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With his belief in the power of learning, Thomas J. Watson Sr. instilled in IBM a passion for education that shapes its employees and culture to this day
A classroom at the Columbia Lab in 1946. Men in suits and shirtsleeves sitting in desks focus on a man at a chalkboard.

Standing before a small brick building in Endicott, New York, in 1915, Thomas J. Watson Sr. delivered a speech to 235 employees of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (C-T-R). With a piece of chalk and a blackboard, he outlined one of his theories of education. All employees, he said — whether in sales, service or management — were equals. Titles were irrelevant. Succeeding in any role, and in business in general, was contingent upon the desire to develop and to learn.

During his long tenure as the leader of the company that would become IBM, Watson grew ever more convinced of the importance of education. He harnessed it as an economic vehicle to improve the efficiency and engagement of his workforce, and more broadly to expand the cultural interest and awareness of his charges. Known for his tendency to liken meetings to classrooms, Watson was once described by a foreign education expert as “not so much a great executive as a great teacher, a great educator.”

In 1916, C-T-R named its first manager of the Education Department and instituted a series of instructional sessions on the company's time-recording machines, on sales techniques, and for executive training. By 1917, these offerings had expanded to clients, with classes on installing and maintaining C-T-R equipment. Over the years, this emphasis on education would expand into sprawling customer training courses, a global education system for employees and their families, partnerships with universities, virtual classrooms and beyond.

Watson spearheaded a culture in which learning is not only supported and encouraged but also celebrated and prioritized. The company has steadfastly followed his lead ever since.

IBM’s early education initiatives
‘Be a teacher first’

As a self-taught entrepreneur, Watson’s intrinsic drive to learn shaped his life and career. “Education is a subject that I am more interested in than anything else,” he once said, “because I learned very early in my business career that it was necessary for me to gain more knowledge than I possessed. I did not have to speculate long before concluding that to gain that knowledge it would be necessary for me to study.”

IBM followed with a series of training courses with more options for voluntary and continued education, including the Study Club in 1924, and the Owl Club a few years later. It began as a way to refresh employees on the applications of IBM machines but soon evolved into classes of general interest. Watson intended for the Owl Club to foster employee curiosity and social bonds. He believed that building a business required first building the aptitude of the workforce.

“In this day and age, education is the one master key we can depend on to open the door to future progress,” Watson said in 1930. “The future of the International Business Machines Corporation, and of every person connected with the company, depends not upon the amount of time we spend in study; but upon what we learn and upon our ability to transfer our knowledge to newcomers in the business so that they may keep step with the pace of IBM — a pace which is constantly increasing!”

Before long, Watson’s approach to education became rooted in all aspects of IBM operations and management. Henry W. Limper was appointed IBM’s first secretary of education in 1931. Two years later, the company opened its first full-time education center, known as the Endicott Schoolhouse. In 1935, Anne Van Vechten became IBM’s first secretary of education for women and the company founded THINK Magazine, a journal to bring stories on culture, politics, business and international affairs to IBMers and other interested readers across the nation.

By 1954, more than 26,000 men and women in management had passed through executive trainings in Endicott, and the IBM Department of Education was servicing more than 50,000 students per year. Watson Sr. died in 1956, but his focus on learning lived on among the company’s core values.

In this day and age, education is the one master key we can depend on to open the door to future progress Thomas J. Watson Sr. IBM’s first CEO
Continuing education
After Watson Sr.

Under Thomas J. Watson Jr.’s leadership, education remained a top priority. In 1958, IBM introduced the Tuition Refund Program and the Graduate Study Program. Under these initiatives, IBMers seeking degrees of any kind — whether for work or for a first diploma — were invited to apply for a refund of 75% of tuition and school fees.

Over the next few decades, the company’s education programs expanded into new terrain. In 1959, IBM opened the European Education Center in the Netherlands, followed by similar centers in Japan in 1962, and Nigeria in 1965. By 1974, there were 47 education centers for IBMers and customers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, as well as six international schools for employees out of the IBM campus in La Hulpe, Belgium.

In 1980, the company introduced the Management Development Center, now known as the Gerstner Learning Center, a centralized campus completely devoted to employee and client education. By 1988, the company operated 100 international education centers with a collective staff of more than 7,000 around the globe. That year, an estimated 200,000 employees took self-taught courses, and some 600,000 customers attended IBM classes. “On any given business day, the worldwide IBM education system has up to 18,000 people in class or working on self-study courses,” wrote Chuck Boyer, the former editor of THINK, in 1988. “The way education professionals like to track it, that amounts to about 5 million students a year.”

IBM continues to advance education through a broad offering of programs and tools. In 2015, the company launched the IBM Leadership Academy: an open resource for all IBMers interested in developing their goals and leadership skills via an array of specialized tools and resources, featuring teachings from IBM leaders as well as other experts. Even more recently, IBM announced Your Learning, a cutting-edge, AI-driven online platform designed to help IBMers find the resources and training to attain new skills and certifications.

As IBM’s Chief Human Resources officer Nickle LaMoreaux explained to the consulting firm Gallup in an early 2021 interview, “I believe that every organization has to become a learning organization and every company is a tech company. ... It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in; the demand for skills changes at such a rapid pace, your organization has to keep learning. ... So whether the learning is internal or external, tech or nontech, you have to have a continuous learning mindset or you’ll get stale.”

Watson Sr. once famously said, “There is no saturation point in education.” The wisdom of that insight carried IBM to great heights and continues to pervade the company’s values, beliefs and practices to this day.

There is no saturation point in education Thomas J. Watson Sr. IBM’s first CEO
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