Jon Iwata at the Yale Club last night. Are corporate ideology and cultural integralism back in town?

Last night, at New York’s Yale Club, I participated in the Institute for Public Relations’ Annual Distinguished Lecture and Awards event.

The lecture was by Jon Iwata, IBM’s Senior Vice President, who heads the marketing, communication and citizenship organization departments of that company.

A full house, jammed with many of America’s most senior and reputed public relators.

On my side, a lot of curiosity for Iwata.

I have always admired IBM and, as he’s been around that company’s communication activities for 25 years, I figured Iwata must have had something to do with my admiration, and therefore probably had something interesting to share.

Here is the full Iwata speech for your perusal, but I would like to point some of the highlights which left me wondering.

I honestly have not made up my mind whether to criticize or praise Iwata, given the competence, experience and knowledge which clearly transpired from his speech.

But something did bother me and here it is.

First of all, I will quote him extensively in what for me seemed to be the most important passage of his speech (the underscores are mine, as I will pick them up in the follow up comments):

“One day soon, every employee, every retiree, every customer, every business partner, every investor and every neighbor associated with every company will be able to share an opinion about that company with everyone in the world, based on firsthand experience. The only way we can be comfortable in that world is if every employee of the company is truly grounded in what their company values and stands for.

What are we doing about this at IBM? We have created a new discipline within my organization that puts together brand management and workforce enablement, or what we used to call internal communications. This may sound to some like external and internal messaging coming together – employee as brand ambassador. Sure, that’s an aspect of it. But the centerpiece is something quite different. We call it the IBM Brand System.

Picture a framework with five columns. From left to right the columns are labeled what it means to look like IBM, to sound like IBM, to think like IBM, to perform like IBM and ultimately to be IBM.

Simple enough. You could in 30 seconds create the same frame for J&J, Chevron or Ketchum. But of course it would — and should — take you much longer to fill in the details. Every word, every phrase and description in that framework would be painstakingly chosen. Because this is your corporate genome. It describes what makes your company unique. Developing the framework is hard work, but it’s only the foundation. Because, like a genome, the real work — and value — are in bringing it to life.

So, we say X, Y and Z is what it means to “look like IBM.” Well, do we look like that in all of our advertising, websites, sales collateral? In all of our client briefing centers, all of our laboratories, offices and buildings in every part of the world? In our industrial design and trade dress? Where are the gaps? How do we know? How will we go about systematically closing them – to become truer to our brand and our values?

We say A, B and C is what it means to “sound like IBM”… and to “think like IBM”… and “perform like IBM.” Where are the gaps? How do we know? How will we go about systematically closing them – to become truer to our brand and values?

A couple of things become obvious as one moves to the right in this framework.

To really activate the System, you go from managing expressions and manifestations of the company – visual identity, naming conventions, messaging, design and the like – to the behavior and performance of people. This Brand System is necessarily inclusive of corporate culture.

And that means that the System cannot be activated without close collaboration with other parts of the company – from sales and service delivery, to product engineering and HR. For example, we are now collaborating with our colleagues in HR to redesign IBM’s leadership competencies for the first time in many years. If this is ultimately approved by the CEO – and we’ll know in a few weeks — it will mark the first time in my 25-year career that the foundational elements of HR will not only be aligned with our brand and workforce strategies, they will be essentially the same.

For those of you who work in large corporations, I think you’ll appreciate that this isn’t to have tidily consistent models. It will mean that the criteria by which we recruit and train employees, develop managers, groom executives, determine career opportunity and advancement — these will be identical to our brand and culture… to what it means to look like, sound like, think like, perform like and be IBM.

So, the fusion of brand and culture. As you can imagine, classic communication and classic marketing have a role here. But this is fundamentally not about messaging or engagement. This work requires management rigor, which is why we believe it deserves to be – and must be – a new discipline in its own right.

Well, the message is very clear.

The role implies management rigour, and the discipline looks very much like what this blog has been advocating and arguing for some time: a combination between the reflexive and the educative strategic functions of public relations.

At the same time, I have distinct personal memories of when, in the early eighties of the last century, the agency I was then managing in Italy (SCR Associati, today Weber Shandwick) decided to drop IBM as client, to jump on to Steve Job’s proposal to help him launch the Mac in my country.

What happened was that I had recruited a very brilliant and competent (very few of them in those days..) account executive to work on the new account and we went together to greet Jobs as he got off his private plane at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport.

Luca (the name of my new account) had just bought a brand new blue suit for the occasion.

When Steve Jobs danced down the plane in t shirt and jeans, he came over to me (he had requested I send him a photograph) shook my hand, looked at the young man who was standing next to me and said, “Who in the hell is that guy? Did you hire him from IBM?”

Which is to say that the culture of IBM was then grounded (a term Iwata uses in my first underscore of his speech) in uniformity. Innovative and daring as much as you wish, but still, and literally, uniform.

Clearly Jobs played on this to position his company as the maverick.

Yet, more recently, I have been more than once exposed to IBM’s strong experience in valuing diversity. I remember that seminal article on this experience in the Harvard Business Review of maybe ten years ago, long before diversity became a buzz word in almost every other straight and dumb and lip service company in the world.

I also remember a senior IBM representative sweep the floor and extract convinced applause at the Global Alliance Trieste World Public Relations Forum dedicated to communicating for, with and in diversity in 2005.

Now, I ask you, is it that the current financial crisis (maybe even some bad memories of IBM’s difficulties in the late nineties?) have driven IBM leadership back to the one-company-one-voice-one-message- blue-suit-for-everyone syndrome, intelligently shaken and stirred with some new and smart ingredients?

I just cannot imagine that Iwata struggles to cope with how it is to look like IBM, to sound like IBM, to think like IBM, to perform like IBM and ultimately to be IBM….

It is as if the world has suddenly taken a quick u-turn and is heading back to the corporate ideology and cultural integralism which haunted the rreputation of the business community in western society for at least twenty years.

Of course I accept that ideology and cultural integralism are far less painful than the fraud, the corruption, the malpractices and the buffering we have witnessed more recently, but this is not what I would call a significant step forward.
Iwata was also involved the Arthur Page’s Authentic Enterprise which is everything but Business As Usual….

Am I grossly over and misinterpreting?

I certainly hope so.

But I am frightened by the thought that the better companies and the more respected and reputed of our colleagues lead the way towards a new age of integralism and cultural uniformity in our society.

Please Joe, say it isn’t so….

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7 Replies to “Jon Iwata at the Yale Club last night. Are corporate ideology and cultural integralism back in town?

  1. I would like to express what Giampaolo Azzoni, jurist and ethicist, professor at the University of Pavia, expressed to me in a recent email message concerning this discussion:

    the issue is ‘how may one conceptualise a corporate communication when every employee, every customer,….. communicatesthe corporation?’
    IBM’s response could also appear somewhat naive, but it certainly is not the simple reproposition of old policies. Once, the alignement on corporate values was a consequence of control.
    Today one attempts to produce control by the alignement on corporate values.
    Yesterday the corporation was solid, today it is liquid.
    Therefore, the issue is the form of the water.

    The Brand appears to be the most immediate tool to give a form to the water.
    But this could also turn into an illusion, because even the Brand in itself is no longer internally determined and defined.

    It seems to me that our commnon idea (to which many references in this blog) of framing attractive relationship spaces (physical and digital) in which stakeholders discuss with the corporation and amongst themselves, is more realistic and adequate.

  2. Toni makes some compelling points. As British Airways implodes we should all examine how its advocacy of its cabin crew as Brand Ambassadors spectacularly backfired. Over a long period the unions and staff held British Airways’ reputation to ransom.

    Moreover, IBM of all companies learned the hard way – by sacking half of its staff who thought that they had been promised jobs for life – the true nature of the employer/employee contract. Authenticity calls for honesty which will generate more trust than make-believe and wishful thinking. The real world is not cosy; and we should treat employees like adults, rather than as manipulable pawns.

    Two recent posts on my PR blog are entitled: Transparency is the new opaque?, and PR to marry and lead marketing. They are both very relevant to this discussion. Here are the links:

  3. Thank you Bill, Mike and Darren for these first comments.

    let’s investigate this organizational dna issue.
    One of my italian students went to Cambridges a few years ago for a doctorate in organizational dna in the science department and came up with some very intriguing ideas which somehow related to the central theme which the US Supreme Court a few years ago decided not to decide upon for the Kaski case: i.e. do the constitutional amendments which apply to the individual also apply to organizations (private, public, social)?
    Basically, the dna of an organization would appear to be very similar to to that of an individual, which would imply a very careful analysis of its components and possibly convince (next time around) the Supreme Court to make a decision.
    I would be very interested in learning more about this.
    Any volunteers?
    If we could agree on a process, this would make things for us less haphazard don’t you think?

    I appreciate your points and rationale and, of course, my mentioning the dress code issue was only a metaphore.
    Nor do I have any qualms with the concept of a Brand System: this seems to be in line with the management rigour Jon speaks about.
    What instead worries me somewhat (and I have voiced this concern before on this blog is the new and intensive using of employees as corporate reputation ‘pushers’ because we are now aware that they are believed to be more credbile than the Ceo or official spokespersons.
    I have this problem every day in my professional practice as my italian change management consultancy is highly involved in these issues, and some of the practices I witness resemble what we once named as ‘front organization’ exercises and today we define as astroturfing.
    Where do you see the boundaries, Mike?
    For example, would you agree that this task of an employee be included in a labor contract?
    I would be interested in your opinion.

    Darren, I don’t think we ever really controlled anything (content, tool, channel, public)but we always hyped our way through this to persuade our clients that the only difference between advertising and public relations was that the first cost more than the other, while the second was more effective and credible.
    Closed door discussions go on all the time and transparency is another of the, in my view, rotten concepts or buzz words of our profession.
    To me transparency in public relations is serious only if and when we say who we are, who we represent, what our objectives are and, if the norms allow us to do it, how we plan to get there.
    The rest is nonsense.
    Now, I know very well that many will not agree with me on this. For one, my esteemed and good friend John Paluszek, the new chair of the Global Alliance, who in a recent speech transparency as the new frontier of our profession….

  4. I would have to disagree Mike that corporate communicators and marketers are no longer in control. While social media now play a great part of the business it is not always privy to information that corporate communicators and marketers are. I don’t believe that a company such as IBM will ever relinquish its communication to every employee or lay person. There are closed door discussions that important issues are discussed, without all of the employees, being aware of. Corporate communication is and will be in charge of speaking truthfully for the company and preserving its image within both internal and external communities. Without such organized departments the company is basically waiting for disaster.

  5. Toni — It ain’t so. I work for Jon in IBM Marketing & Communications, and I also worked on “The Authentic Enterprise.” And I’m here to tell you that the Brand System Jon describes is not intended to churn out Stepford IBMers. Quite the opposite. This isn’t about centralization or control, it’s about how any entity — whether a business, or a country, or a community, or an individual — achieves identity and quality in a world that is irreversibly (and thankfully) democratizing… a world where the means of production of information (and of brand, of distinctiveness) are increasingly in everyone’s hands.

    How do we learn to succeed in this new reality? That’s what Jon is talking about here. And, by the way, when we talk about “looks like IBM,” we’re talking about the various visual expressions of the company that he mentions — signage, font, product design, event design, etc… not people’s appearance. Believe me, nobody’s thinking about dress codes here. Plus, as you note, this place remains a pioneer in diversity — of race, gender, sexual orientation, mode of thought, etc.

    As “The Authentic Enterprise” argues, we [i.e., corporate communications, marketing, etc.] “are no longer in control.” So we have to pursue the timeless goals of business (succeeding by differentiating ourselves in a competitive market) in different ways. And we must bring to those new approaches the same thoughtfulness, intentionality and rigor that were brought to Industrial Age approaches by their best practitioners. That rigor won’t produce conformity. It will, if we do it right, produce what the speech calls “constituencies of aspiration.”

    Another way to think of it is this: When Eliot Noyes was shaping design at IBM (and bringing in everyone from Charles and Ray Eames, to Eero Saarinen, to Paul Rand), he described his work not as being about rigid consistency of form, but of deeper consistency of idea. From “Powers of Ten” to the Selectric to the Paul Rand rebus to the company’s buildings to its advertising, there was an enormous variety of look and visual design. But they all “looked like IBM,” they all expressed an underlying character — an optimism about the future, a belief in science, etc. In fact, Noyes called himself not a “design director” but the “curator of corporate character.”

  6. I believe companies should pay attention to their so-called DNA and the values their brands are grounded in. Those that don’t often wander into areas where they shouldn’t be, such as Procter&Gamble in pharmaceuticals.
    The “system” described here will probably work for IBM because it has always been that sort of company anyway, but it won’t work for everyone. Nor will every talented engineer, scientist, or executive want to work for IBM.

    Bill Huey
    Strategic Communications

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