Innovation from the bottom up
Introducing guest writer, Allan Murungi
Today, we’re thrilled to introduce a new guest writer to our blog, Allan Murungi. As someone who is studying for an MBA at Warwick Business School, we met Allan at a WBS case study event earlier this year and were instantly impressed with his passion and enthusiasm. In his own words, Allan is an Innovation and Creativity enthusiast, IT Professional, Warwick MBA student, avid book reader and (recently) keen (road bike) cyclist.
The story of IBM’s resurgence during the period 1994 to 1998 is a story of innovation and creativity from the bottom up, started and championed by David Grossman. Grossman’s vision and tenacity resulted in IBM transforming itself from a company that was in decline into an Internet Services firm that rode the wave of e-commerce opportunities to the tune of $20 billion by the end of 1998.
And yet this begs the questions: Who was David Grossman? How did he manage to lead this innovation effort at IBM? And can this innovation and creativity process be replicated?
In organisations, innovation and creativity have traditionally been considered the domains of Chief Executives and other members of the C-suite. The best example of this is perhaps John Chen, formerly of Sybase Inc., who is now leading the turnaround at BlackBerry. As recently as June of this year, BlackBerry has, under his leadership, reported a positive net income of $23 million, up from an $84 million loss during the same period last year.
Innovation and creativity are also generally considered the domain of Research and Development. For instance, the vaunted R&D division of Apple gave us the iPod and iPhone, while Pfizer, the US pharmaceuticals giant, has maintained its dominance through such R&D as developed Viagra.
Where does David Grossman fit in all of this?
During the Winter Olympics of 1994, David Grossman, then described as a midlevel programmer at IBM, sat at home watching the Olympics on TV. As the official technology partner of the Olympics, IBM was responsible for collecting and displaying all the results. This gave the firm the exclusive privilege of displaying the IBM logo at the bottom of the screen, together with an interleaving of IBM ads at regular intervals.
However, upon surfing the Internet, Grossman discovered that Sun Microsystems had set up a rogue Olympics streaming site, complete with the Sun logo and marketing. As such, if someone only had access to this online stream, they would be given the impression that Sun Microsystems was the Winter Olympics’ official sponsor!
Grossman promptly reported this to his superiors, which resulted in IBM’s legal team sending Sun Microsystems a cease-and-desist letter. But Grossman didn’t stop there. He saw the opportunity that the Internet presented and set out to get IBM on board.
First, he set up a demonstration for senior executives in which he showed them exactly what the Web was and the vast potential it held for IBM. This piqued their interest and got their support. Grossman then became the right-hand man to John Patrick, who was present at Grossman’s first demonstration and worked in corporate strategy. Together, they worked on projects to convert IBM’s disparate divisions to the potential of the Web and to design IBM’s first homepage. Grossman and a handful of IBM’s best Web engineers rescued the website that broadcast the chess match between world champion, Gary Kasparov, and IBM Supercomputer, Deep Blue. By the time the Summer Olympics came around in 1996, IBM had built the first ever Olympics website, which also happened to be the world’s largest website at the time. And by 1998, IBM had a huge web presence!
So what does this mean for innovation in your organisation?
Grossman was just a frontline employee. He certainly didn’t have responsibility for innovation and creativity in IBM and he wasn’t part of the strategic planning team. And yet his contribution is credited with enabling IBM to successfully harness the power of the Internet at a critical time, in turn ensuring that the company maximised its potential.
The question then is: Was IBM lucky to have the tenacious and passionate David Grossman on its team?
And the answer is: Absolutely!
Would IBM have got on board with the potential of the internet without him? Maybe/Eventually/Possibly.
Our questions to you then are:
- What is your innovation and creativity strategy?
- What are you doing to support and engage your frontline employees in innovation for your company?
- Are there systems in place to capture the generation of ideas, select the best ones and try them out?
And for those of you who like the research…
The complete story of IBM’s turnaround can be read at Harvard Business Review:
Waking up IBM: how a gang of unlikely rebels transformed Big Blue