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A Case for Change at IBM

IBM Corporation has not been immune to the phenomenon described so far in this chapter. However, by better understanding client needs, IBM has been able to develop a career framework, a structure that defines the capabilities employees need to provide value to their clients. This framework is supported by a career development process that provides guidance to employees on how to advance in their careers. But this did not happen overnight. In fact, it was only after multiple studies and an evolution of interventions over a period of years that IBM was able to achieve this goal.

The Transformation Begins

Internal surveys from 2003–2004 showed that some IBM employees felt they were not given an opportunity to improve their skills. Additionally, exit surveys revealed that perceived lack of career growth was one of the prime reasons employees voluntarily left the business. In 2004, IBM conducted a research project designed to better understand the challenges facing employees around their career development. Discussions with hundreds of IBM employees and managers, HR executives, review of existing IBM data such as exit surveys, and external benchmarking studies were reviewed. Additionally, input was obtained from an online global event called WorldJam, whereby thousands of IBM employees, managers, and executives collaborated for 72 hours and engaged in discussions on management effectiveness, workplace environment, and other matters. Collectively, input from these various studies and discussions led to a conclusion that IBM had a need for a “new day” in developing its people. These various studies pointed to five key themes that reflected the obstacles and critical success factors:11

  • Career development is not viewed as a business priority.
  • Challenging work assignments and opportunities are critical to employee development.
  • Development tools are disconnected and their value to the employee is not clear.
  • Career and expertise development needs to be aligned with the business strategy.
  • Career development is about human interaction.

The study uncovered a huge gap between the corporate view of career development and the employee experience. Employees felt that the business focus on attaining short-term results consistently compromised development plans and activities. Furthermore, findings suggested that while many best-of-breed development resources were already available in IBM, the key challenge was that of execution. The underlying conclusion was that business priorities get in the way of development. While management can improve development practices and continue to create award-winning learning programs, in the end, none of it will make any difference unless career development becomes a business priority and employees have the time and opportunity to stretch their skills and learn new ones.

This conclusion was later validated by a 2005 study, sponsored by senior executives. The objective of this study was to recommend a strategy and implementation plan for professional development that would help IBM achieve growth and innovation and help employees attain career growth and success in a fast-changing business environment.

Based on these research findings, IBM put forth a call to action for a new day for career development that would span several years of iterative development and implementation. The new day would require redefining the roles of the employee, manager, and IBM in developing its employees and would focus the company’s efforts on ensuring effective execution of development best practices. The overarching goal of the new day was to align IBM’s values and business agenda with the passion of its great workforce to provide value to the client. It was about responding to employees’ hunger to make a difference, to feel connected to IBM, to be recognized for their contributions, and to realize their potential. An engaged, challenged, and expert workforce would be the key to IBM’s growth and innovation.

Career Programs Initiated

The following represent some of the programs IBM put into place from 2005 through 2007 as part of the first phase of this transformation of career development:

  • An overhaul to the content of the new employee orientation program that had been put in place two years earlier that consisted of a 2-day classroom training and subsequent e-learning activities.
  • Introduction to a one-day career event, a highly interactive, live event designed to help IBM employees learn about resources and tools they can use to grow their skills and create an engaging and energetic working experience for themselves today and into the future
  • Introduction of a formal learning program that offers employees the ability to explore and participate in short-term, experienced-based learning activities available outside of the formal classroom or e-learning. It is about finding the best alternatives for personal career growth and development and then creating the optimal solution.
  • Revitalization of mentoring as a way to develop skills and career development of employees.
  • Developing a “one-stop-shop” website that would become the trusted source for all career development guidance and personalized learning recommendations.

Between the time the initial analysis began in 2004 through 2007, when these programs were fully deployed and functioning, IBM enjoyed a six-point gain in employee satisfaction on a periodic survey that asked employees about their satisfaction with their ability to improve their skills at IBM. While many factors could contribute to this gain, surely the significant career development programs put in place by management would have had a positive impact on employee perception—and reality.

In 2006, an IBM study conducted with clients and business partners to better understand how the company could better serve its clients revealed a need to ensure IBM employees have the appropriate skills required to provide value to the client. One of the major outcomes of this study was the need for a common career framework that could benefit all IBM employees. As a result, in 2007, IBM embarked upon an initiative to create an enterprise-wide career framework that would enable career advancement for employees. At the time of this writing, the career framework is in the process of being implemented across IBM in a phased deployment that will take several years to complete. It will ultimately support the majority of job roles across the company. This is described later in this chapter and at length in Chapter 6, “Building Employee and Organizational Capability.”

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