As I See It: Blurred Vision
February 8, 2010 Victor Rozek
Sam Palmisano hasn’t changed much over the years. From his photos, IBM‘s president, chief executive officer, and chairman appears to be a slightly larger version of his former self–a middle-aged man with a round, boyish face and a soft body; a stranger to physical exertion. Granted, as an executive he isn’t paid to chop wood, but I was hoping for a little more mental exertion than was evident in his recent Newsweek column, The Future of the City.
Newsweek, after all, has some prestige, and when guest columnists are invited to contribute their thoughts, they usually put their best brain forward. But there was nothing in the article that couldn’t be found on IBM’s Web site or could not be gleamed from its ubiquitous “Smarter Planet” commercials. Of course, it’s even money that the chairman didn’t actually pen the piece himself, but he should at least have read it and recognized uninspiring when he saw it.
The short version of the chairman’s screed is (everybody sing): What the world needs now, is smarts, sweet smarts. OK, so it’s not revolutionary. How long have women been waiting for men to wise up? Alas, ignorance, like poor writing, will always be with us. Nonetheless, Palmisano wants IBM positioned to be the purveyor of smarts. His prescription for planetary ignorance is simple and–by happy coincidence–purchasable (which at least proves that Palmisano is smart). His solution: buy more computers and buy business expertise from Big Blue.
Forty years from now, says Palmisano, 70 percent of the human race will be living in cities. “We are adding the equivalent of seven New Yorks to the planet every year,” the chairman cautions: a dreadful prospect that would crush a lesser man but in which he sees only opportunity. So what are these new New Yorks to do? Gather data while ye may, says the chairman; then link everything to everything else, add a dash of advanced analytics, and look for useful information. Man, if only we had a device that could grind up all that data like a giant Cuisinart, and spit out a tall, frosty glass of good sense. Hey, wait a minute, we do.
Cities, armed with flotillas of (IBM) computers and legions of digital sensors “soon to number in the trillions,” will digitize, standardize, analyze. Palmisano envisions the creation of flawless infrastructures and efficient service delivery systems. We’ll find every last drop of oil; monitor pollution levels in our water supplies; give insurance companies instant access to all of our pre-existing conditions; identify the ignorant and provide them with individualized education; make the trains run on time (oops, didn’t somebody already do that?), and ease traffic congestion.
As a shining example of this brave, smart world, IBM proffers its “congestion management system” which, the chairman boasts, was able to “reduce traffic in Stockholm by 18 percent.” (LA residents may want to consider relocating.) How nice that must be for the Swedes who now have time in the morning to eat an additional serving of yummy, yummy lutefisk before setting off to work. But how much nicer to actually reduce the need for driving altogether, which, given the actual state of the world, seems like the more urgent goal.
That’s the trouble with IBM’s Get Smart campaign. Not that it doesn’t solve problems or create useful solutions. It does. But it often appears to solve the less important problem and, as a vision that aspires to be world-changing (which is how it is marketed), it seems somehow small. If, for example, as Palmisano warns, “car ownership in emerging markets is growing from less than one in ten people to one in three,” being worried about congestion rather than air pollution and climate change is like putting balm on a pimple and ignoring the patient’s melanoma.
Granted, improving transportation, healthcare, energy, and education are urgent and worthy goals. But it is precisely because IBM has been the pre-eminent information technology company for so long that I expect something more; some guiding vision that is larger than the sum of its global marketing.
If IBM is interested, there is a recent precedent.
Google‘s adoption (however tenuous) of “Don’t Be Evil” as its central business rule was an extraordinary and evolutionary leap in corporate visioning. Like a doctor’s oath to “first do no harm,” it provides a moral and ethical basis for all the activities undertaken in Google’s name. It doubtless served as the impetus for Google’s recent refusal to buckle under to China’s demands for state censorship of its search engine–a welcome reversal of its previous stance. In that moment it was willing to sacrifice profit for principle; an uncommon occurrence in today’s business climate. As a vision it is simple yet compelling; a direct, unambiguous statement of intention, and I felt excited when I first read it–a feeling that was lacking when I read The Future of the City. Efficiency and competitiveness are necessary, like cleaning the tub, but ultimately they’re not very compelling. After all, what technology provider does not promise efficiency and a competitive edge? In contrast, the commitment to do no evil encapsulates the essence of leadership, which is creating the kind of world to which people want to belong. A company that operated from that conviction could be trusted.
In contrast, IBM sometimes appears to be working at cross purposes. In 2005, IBM created the world’s most powerful computer, not in the service of a smarter planet, but for nuclear weapons testing: a paradox of applying intelligence in support of suicidal behavior. The irony is that even as IBM is working to make cities smarter, it is also contributing to the creation of weapons capable of destroying those very same cities. More recently the company has moved into the intelligence and homeland security sectors, which no doubt includes inventing new ways of spying and collecting data on the people who will be inhabiting tomorrow’s smart cities. The line between good and evil appear blurred, and purely dependant on context. It’s like reforming healthcare by forcing people to buy health insurance–the hypocrisy undermines the effort.
A world with trillions of data-gathering digital devices is not necessarily a desirable world. We’re drowning in data now, but at what price, and has it really made us smarter? Efficiency and prosperity are high values and IBM’s contributions to them should not be discounted. Yet even Americans, the children of prosperity, long for visionary leadership. IBM’s work will be unfinished if the world it creates is efficient but uninspiring, dependable but dull, prosperous but soulless–just like the vision that created it.
The greater the mind, the larger and more compelling the vision. IBM is seeded with tens of thousands of great minds, and I can’t help but wonder if injecting additional smarts into existing processes is the pinnacle of their collective aspiration. Where’s the grand, visionary leap? What’s the inspiration behind collaborating to create a smarter planet? If maintaining an honest, uncensored search engine is the practical result of “Don’t Be Evil,” what expansive vision drives the quest for a smarter planet?
“Make no little plans,” said architect Daniel Burnham. “They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans. Aim high in hope and work. Remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die.”
There is a vital difference between smart and wise, successful and great, influential and world changing. But the first requirement for those aspiring to do great deeds in service of a better world is wisdom. IBM, because of its size, its resources, and most of all, its people, is in the unique position to move from smart to wise.
Toward that end, I would love to see Sam Palmisano take another crack at that article.