IBM Deploys Talent, Technology and Innovation for Global Social Progress
July 17, 2012
By Rahim Kanani
In a recent interview with Stanley Litow, IBM’s Vice President of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs and President of IBM’s International Foundation, we discussed the long history of IBM’s public engagement, the organization’s philosophy for bringing about global social change, key initiatives and priorities, how they measure success, collaborating across sectors, challenges to progress and much more.
Mr. Litow helped devise IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, a corporate version of the Peace Corps that deploys thousands of IBM’s future leaders to provide expert advice to dozens of countries. Similarly, IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge grant program is helping 100 cities become more effective. Mr. Litow has also engaged companies, colleges, communities, and schools to create grades 9 through 14 schools—these schools strengthen America’s competitiveness by connecting education to jobs. Also under Mr. Litow, IBM developed a virtual supercomputer for use by scientists to speed research on cancer and AIDS.
Rahim Kanani: What drew you to join IBM and lead their global citizenship efforts?
Stan Litow: I was recruited by IBM’s former CEO Lou Gerstner, whom I had met when I was deputy schools chancellor in New York. By then, I had spent a career in public and community service, focusing on education and urban issues. I was attracted by the fact that IBM intended to make school reform a key priority.
But I had always admired IBM for being a progressive company, which made the offer even more attractive. For example, in the 1910s, IBM’s leadership challenged employees to share their time and talents with their communities. Employees were encouraged to serve on not-for-profit boards and play a role in community affairs. In 1935, IBM made it company policy to hire women for equal pay.
And in 1953, well before the civil rights laws, IBM formalized a hiring policy that was race-blind, and our business operations fostered integration in factories and schools in Kentucky. In 1962, Thomas Watson Jr. said something that really crystallized our outlook. He said companies needed to be as open minded and far sighted in matters concerning the general public need as they were in business matters. So maybe it was no surprise that less than 10 years later, IBM instituted environmentally-sensitive manufacturing policies in 1971 that were well ahead of its time.
Combining solid values with an interest in improving education proved irresistible to me.
Rahim Kanani: How would you describe the philosophy of IBM’s efforts to effect positive social change?
Stan Litow: IBM’s approach is to take our most valuable assets — our talent, technology, and innovation — and apply it against society’s critical challenges to seek sustainable change.
Our approach was summed up by Rosabeth Moss Kanter at the Harvard Business School in her book “From Spare Change to Real Change.” She talks about how truly great companies do things that fundamentally change the equation. Their programs are significant, scalable, and repeatable. These companies ensure that their corporate citizenship programs are part of the business itself, not optional add-ons that come and go depending on that year’s earnings. They rely less on checkbook philanthropy where a company might throw money at a problem, walk away, leave others to do the hard work, and hope for the best.
The citizenship programs of truly great companies help not only society, but the company and employees as well. At IBM, the skilled service that our employees provide enables them to build their expertise and become better employees. For instance, we created a new model of leadership development often referred to as the corporate version of the Peace Corps. The program has sent nearly 2,000 of our most talented leaders to more than 30 countries in the developing world to help local governments and communities solve problems that intersect technology, society, and business.
That initiative helps our employees develop leadership, collaborative, and improvisational skills, and makes them more loyal to IBM. It also gives them and the company insights into the culture of places where we’re beginning to conduct business. Most importantly, it has helped solve critical problems and engender economic growth.
Rahim Kanani: Since joining, what have been some of your key priorities?
Stan Litow: When I arrived, the company was spending a lot of cash on what would be considered traditional philanthropic activities across about a dozen issues. But while it demonstrated significant generosity, its programs were not necessarily consistent, repeatable, centralized, strategic, or scalable. We now put less focus on checkbook philanthropy and, in the main, focus on channeling the innovative technologies coming out of our research labs and the talent of our best consultants and engineers. We apply it against large scale societal challenges like literacy, healthcare, and environmental sustainability to produce quantifiable results.
For education and workforce development, we’ve developed a new model for a grades 9 – 14 school that combines high school and community college degrees. It links work skills to academics, providing students with high quality learning and marketable technology expertise. And, it’s provided a model for nationwide reforms.
In terms of the environment, we not only ensure that our operations are sustainable and safe, but also provide innovative technology to help other groups tasked with safeguarding the planet. For instance, we established World Community Grid that provides researchers with virtual supercomputing power drawn from the millions of otherwise-idle PCs owned by people all over the world. Many scientists use World Community Grid to seek cures for major diseases like cancer, AIDS, malaria and muscular dystrophy, and ones that are less well known.
We’re also doing a lot when it comes to urban and local government issues. The Smarter Cities Challenge, one of the biggest grant programs here in IBM corporate citizenship, involves sending teams of IBM’s most talented employees into 100 cities all over the world. They create smarter cities by tackling, head on, issues like transportation, public safety, and food and water quality.
Rahim Kanani: And how have you measured the success of these initiatives?
Stan Litow: There are a number of ways of measuring success. For one thing, we measure overall value by assessing the programs’ impact on skills, retention, and recruitment. As an example, we surveyed “alumni” of our Corporate Service Corps, and nine out of 10 agreed or strongly agreed that their participation had increased their productivity, leadership, and teaming skills. Three out of four said it boosted their desire to complete their business career at IBM and significantly enhanced their ability to perform their “day” jobs.
We also ask ourselves how helpful we have been to the recipients of our assistance. For instance, the advice we have provided to industrialized cities through our Smarter Cities Challenge grant program has led to new public policy innovations. Glasgow, Scotland is now subsidizing the heating bills of some of its seniors with the proceeds of clean-energy projects. Mecklenburg County, North Carolina has signed agreements with all its municipalities to develop a consolidated capital budget planning process. And St. Louis, Missouri now more systematically coordinates efforts among agencies that touch public safety, and has measurably reduced crime. These are just a few examples.
We have also seen remarkable results from Pathways in Technology, or P-TECH — the grades 9 to 14 school we helped create. Its initial group of 9th graders has strong academic performance and 95% attendance. Next September, each 10th grader will take college courses. Not long after the school started, we knew that we were onto something exciting. At the end of the school’s first term, 90% of P-TECH students had already met New York City standards for promotion to 10th grade.
One other example: World Community Grid, which provides scientists with computing power to accelerate their research, has enabled Scripps Research Institute to discover two new compounds that can potentially be used to design drugs that fight the disease that causes AIDS. It’s also been used to sequence the human genome and discover molecules for better solar cells.
But what does this social good mean for our reputation and business? A lot, it turns out. We earned number-one ranking in corporate citizenship from both Ceres and Covalence, two independent rating entities. This has helped maintain IBM’s top performance on international benchmarks, and stimulating “buy” recommendations by socially responsible investment funds.
Rahim Kanani: What have been some of your most successful partnerships?
Stan Litow: The first one that comes to mind is the alliance we created for Supplier Connection. We teamed with 17 of America’s most successful corporations — from Facebook to Pfizer — and with the U.S. Small Business Administration. IBM invested $10 million to create a way for small businesses to apply online as potential vendors at multiple companies. These members of Supplier Connection purchase more than $300 billion in goods and services annually through their global supply chains, so there is a lot of opportunity out there for small businesses.
The P-TECH educational model that I mentioned earlier is also becoming widespread because of public-private partnerships. We partnered with the New York City Department of Education, the City University of New York, and the New York College of Technology to create P-TECH in New York. And now we’ve enlisted Cisco, Microsoft, Motorola Solutions, and Verizon to work with us, Chicago Public Schools, and City Colleges of Chicago to create five more P-TECHs in Chicago this fall. They will be following a formula described in a national “playbook” that we developed.
Other successful partnerships that come mind include the work we’ve done with the New York Hall of Science, bringing the best science, technology, engineering, and math skills to teachers, students, and parents, both in person and online. Finally, I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the work we’re dong with the World Bank to provide an online “toolkit” that provides the practical knowledge small businesses need to run their organizations on a day-to-day basis.
Rahim Kanani: At the same time, what have been some of the challenges you’ve bumped up against when in pursuit of partnerships?
Stan Litow: I think that forging successful partnerships requires an awareness that your prospective partner might have a different agenda than you do or operate under different demands or pressures. Then, you have to think of ways to both respect those differences while, at the same time, find common ground to focus on the people we’re trying to help or the problem at hand. There is no substitute for being a good listener and partner. Whatever the motivation, putting skin in the game is what’s most important and playing an active role to make it a true partnership.
Rahim Kanani: Lastly, what’s on the horizon for IBM’s global philanthropic and citizenship work?
Stan Litow: You’re going to continue to see us stay in lockstep with our core business, using our most innovative skills and tools like data analytics and cloud computing to help address issues like making cities smarter, improving education, and creating jobs. An intelligent system like the kind we saw in Watson, which completed successfully on the game of Jeopardy! last year, is the type of technology I can envision as one day being helpful to the medical and education community, as well as the public sector. It might staff a quality of life telephone hotline operated by a city, or tutor a student. And, as we already see, it can assist doctors in making diagnoses.
But that is long term. In the more immediate term, you’re going to see software and problem-solving services from IBM designed specifically for schools, government, and not-for-profit social services agencies in the U.S. The technology is going to help reduce the amount of time service providers typically spend manually and painstakingly documenting their results, and enable them to spend more time directly meeting the needs of their clients.