CE#363: Lessons in Longevity, From I.B.M. (NYT)

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AS it turned 100 last week, I.B.M. was looking remarkably spry. Consumer technologies get all the attention these days, but the company has quietly thrived by selling to corporations and governments. Profits are strong, its portfolio of products and services looks robust, and its shares are near a record high. I.B.M.’s stock-market value passedGoogle’s earlier this year. Not bad for a corporate centenarian.

Yet, not so long ago, I.B.M.’s corporate survival was at stake. In the early 1990s, it nearly ran out of money. Its mainframe business was reeling under pressure from the lower-cost technology of personal computing.

New leadership was brought in, and thousands of workers were laid off. It was part of the company’s painful journey to what might be called “post-monopoly prosperity” — that is, a new path to corporate success once a dominant product is no longer the turbocharged engine of growth and profit it once was.

“I.B.M. faced the challenge that all great companies do sooner or later — they dominate, they lose it, and then they re-create themselves or not,” observes George F. Colony, the chief executive of Forrester Research.

I.B.M. met the challenge, moved beyond the mainframe and built a business increasingly based on software and services. So as it celebrates a milestone, the company holds lessons for others.

Evolving beyond past success is a daunting task for companies in all industries. But that problem is magnified in the technology arena, where companies can quickly rise to rule a market, seemingly invincible, until a shift in the technological landscape opens the door to a new generation of corporate dynamos.

That is certainly the test that Microsoft is struggling with today, as it seeks growth beyond its lucrative stronghold in personal computer software. If they are to prosper for the long haul, Google and Apple, too, must reach beyond their dominant businesses. Each of these companies, in its way, is trying.

So, then, what broader insights are to be drawn from the I.B.M. experience?

One central message, according to industry experts, is this: Don’t walk away from your past. Build on it. The crucial building blocks, they say, are skills, technology and marketing assets that can be transferred or modified to pursue new opportunities. Those are a company’s core assets, they say, far more so than any particular product or service.

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