Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Birthday Big Blue

On June 16th, IBM turned 100. Yes, 100 years old. That is a colossal achievement by any standards. As with living beings, so with corporations - the primary motive, and a great achievement,  is survival. Time to bring out the cake and sing Happy Birthday.

The company started life in 1911 as Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation, formed by a merger of three small companies. A decade or so later it changed its name to a more catchy International Business Machines, the name by which it is still known. And over the decades it has weathered many a storm, made many a significant achievement and today, even at a ripe old age, is strong, robust and dancing. That is has done so in the field of information technology, where the pace of change is far more rapid than in other sectors, adds a special gloss to the achievement.

Look at the inventions it has to its credit. The punch clock to record time, the electric tabulating machine, the ATM, the floppy disk, the hard disk, the magnetic stripe card, the barcode system, the relational database, the DRAM .......... Its employees have won five Nobel Prizes. It helped put man on the moon.

It has had towering business leaders. None bigger than Thomas J Watson Sr, who was President of the company for 40 years ,  between 1914 and 1956. A legend, it was he who created IBM. And in the 1990s, when it was tottering and seemed about to fall, it turned to a biscuit king - Lou Gerstner to transform it into a services company.

It was one of the earliest companies to adopt HR practices, that we would consider common place today but were positively revolutionary for those times. Group insurance in 1934, paid leave in 1937, a training centre in 1933. 18 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the US, it recruited its first black salesman.

Its had troubled times too. Early on, it didn't move away from punched cards and almost died. Another near death experience was when it lost the battle for the PC operating system to Microsoft. In the 90s , until Lou Gerstner pulled it into services, it was stuck on being a hardware company. But each time, it survived and came bouncing back. That's the stuff of champions.

Today its back to its heyday. Its a colossus and in robust health. Its one of the largest companies in the world. And one of the most admired. Happy Birthday old girl. You deserve a toast and cheer, even from your competitors.