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Icons of Progress

Corporate Service Corps


It had been raining for 20 days straight when, on May 20, 2010, Piotr Uszok, the mayor of the industrial city of Katowice, Poland, kicked off a five-hour meeting with a group of IBMers. The mayor had been awake since 3 a.m., and parts of the city were flooded, but he insisted that the situation was under control. This meeting was too important to miss. The IBM team—drawn from around the world—was to present recommendations on how Katowice could compete more successfully in the global economy. One day later, the mayor explained that he had previously known IBM only as a leader in the computer field. Now, he said, “we have seen the other face of IBM, which is connected with solving the problems of our contemporary world.”

The IBMers who visited Katowice were participants in IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, through which the company disperses small teams of high-performing employees, for weeks at a time, to help communities around the world address economic and societal challenges. The mission of these teams combines corporate responsibility with leadership training and business development—representing a new integration of the company’s business and societal goals.

IBM launched the Corporate Service Corps in 2008 as an element of its Global Citizen’s Portfolio—a collection of policy and program innovations to help IBMers become effective twenty-first century global professionals and global citizens. In that regard, the Corps’ initial aim was to develop the skills and experience to succeed as a new generation of global leaders. By early 2011, 1000 IBMers had participated in 100 engagements in nearly 20 countries, including Vietnam, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, Brazil and Romania. They take on issues from local economic development, entrepreneurship, transportation and education, to government services, healthcare and disaster recovery.

That work roster suggests why the Corporate Service Corps represents not only cutting-edge career training but also a major advance in the practice of corporate social responsibility. The latter has come a long way over the past 100 years. A century ago, businesses answered only to their shareholders, and philanthropy was a personal (and primarily financial) matter for wealthy industrialists and their companies. However, over the course of the twentieth century, the most enlightened corporations came to see developing responsible relationships with society as an important element of how they defined themselves. Today, engaging with society has increasingly become an essential part of doing business, woven into every decision about how the organization operates.

Through its history, IBM has been a leader of this evolution. And over the past decade, IBM has pioneered new forms of social engagement—most importantly, through direct engagement of its technology and employees’ expertise to benefit society. Thus, it is not an accident that Corporate Service Corps (CSC) was modeled on the Peace Corps. “It’s not just philanthropy,” says Stanley Litow, IBM’s 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.”

The CSC creates value in three dimensions. For the communities, the result is tangible IT and business improvements, and a blueprint for progress. For the IBMers, working with colleagues, local citizens and officials from around the world, it’s an opportunity to hone their cultural and marketplace literacy. For many of them, it’s also a life-changing experience, inspiring them to deepen their societal engagement and even career direction. For IBM, the company gains experienced leaders, inspired employees, insights into new markets.

The idea for the program arose from IBM’s strategy to become a globally integrated enterprise. Like many multinational corporations, IBM used to provide overseas assignments for small numbers of executives, typically one- or two-year assignments. But that approach was not only expensive, its reach was limited and the skills it taught were traditional. The CSC idea is to instill truly global perspectives and leadership skills for less-structured, diverse business environments and cultures in a large number of people. An assessment of the program conducted by Christopher Marquis, a professor at Harvard Business School, found that it works. “These kinds of skills are increasingly important. As the world gets flatter the ability to manage across all of these cultural differences is going to be much more important,” says Marquis.

The CSC portfolio has broadened over the years. For instance, in 2010, IBM created a variant of the program, called the Corporate Service Corps Executive (CSCE), program to deploy more senior executives on more advanced engagements, such as the one in Katowice. The teams work with high-level city officials on critical economic development projects, with the aim of making metropolitan areas into world-class smarter cities. Initial projects included Ho Chi Minh City, Rio de Janeiro and Chengdu, China. Also in 2010, IBM launched the Smarter Cities Challenge. Over the next three years, it plans on dispatching teams of CSCE-level IBMers to 100 cities—half in emerging markets and half in developed ones.

The CSC concept is now spreading to other companies. Industrial giants Dow Corning, Novartis and FedEx are launching similar programs, and the US Agency for International Development in 2010 began collaborating with IBM to help smaller companies get involved. Just as the Peace Corps has inspired generations of Americans since it was launched in 1960, IBM believes the Corporate Service Corps has the potential to create a global movement among multinationals—producing widespread benefits for people, local economies and the planet.