Golf and technology: Managing the delicate balance between tradition and transformation

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Innovate or die.
Disrupt or be disrupted.
Only the paranoid survive.

These are among the many terrifying business mantras of the Internet Age. They are the panicky, unnerving expressions of a generation that has known change to be the only constant. And they serve to remind us that success is difficult to achieve, and even harder to sustain.

But like most proverbs, they are oversimplifications. And some might say misleading. The reality is much more nuanced. Much more complex. Because not all things need to be disrupted. Some things can — and should — endure. In fact, I would argue that for any business, the trick is identifying which aspects of their culture and operations should persist, and which should progress.

Nowhere is this more apparent than here, in Augusta, Georgia, where IBM is working to prepare the digital experience for the 80th edition of the Masters. As I walk the course, I’m struck by the beauty and storied tradition of this place, and the way history emanates from every green, every footbridge, and every piece of pine straw. Magnolia Lane, Rae’s Creek, and the Hogan Bridge; caddies in white jumpsuits, members in Green Jackets.

The Masters is a celebration of the enduring values of the game itself: respect, integrity, and natural beauty. From 500 years ago in Scotland, to a nursery in Georgia founded and developed by Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, those values have been carefully preserved. They are part of what makes golf great.

And yet progress lives alongside the preservation of this place. For 20 years now, IBM has worked with the Masters to deliver the digital experience of the tournament, allowing patrons around the world to experience the competition more fully, more intimately. In 1996, as Nick Faldo made up six strokes in the final round to win his third Green Jacket, IBM published the first Masters website. In the ensuing two decades, we introduced course cams, live streaming, the Masters app, and real-time ball tracking technology.

Along the way, the challenge has been to modernize the fan experience of the Masters, while protecting its brand and core values. To do this right requires a deep understanding of the character of an organization; an understanding of what can change, and what must endure. The folks in Augusta have always understood this, and so they use digital platforms to extend what is already most powerful about the Masters: the visual beauty of the course, the world-class talent of the field, and the rich history of the competition. From the Web site to the app, you will find some of the most advanced and innovative technology in the game, but still totally in keeping with the 500-year old values of the game.

I know a little something about this. As an IBMer, I have seen firsthand what it means to simultaneously preserve and progress. Like many other businesses today, we are faced with decisions every day on what to defend and what to disrupt. We assess ourselves honestly. We fight inertia. And when we change, we can change everything but our core values.

There are many examples of this tension between the known and the unknown, in business and in sports. Many pro golfers are constantly tweaking their swings. And when the time comes, some reinvent their swing completely. This process of self-assessment and iterative improvement is what it means to lead, and what it means to endure. And that is what the Masters has done for eight decades.

Disruption is a worthy goal, but only in the service of value and progress. Change is constant, perhaps. But it is not haphazard. It is not reckless. And it is not undertaken without forethought. So as you enjoy the beauty and pageantry of the Masters this week, remember the many difficult decisions that went into both preserving and progressing this tradition unlike any other.

Image source: Dan Briody

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