It had been raining for 20 days straight when, on May 20, 2010, Piotr Uszok, mayor of Katowice, Poland, kicked off a five-hour meeting with a group of IBMers. The mayor had been awake most of the night. His city was flooding. But he insisted that the meeting was too important to delay.
The IBMers who had made the trip to Katowice hailed from the company’s IBM Service Corps initiative, which comprises small teams of high-performing employees tasked with helping communities develop sustainable economic solutions at the cross-section of business, technology and society. A mix of corporate responsibility, leadership training and process innovation, IBM Service Corps aims to confer great benefits on cities like Katowice — and the company itself.
During the assembly, the IBM team presented ideas for how the city could compete more successfully in the global economy — from recommendations about how to improve transportation services to proposals for city promotion and engaging the private sector in city planning. A day later, Uszok’s previous impression of IBM as strictly a computing company had changed. “We have seen the other face of IBM,” he said, which is concerned “with solving the problems of our contemporary world.”
The IBM Service Corps launched in 2008 as part of IBM’s Global Citizen’s Portfolio: a collection of policy and program initiatives to help IBMers become more effective professionals and global citizens. Modeled in part on the Peace Corps, the IBM Service Corps aims to impart skills and expertise to enable employees to succeed as leaders on a global stage — as well as gain experience working with various communities on economic development. They tackle issues ranging from entrepreneurship, transportation and education to government services, healthcare and disaster recovery.
In the program’s first year, IBM sent a small team to Ghana to explore ways for local businesses to engage with communities, markets and each other. This included providing training and technology solutions to help a network of Ghanaian enterprises scale their businesses. Soon after, teams were dispatched to the Philippines, Romania, Tanzania and Vietnam. The structure of the engagements has remained more or less consistent regardless of location. Teams spend three months researching a project and preparing for their time in the field; a month on site, working directly with the community; and two months in post-service work back at IBM, in order to share experiences with peers and monitor project development from afar.
In 2010, IBM extended the Corps’ reach through its Executive Service Corps (ESC) program, which deployed executives on more advanced engagements, such as the one in Katowice. That same year, IBM sent teams of ESC-level IBMers to 100 cities in both emerging and mature markets, as part of the newly introduced Smarter Cities initiative. By 2013, more than 2,400 IBMers had served with the Corps, participating in 850 projects with an estimated global impact on 140,000 individuals.
By then, IBM had reached the top of The Civic 50 list, a ranking of America’s most community-minded businesses, published by Businessweek. IBM Service Corps had also become a model for companies wishing to build their own programs. Dow Corning, FedEx, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Novartis all launched similar initiatives. As Peter Scher, an executive vice president at JPMorgan, remarked, “IBM has been a leader in demonstrating the impact that the private sector can [have] in contributing talent and expertise to our communities.”
The IBM Service Corps was hardly IBM’s first philanthropic effort. Over the years the company has donated significant amounts of technology and pledged millions of dollars and countless personnel hours to educational institutions and programs around the globe. But the Corps brought a new level of strategy to philanthropy by combining the company’s long-standing mission to be a good corporate citizen with its business acumen and global footprint.
For countless communities around the world, IBM Service Corps has delivered tangible IT and business improvements and, more broadly, a blueprint for progress. It represents an opportunity for the IBMers involved in such initiatives to expose themselves to new types of business problems while increasing their cultural literacy. Many find it to be a life-changing experience and an inspiration to deepen their societal engagement.
IBM also receives a significant return on its investment. IBM Service Corps projects inevitably deliver valuable leadership experience to participants as well as insights into new markets. “It’s not just philanthropy,” explained Stanley Litow, former IBM vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs. “It’s leadership development and business development, and it helps build economic development in the emerging world.”
Over the years, the IBM Service Corps’ impact has increased — along with its influence. In 2015, for instance, the program announced a historic partnership with the Peace Corps. Launched in three countries, the joint initiative aimed to combine the Peace Corps’ grassroots network with IBM’s multinational reach to tackle some of the globe’s most critical projects. Meanwhile, the IBM Service Corps has also been recognized as one of the world’s best community and economic development initiatives, and has become a subject of study at business and management schools.
As of 2022, more than 4,000 IBMers have been involved in over 1,500 IBM Service Corps projects in 40 countries, producing a commercial value estimated at over USD 100 million. Projects have ranged from collaborating with Ghanaian health officials and researchers to reduce mother-to-child HIV transmission, to working with conservation organizations to develop environmental management strategies in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, with a focus on creating economic opportunities for the local communities. And the work of the Corps continues to this day.
“Peace Corps and IBM share a common dedication to problem-solving in a way that makes a measurable impact in the world,” said Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet in 2015, “whether it is reinventing information and revolutionizing technology or helping communities address pressing needs at the last mile of development.”
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