IBM and Six Strategic Reasons to Celebrate by Serving

The IBM Centennial celebration on June 15 is a birthday party for the world. It is not cake, candles, and fancy dress but more of a roll-up-you-sleeves-to-work day. Nearly 300,000 IBMers and family members have pledged at least 8 hours of service in 120 countries through over 3,500 projects that draw on IBM tools and capabilities. And new tools have been developed for ongoing use by social causes. This is not lip service; it's authentic service.

Perhaps IBM's massive mobilization of company talent can inspire many more companies, small and large, to see the strategic value of leading with values and taking every opportunity to show how they make a difference. Companies rally for disasters; Procter & Gamble was praised in the New York Times for its Tide Loads of Hope and Duracell Power Relief vans contributing to flood relief efforts in the South.

So why not do good when times are good? Some already tie their celebrations to service; Novartis celebrates each anniversary of the merger that created the current company with a global day of community service, which I had suggested while a consultant on merger integration in 1996. But IBM's activities (which I know from my continuing advisory relationship) show how innovative and strategic the outcomes can be when a company commits to service on a large scale, from the top and throughout the organization.

IBMers have signed up for activities reflecting their skills and personal interests to promote ongoing activities and sustainable solutions, some of them custom-built to be launched on the Centennial. For example: Training on privacy and anti-bullying in 100 schools in Germany. A new website developed in India for the visually impaired, with a launch at 50 sites. CEO Sam Palmisano in Baltimore with the Mayor and school head helping Training for students and teachers on careers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) in Baltimore, with CEO Sam Palmisano, the Mayor, and the schools' chief. Access for women entrepreneurs to IBM's small-and-mid-sized business toolkit to improve business opportunities, along with IBM's new Supplier Connection website get access to large company contracts, led by Senior VP Ginni Romettty. A marketing toolkit for not-for-profits, with training by chief marketing officer Jon Iwata and others in a workshop convened at Harvard Graduate School of Education for national Boston-based organizations such as City Year and Citizen Schools..

There are six strategic benefits to celebrating milestones with service to the world:

1. Service expresses identity. It makes purpose and values concrete and tangible. It puts a human face on a company and shows that it is a part of society, ready to contribute to positive outcomes.

2. Employees love it. It is an inspiring chance for involvement in issues that care about off the job that connect to their skills on the job.

3. Customers love it. They can join in. They see what the company stands for, and that its values are real.

4. It builds community inside the organization. Status differences disappear. People from different functions work together. People from many places feel part of something larger than themselves.

5. It builds community outside the organization. New connections are forged in pursuit of common goals for the greater good.

6. It shows that your products and services really can make a difference. When celebrating by serving is also business-strategic, featuring the best and latest products and services, then everyone wins, from inner city schools to women entrepreneurs. Sure, it's marketing. But societal benefits come first.

IBM is leading — some would say, tapping — an important trend. Service is hot. Holiday parties increasingly feature book collections for schools in Africa or clothing drives to outfit the homeless. I've been to birthday celebrations that include a Sunday at an inner city school building a playground and landscaping. Small efforts can accumulate to make a bigger difference, changing a culture from one of self-interest to one imbued with a sense of purpose. And when a global giant not only champions service but demonstrates it, the immediate impact can grow beyond inspiration to impact.

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