuropsychologist from Bangalore, India, works in human resources.
Mr. Chakra had visited Romania 14 years ago when the country was emerging from communism. This time around, he found "a young entrepreneurial generation" eager to take advantage of Romania's new membership in the European Union, he says.
Mr. Chakra's project was helping GreenForest, a manufacturer of office and hotel, school and industrial furniture. The company, started in 1992, is run by two of its three founders. In addition to local sales, the company exports its products to Belgium and Italy.
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