As technology continues to permeate all aspects of business, society and our personal lives, the possibilities for innovation seem truly endless. But realizing these possibilities requires talent, - the best trained technical talent, - so more than ever, our engineers and scientists are essential to innovation. They must master a wide range of interdisciplinary skills to create effective, resilient systems solutions to the increasingly complex problems they are called on to solve, and be able to recognize those critical enablers and inhibitors to marketplace success that can emerge along the technical, business, organizational, and societal boundaries.
Over the past decade, several studies have considered how to restructure engineering education and other technical educational programs to better equip students with the skills required for 21st century careers. They have all pretty much concluded that a technical education must be more diverse, broad and forward-looking than in the past. Sophisticated applications - such as those increasingly encountered in business, health care, government and education - require the ability to comprehend, synthesize and integrate lots of different factors into a holistic, human-oriented design. This is very complex indeed.
When examining educational programs that address complex systems, one finds that universities generally do a pretty good job of teaching the base, foundational skills. However, a proper education in complex systems should be complemented with concrete, real-life examples or case studies of how businesses and other institutions are using engineering systems to address complex problems in their organizations.
That is why the Innovation Lecture Series: Engineering Systems Solutions to Real World Challenges was organized. The series is co-sponsored by MIT's Engineering Systems Division and IBM University Relations as part of its Skills for the 21st Century initiative. In each seminar, a business or technical leader will discuss a real-life example of how they leveraged advanced technologies and how they applied disciplined systems and management thinking to a variety of problems in their organizations. Acting in my role as Visiting Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT, I host the seminars and moderate the Q&A session.
The live seminars are given at MIT in front of an audience of faculty, students and other guests. They are then recorded and posted in an open web site along with additional materials on the subject which will hopefully be of value to anyone trying to learn from the case study, either as part of a formal class or of a self-learning program. We also hope that in the collaborative spirit of social networking, others will contribute additional materials that will enrich the case study and make it even more valuable as a learning tool.
The first lecture took place on October 17 and was given by IBM Senior Vice President Linda Sanford. Linda is responsible for working across IBM to transform core business processes, create an IT infrastructure to support these processes and help create the culture that will foster such a transformation. Prior to her current responsibilities, Linda led the successful transformation of IBM's mainframe business, the restructuring of our industry solutions businesses, and the revitalization of IBM's storage systems. She is the co-author of a recently published book, Let Go to Grow.
Her talk, Building an Innovation Company for the 21st Century focused on IBM's own transformation. Linda brings an invaluable wealth of personal experience to the subject, experience which she shared with the audience. She first talked about innovation in general, and the need to innovate continuously to create differentiating value in our new flat world - whether you are a country, a company, a university or an individual. "We all have to become innovators to stay relevant", she said.
Linda talked about some of the statistics she uncovered while researching the material for Let Go to Grow. Only 16 percent of more than 1000 companies tracked from 1962 to 1998 have survived - and things have only gotten tougher in the past five years with all the pressures of globalization. It is not easy for a business to survive the intense competition it faces year after year, and only through innovation can a business make the necessary adjustments, not just to differentiate itself from competitors - but to adapt and survive in the fast changing market environment we live in.
She talked about a few the IBM transformational projects she leads. For example, she discussed the initiative to bring information analytics into the art of selling, - an excellent concrete example of leveraging technology for business process innovation. IBM has developed a tool to help sales teams identify new opportunities for selling into new accounts. The sales tool essentially aggregates client data from disparate sources, both internal and external, and analyzes it using sophisticated mathematical algorithms to help sales people target the proper clients with the offerings they are most likely to buy.
In addition, Linda spent quite a bit of time discussing the importance of culture in the successful transformation of a business. Any successful transformational project requires changes along three dimensions: technology, business models and processes, and culture. The first two dimensions - technology and business - are fairly concrete and well appreciated, both in universities and companies. But culture - the third major dimension for successful transformational initiatives -- is a more amorphous term, often meaning different things in different organizations. It is fair to say that the lack of proper attention to cultural or people factors is usually the key reason why transformational initiatives fail in company after company.
The aspect of culture we in IBM have zeroed in is collaboration, because it is so important to innovation. Also, given the success of the Internet and related social networking tools and platforms, we now have a very effective platform for collaborative innovation. Getting people to collaborate in real time and across different organizational silos is an enormous challenge, especially in a large complex organization like IBM with over 330,000 employees spread across 170 countries and 13 lines of business and corporate functions.
Linda described IBM's platform for collaboration called On Demand Workplace, arguably the most sophisticated such platform in any company. On Demand Workplace is essentially IBM's intranet, where employees can get access to lots of information and applications relating to their work, or to benefits, travel, and just about any other employee-oriented service. But, with the rise of social networking, we are rapidly transforming On Demand Workplace into a Web 2.0 platform that, in addition to "classic" web pages, now includes podcasts, videocams, wikis, blogs and so on. We are also adding a number of real-time collaboration tools, all oriented toward helping IBM employees find the right partner to work with.
Linda also talked about Thinkplace, an online platform to encourage every employee to participate in the innovation process. Thinkplace enables employees to submit their ideas, join communities of interest to help further develop and evaluate their ideas and those of their colleagues, and generally get involved in taking ideas from conception to implementation through community involvement. Since its launch last year, Thinkplace has generated thousands of ideas, about 130 of which are in the process of implementation. In addition to continuing to improve Thinkplace as a collaborative platform for innovation and “bottoms-up” strategy formulation within IBM, we are looking at expanding its use to include clients, business partners and universities.
A video of Linda's lecture and Q&A session can be found here. The IBM case study site also includes this Thinkplace paper as well as a paper on Bilingual Enterprise and Solutions Architecture that explores the communications gap between the IT and business functions in companies. We hope that additional material on IBM's transformation will be posted on the site over time.
We are already working on the next case, Vassar Brothers Medical Center, with its accompanying seminar scheduled to be given at MIT on December 14. Other interesting real-world cases are in the planning stages as well.
This is all an experiment. We are not sure how well the approach we are taking with our Innovation Lecture Series and online engineering systems case studies will work or if something else is needed. What we do know, is that to properly teach complex systems we must acquaint students with real-world problems in the marketplace. We need to apply all that innovation we keep talking about to transforming the education of the next generation of young people, so we can better prepare them to face the complex problems they will surely encounter when they go out into the marketplace.