COMMON Finds Its Happy Spot With IBM i And Disneyland
May 14, 2012 Alex Woodie
The IBM i world descended upon the Happiest Place on Earth last week for the COMMON 2012 User Conference and Expo. Aside from a major malfunction in Disneyland’s IT system that saw the point of sale system go down across the entire property for multiple days, the show went off without a hitch. An estimated 700 paying attendees found themselves comfortably ensconced in IBM i education, 75 software vendors were content with attendees’ interest in their wares, and IBM eagerly showed off the awesomeness of its new PureSystems gear.
The four-day IBM i extravaganza kicked off with the opening session last Sunday. Pete Massiello, the outgoing COMMON president, emceed the event before about 500 to 600 people in a room much smaller than past opening sessions, and was as upbeat and positive as usual. “Our future is bright,” Massiello said, referencing the smash-hit Timbuk3 song from 1986, My Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades. “COMMON is 52 years old and going strong,” he said.
COMMON has done an admirable job staying relevant despite a shrinking IBM i installed base and the memories of past COMMON events that would draw upward of 4,000 attendees. The organization’s estimated total attendance (paying attendees plus vendors and IBM) at last week’s show at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California, was 1,200, about the same as last year’s show in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The rambunctious, mad old days are gone, and have been replaced with an older, more sober, and arguably wiser crowd. And while attendees did hear from the new IBM executive in charge of their platform, Power Systems general manager Colin Parris, and did hear an informative keynote delivered by Walt Disney Institute executive Bruce Kimbrell, there was a certain spice missing in this year’s event. It could be the lack of a sound-off during the opening session–there was a question and answer session that was done separately on Sunday morning ahead of the opening session. But in the past, IBM executives would get peppered with questions and complaints from their customers in front of everyone. Without public interaction during the opening session, the result was a staged atmosphere.
Massiello did his best to rescue everybody from the blandness by encouraging attendees to save the platform by Tweeting early and often. “It used to be that IBM was in charge of marketing,” he said. “That’s not the case anymore. We’re in charge of marketing. Social media is the difference. It’s a game changer. And we need to Tweet about everything. We can tell the world we’re running the best system in the world.”
The COMMON president didn’t let up. “Power Systems, IBM i, is the best secret at IBM, and we need to take control of this and let the world know what a great system we’re working on,” he said.
An Afternoon With Parris
Colin Parris recently took over running the Power Systems division as his former boss, Tom Rosamilia has moved up to a position in IBM HQ running strategy for new president and CEO, Ginni Rometty. It would be hard for Parris to be the kind of IBM i diehard that Massiello, or most of the people in the room, have been for years. But Parris did say IBM i was the “most exciting, most useful system platform that we have,” and that’s saying something.
Parris spent most of his time talking about the rapid growth of data, the problems that IT departments face, and how IBM’s addressing these challenges with its Smarter Computing initiative and the PureSystems line of servers that IBM announced last month and that ships on May 21.
The PureSystems use of patterns, automation, and system technology like live partition mobility (LPM), Virtual I/O Server (VIOS), and solid state disks (SSD) will allow users to get much time-to-value (TTV, presumably, but no one really says TTV) out of their PureSystems servers than existing server platforms, he said.
“The focus here is to drive these systems to 90 percent utilization, but do it in a secure manner. Because once you begin to do that. . . . the speed at which you can deploy new services times the value begins to get very, very high. You have very good time-to-value,” Parris said.
Parris said the automation built into the PureSystems line will help by doubling the system utilization, reducing licensing costs by 70 percent, cutting the management cost in half over three years, and cutting the system cost by 75 percent over three years.
What’s more, with PureSystems, IBM will significantly speed up the entire server lifecycle, from procurement to software installation to setup to go-live. “Why is it that 75 percent of [IT projects] are delayed?” Parris asked. With PureSystems, the entire server can be up and running in a matter of minutes, he said. And as far as security goes, “Out of box, there is no setup time associated with security, which is significant,” he said.
While he talked mostly about PureSytsems, Parris gave IBM i some love. “I want to make sure that. . . there’s a definitive view that IBM i is important to the IBM company.”
Parris also showed a slide of the IBM i roadmap, shown above (however blurrily) with two placeholders on the timeline before we get to IBM i Next, which is probably going to be called IBM i 8.1 and is probably going to ship in two years. The current TR4 release was to be the first version 8 release, but IBM is under pressure from its customers to reduce the frequency of big new versions and instead deliver new functionality through a greater number of smaller releases that don’t require a version upgrade and therefore a recertification for applications.
The Disney Way
Then Bruce Kimbrell, a member of Disney Institute’s West Coast operation, shared some history of the $41 billion company, some insight into its corporate makeup, and its training regimen for employees, which the Walt Disney Company famously dubs “cast members,” as if they’re all part of one big never-ending production (which in a way they are).
There is no luck involved in what Disney does at the theme-park level. It doesn’t just happen to have exceptionally clean parks, or happen to hire super-friendly people. In fact, those two words–cleanliness and friendliness, in that order–are the two most important concepts that Disney drills into the minds of its new recruits. Safety is the third most important attribute, and it comes first as you might expect.
At the corporate level, Disney borrowed from a framework-for-success developed by Harvard Business School. Disney’s framework whittles Harvard’s eight focus areas down to four: Leadership Excellence, Cast (employee) Excellence, Guest Satisfaction, and Financial Results and Repeat Business.
Simplicity and consistency are the key to repeating success, Kimbrell says. “When I share any great theme park secret about Disney with anyone, I tell them that the primary reason we are so successful is through what we define, through multiple key repeatable messages. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times,” he said.
It’s the job of the executive to set a clear vision for his employees that will inspire them, Kimbrell says. “We really believe in the power of story.” Kimbrell, who has written an internal training program called Walt Disney and You that’s aimed at re-connecting cast members with the ideals and founding principles of Walt Disney, had lots to share about Disney’s leadership.
For example, Walt Disney emphasized the continuous improvement process. He recalled a story about Walt Disney’s reaction to a presentation about a new Disneyland attraction made by one of the company’s top ride developers. The developer said the ride would be the “best.” “Walt said, ‘I never believed that word, best. I’ve always believed that there’s a better,'” Kimbrell said.
As far as employee relations go, the Disney Institute emphasizes treating employees as guests, and listening to what they have to say. There was once a British-themed pub on one of the Disney properties that spawned a curious episode. Apparently, nearly everybody who visited the pub wanted fish and chips. The pub wasn’t set up to make food, so thousands of requests for fish and chips were turned down.
The word trickled up from Disney employees that people are really in the mood for fish and chips when they go to this pub, so Disney cleared out a storage building, installed a fish and chips machine there, and today the place does millions of dollars worth of fish and chips business per month, according to Kimbrell. “We believe everybody has valuable information to share,” he said.
Disney, which is ranked number nine on Interbrand’s list of the top 100 brands in the world, also has an interesting take on hiring. “Hire attitude, not aptitude,” Kimbrell said. “I can teach you how to operate Space Mountain. You don’t know anything about it today, but a week from now, you’ll be pretty good at it. What I can’t teach you is how to love sending your 20,000th ride into that mountain. I can’t do that.”
IBM, which is ranked number two on Interbrand’s list behind Coca-Cola, obviously takes aptitude into great account when it hires somebody. Having clean facilities also isn’t as big an indicator of long-term success for Big Blue. And perhaps there isn’t as much bottom-up communication of ideas in the IBM company as Kimbrell says there is at Disney. IBM’s bureaucratic model is modeled more on the US government than on Disney.
But the two companies do have interesting parallels. Both have had a multiple generations of loyal customers. The equivalent Disney phrase for “You can’t go wrong buying IBM” is “You can’t go wrong with a Disney vacation.” Both offer premium products, at a premium price. And both have well-defined corporate cultures, with heroic founders (Thomas Watson in IBM’s case) who imbued a creation myth into their followers that lives to this day. In these cases, they do have similarities that are conducive to long-term success.
The one area where the two companies sharply diverge is in the IT business itself. Disney reportedly ended its outsourcing contract with IBM earlier this year. Disney had signed a seven-year, $730 million contract with IBM in 2005 that ran out this year. Instead of keeping the contract in place for $120 million a year, Disney reportedly selected a company called HCL America to manage its hardware and provide support for the company and its theme parks and resorts.