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Icons of Progress

A Commitment to Employee Education

IBM100 A Commitment to Employee Education iconic mark

Even in the difficult early years of IBM, from 1916 to 1922, when founder Thomas Watson Sr. needed bank loans to cover the payroll, the company found a way to fund employee education. Watson clearly saw the shortest path to success for IBM was through the success of IBM employees.

As Harvard University’s Richard Tedlow said in his book, The Watson Dynasty, “Watson was not only your boss, he was your coach.” That philosophy became part of IBM’s DNA. It built an employee and customer education system that other companies and even national governments continue to emulate.

IBM graduated its first sales training class of 20 men in 1916, when the company was still called C-T-R. That same year, Watson Sr. appointed the first manager of education. By 1918, more than 70 managers were enrolled in the first executive training program.

These were the first of hundreds of education and training programs for employees, customers and executives that would eventually become a touchstone of IBM’s culture.

Today IBM spends over US$574 million annually on its internal training and development program, considered one of the world’s largest. Each year, IBM employees log more than 28.6 million hours in training and education, including traditional and non-traditional learning. Some of these programs form the core of IBM ® Learning Solutions that are sold to clients as part of the Smarter Planet and Smarter Cities initiatives.

Industry professionals in employee education and training, such as the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) and Leadership Excellence Magazine, ranked IBM education in 2010 as one of the best in the world. IBM’s education programs were cited for “best in building talent, best in learning program results, best in use of virtual learning, and best in leadership development.”

Education at IBM today appropriately ranks as one of the company’s most important products. “It used to be that we sold products with services attached,” said Diane Gherson, vice president of IBM Talent. “Now the knowledge and skills of the IBMer have become what we deliver to clients."

Watson Sr. apparently saw that coming. To him, education wasn’t an end in itself. He saw it as a business tool for growing his company. Fond of saying, “A businessman must be a teacher first,” he set out to make education one of the principal pillars upon which he built C-T-R into a computing industry pioneer and an international competitor.

By the 1930s, IBM was holding regularly scheduled classes for customer engineers, sales trainees, plant supervisors, first line managers and executives. Dedicated training schools had been built at Endicott and Poughkeepsie, and would soon appear at other US sites—and eventually around the world. Courses for customers became regularly scheduled events by 1929. One early course featured 150 hours of learning “new ways to utilize electric and electronic accounting machines to exchange information on widely divergent installations.”

Encouraged by Watson Sr. and his executive team, employees often formed their own study groups. One, known as the Owl Club, allowed employees to study any subject they wanted at company expense. Such programs evolved into adult learning classes, and eventually into grants for employees to pursue college credits and degrees.

Watson Sr. was one of the first major industrialists to open the same doors for women as for men. Four women from C-T-R attended the 1918 class on the “mechanics and applications of punched card technology.” And in 1929, IBM employee Virginia Likenhoker organized the company’s first customer training school.

By the early 1950s, IBM had 130 full-time instructors on the payroll, not counting hundreds of company specialists who regularly took time off from their jobs to teach courses for employees or customers.

Education had become so pervasive that when IBM’s San Jose plant opened in 1943, the local Mercury Herald said, “IBM is not just another industrial plant. IBM is a leader in the social and educational development of its people and of the communities in which it becomes established.”

In 1959, IBM opened the European Education Center in Blaricum, Holland. This was followed by a center in Japan in 1962 and in Nigeria in 1965. By the mid-1960s, IBM was conducting regularly scheduled formal training and classes for employees and customers in 29 US cities and plant sites, and in 43 countries. IBM sales trainees had to complete a daunting 18-month course before calling on a customer, and senior executives from customer companies, including state governors, were attending special courses on the concept of computing.

Today, industry specialists around the world in IBM Global Business Services use an array of e-learning tools—including podcasts and Twitter—customer on-site classes, and IBM conferences and classrooms to educate customers on everything from the use of social media and cloud computing, to how to build a smarter rail system. And IBM employees worldwide take advantage of their networked community to draw upon each other’s skills day and night to solve customer problems and develop the capabilities clients value most.

IBM has long practiced the art and the science of developing the world’s best business and technology professionals. To help IBMers better understand what is expected of them, by the company, and the world, IBM defined nine “IBM Competencies.” These include a varied set of capabilities, such as the ability to think across cultures and systems.

To ensure IBM develops IBMers to their fullest potential, IBM instituted a global integrated leadership management process for identifying, assessing, developing and placing high-performing, high-potential leaders, at all levels, across the business. One of IBM’s most well-known programs is Basic Blue for IBM Leaders, which focuses on role playing and developing the emotional intelligence and coaching skills expected of an IBM manager.

IBM incorporates hands-on training into employee education. Blue Opportunities provides experience-based development opportunities, such as job rotations, to enhance IBMers’ careers regardless of geography. Participants commit as little as a few hours to several months to complete project-based initiatives that further their career goals. IBM’s sequence of development opportunities from emerging leaders to the most senior executives position IBM to grow the skills required for the workforce of the next century.


Selected team members who contributed to this Icon of Progress:

  • Thomas J. Watson Sr. IBM CEO, president and chairman
  • Anne Van Vechten Secretary of education for the women’s division at IBM (1935)
  • Michael Supa Creator of first training programs for IBMers with disabilities (1942)
  • Diane Gherson Vice president, IBM Talent
  • Tom Vines Vice president, IBM Business and Technical Leadership
  • Frank Persico Vice president, Workforce Learning and Development
  • Steve Bartomioli Director, Leadership Development Programs