Peter G. Keen
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Oh dear. I really looked forward to this book. I worked as a researcher, management educator, writer and consultant with IBM for almost fifty years. It funded much of my best work, many of my closest friends of twenty years are ex-IBMers, and up till the 1990s IBM was at very center - not always positively - of just about every area of thought leadership in the IT field, industry competition and innovation, management best practice, and sheer adventure.
This book is just a flat piece of amiable corporate puffery. It is a dutiful selective journey down memory lane that occasionally jazzes up the company stuff with the Bigger Picture - Information! Communication! Knowledge! The Global Whatever. It's flat and often very misleading about IBM itself, the industry, the technology and the competitive innovations that led to the rise and erosion of so many firms. It omits or jumps over so much that it makes the story about as exciting as, say, a commissioned History of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving.
For anyone interested in the history of the IT field, this is close to a zero star work. It mispresents so many key forces and events. There is barely a mention except as names of Gene Amdahl, DEC, Ethernet, Wang, SNA, EBDIC, or client/server. Microsoft gets one sentence on PC-DOS and there is nothing about how Gates so skillfully used IBM to fund his ability to compete with IBM. The proprietary/open standards/plug compatibility battles that shaped the industry are patchily covered and in some instances what is presented is way off base - examples are LANs, where token ring versus Ethernet is skipped over and Novell not even mentioned. The paragraph or so on virtualization and its direct causal link to cloud computing could hardly be more misguiding. The book is extraordinarily selective in its narrating the evolution of ARPANET, the Internet and TCP/IP. It is all so tidy, flat and bland. It's reporting rather than analysis and it makes an exciting company and exciting times come across as very boring.
The puffery about the company itself is straight corporate credo. There is no discussion anywhere of the most distinctive element of IBM's management innovation: the professionalization of the sales force, the evolution of an entirely new relationship foundation with customers, the central role of its CEs and SEs (Customer and Systems Engineers), its massive investment in executive education which in essence created the new management tradition of the CIO and drove the breaking open of the Data Processing Department to its becoming the Information Systems organization. At its peak, IBM's sales teams had an entrée to the Executive Boardroom that no other vendor could match and an old truism was that no head of IS would ever get fired by recommending IBM. Its incentive systems reinforced the integrity of the sales and marketing superbly, including commissions being retroactively repaid by the sales rep if a customer ended a lease or returned a machine.
The leadership issues in IBM are reduced to dutiful eulogies of Tom Watson junior, C. Vincent Learson and the post-decline rebuilders of IBM, Lou Gerstner and Sam Palisano. John Akers and John Opel appear in guest sentences. Some of the most interesting executives are ignored: Vladavsky-Berger, whose advocacy of open systems and Linux reversed IBM's entire historical drift and played a major role in leveraging Gerstner's rescue of a close to dying colossus, Ellen Hancock (who fought TCP/IP to the hilt), Akers who did to IBM what Roger Smith did in GM, paralyzing it by imposing a financial bureaucracy and management by numbers that undermined its entire sales and marketing strengths, and Ken Iverson to name just a few pivotal figures. It's all as if a history of Apple mentioned that Steve Jobs was at one time its CEO and that Steve Wozniak did some programming for it. The book is so lifeless.
The IBM I knew was so vital, often awful to deal with, rigid, packed with immensely talented people of true integrity, saved from itself again and again by a loyal underground who would risk their careers to prevent an innovation being killed off, and a pace-setter that it was a privilege to work with. None of this comes across in the book which is an opposite in coverage, insight and evocation to its subtitle "The Ideas That Shaped a Century and A Company."
This book's publication, by IBM Press, was timed to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording (C-T-R) Company by financier Charles Flint on June 18, 1911. Thomas Watson Sr. joined C-T-R in 1914, the company's name was changed to International Business Machines in 1924, and the rest is history. Indeed, that's what this book is--a history of the events surrounding and accompanying IBM, written by three journalists IBM "reached out to," who have covered IBM and its industry for a number of years. Basically, this book chronicles IBM's technical and management development and its many accomplishments over the years. If you're a dedicated IBMer, this book should make you proud. If you've been an IBM critic over the years, you should look elsewhere for ammunition, because you won't find much here. If you are a technology layperson with an interest in the company and its impact, I think you'll enjoy these 320-plus pages of IBM's story.
The book is well-written and easy to read. The three authors have backgrounds writing for publications like Business Week, USA Today, Fortune and Wired, so there's no overly technical stuff. As you'd expect to see in magazines such as these, there are plenty of photos, some of which are bound to bring back memories for many readers: (very) old computers, "IBM cards," big tape drives, typewriters, early PCs, etc.
There is a short forward written by Sam Palmisano, the current chairman and CEO, and then the book is broken into three parts corresponding to the three authors. Although others may come to a different conclusion, I found the first part, by Kevin Maney, to be the most interesting. Maney develops the stories associated with much of IBM's advancement of information processing technology. He groups his part of the book into six categories:
1. Sensing: The mechanisms by which information gets into computers.
2. Memory: The way computers store and access information. Anyone past puberty has seen enormous strides in this area.
3. Processing: The core speed and capabilities of computers. Ditto on the enormous strides.
4. Logic: The software and languages computers use. Anyone remember ALGOL? Or what FORTRAN stood for?
5. Connecting: The ways computers communicate with us (and other machines).
6. Architecture: The ways advances come together to create new systems.
Again, I found Maney's part of the book the most interesting. On the other hand, if I were a business major, I think I might have preferred Steve Hamm's part, "Reinventing the Modern Corporation," because Hamm develops the long and interesting story about IBM's intentional creation of a major business culture. If you know anything about this company, you know what I mean. Hamm address topics like:
1. How does a company define and manage itself?
2. How does an organization create value?
3. How does an organization operate in a global economy?
4. How does an organization engage with society?
Okay, now the third and last part of the book, by Jeffrey O'Brien. If I were a long-time, loyal IBMer, this might be my favorite part of the book. O'Brien covers numerous examples of how IBM has affected the world we live in. This part of the book reminds me of all those "I'm an IBMer" commercials you see on TV nowadays. To be fair, IBM has done a lot, and it's no surprise that the company wants to celebrate (through this book) some of its accomplishments.
In short, this book is both an excellent history and a celebration of the successes of one of the most influential companies in history. If you want to know more--given an understanding of the book's objectives--then it certainly merits your consideration.