The art and science of transformation

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Transformation is not the same as change. The latter, by definition, is fleeting; the former, lasting. Change is something that happens to you, a wave that you may or may not catch. Transformation is something you build through sustained effort. It is driven by the key secular shifts of the era, and it leaves in its wake not just ripples, but lasting structures.

The topic of transformation is much on our minds this year, as IBM turns 105. Ours is the only company in our industry to have reinvented itself through every era of technology — and we know the ability to do that rests not in any product or strategy, or even how we lead the company. It comes, instead, from how we define IBM.

This is an enterprise that simultaneously creates the most advanced technology and applies it to solve the most important challenges facing business and society.

That’s simple to say, but enormously challenging to accomplish, because both dimensions — call them the art and the science of transformation — are inherently dynamic. Each requires constant re-examination, re-affirmation, re-invention and contemporization.

At one time, “high tech” was punched card tabulators, vacuum-tube calculators, the mainframe, the PC. Today, it includes cloud platforms. Most importantly, it means a revolutionary new technology called cognitive computing, whose most well-known manifestation is our breakthrough IBM Watson™ system. Cognitive systems can ingest vast new flows of data. They can form hypotheses. And unlike any technology before them, they learn — in fact, they never stop learning. Their spectrum of capabilities includes, but goes far beyond, “artificial intelligence.” And contrary to what we see in pop culture, they are not about man vs. machine. Rather, they are about man plus machine — augmenting human intelligence and enhancing experts’ decision making through new kinds of human-computer collaboration.

The same commitment to continuous transformation that leads us to invent a Watson also shapes the role we play in society. In a world best understood as a system of complex systems — natural, economic, societal, cultural — we do not believe that checkbook philanthropy or short-term interventions make an enduring impact. Instead, we seek to establish new institutional forms and to engage broadly in ways that drive sustainable progress.

You see this in innovations that are transforming education at a societal, even global scale — from P-TECH, which is reinventing high school and dramatically improving college completion rates; to Teacher Advisor, Powered by IBM Watson, which will use cognitive computing to support teachers in improving teaching and student achievement. You see it in environmental innovations like Green Horizons that offer replicable ways to manage entire cities for pollution control. You see it in the use of cloud and mobile technologies to create wholly new approaches to disaster response — spanning weather, pandemics or other natural or man-made crises. You see it in Impact Grants supporting cognitive solutions, such as one in Shenzhen, China, in partnership with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. You see it in On Demand Community, a radical reimagining of volunteerism through which more than 280,000 IBMers have engaged in improving their communities.

You also see it in new models of global citizen engagement such as our trailblazing Corporate Service Corps and Smarter Cities Challenge® — and their newest offshoot, IBM Health Corps, which is sending interdisciplinary teams of IBMers into communities around the world to expand access to healthcare. Importantly, each team will have a notable new member — Watson — which will not only assist IBMers and their local partners with individual projects, but will also, as a learning system, become an increasingly expert resource on community health — the “last mile” of global healthcare.

This distinctive approach to structural transformation also shapes IBM’s long-standing commitment to policies of equal opportunity, fairness and diversity — from our stand against segregation in the 1950s, to our pioneering protection of employees’ genetic privacy, to our staunch defense of our clients’ data against government intrusions and of LGBT IBMers’ rights against regressive laws.

Finally, continuous transformation means always rethinking what it means to be a modern business, while remaining true to who you are. That is why we are training our global workforce in Agile methods and design thinking; infusing cognitive and cloud into our own operations; investing more than $1 billion to modernize and create new workspaces and to develop new skills; and rethinking everything from performance management to how we design and develop products and services.

In the end, systemic transformation is the core responsibility of every IBM CEO, and every generation of IBMers. It requires both a long view of history and a systemic and collaborative approach, spanning business, government and civil society. And it is grounded in clarity on what must change and what must endure. This is never-ending work — and it is why generation after generation of the world’s most brilliant women and men come here. They are IBMers because they seek to make not just a living, but a difference.

Virginia M. Rometty
Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer