At IBM, concepts of corporate citizenship run deep. Legendary IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson, Sr., made sure of that. Watson understood the deep connection between a company and the communities it operated in. He understood too the positive impact that a company could have on a community. These were lessons he learned early in his business career, when as an executive at National Cash Register, he was a part of the NCR response team that helped the Cash’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio, weather a devastating flood.
IBM Chairman Thomas J. Watson, Sr., receives the Migel Medal from Helen Keller on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind. Keller was a noted American author and political activist, and reportedly was the first deaf-blind person to receive a bachelor’s degree. The Migel Medal remains today the highest honor in the field of blindness. 1952
Watson took that civic-mindedness with him when he joined IBM in 1914, and he quickly instilled it into the company’s culture. “As citizens of the world, he once said, “we owe an obligation beyond the limits of our own business.” For the next four decades, he drove home this principled position by word and deed. “I know from past experience,” he said, “that the more people do in connection with outside affairs, civic and national affairs, the better job they are able to do in this business or in whatever business they are engaged. If we live just for ourselves, we are never able to get anything worthwhile out of life.”
To that end, it was a point of special pride for Watson that IBMers took to corporate social responsibility like wild ducks to water. “I would like to pay special tribute to my associates in the IBM as citizens. Wherever I have gone I have found that they stand for good citizenship, every individual endeavoring to contribute something toward helping the country in which he lives.” In fact, Watson saw IBM as a role model for the world. “We [IBM] have organizations in 79 countries, practically all the countries of the world, and when we are able to maintain peace and cooperation among our people, it seems to me that the same thing could be accomplished among nations.”
Watson didn’t just talk the talk – he walked it. “The keynote of Mr. Watson’s life is service,” recollected Frederick Fuller, one of IBM’s leading inventors in the days before computers. “No one who knows him even slightly can doubt that. I don’t think there is a man alive who is more eager to better the common lot of mankind, regardless of race, creed, or color.”
As inspirational as he himself was to those who knew him, Watson himself found inspiration in the words of another. “George Bernard Shaw once said, ‘We must all share in the evils of the world or move to another planet,’” Watson once recalled. “Since I first heard that I have grown to feel that I am a part of all the evils of the world. And I am going to remain a part of them until I have exhausted all my energy, ability and resources in trying to correct them.” The depth of his personal commitment ranged from playing leading roles in organizations like the Red Cross and the NAACP to sending money to old acquaintances that had fallen on hard times. And he never hesitated to throw IBM’s resources behind good causes, like developing prosthetics for wounded veterans to manufacturing pocket-sized Braille printers and selling them at cost to designing and building the world’s first successful heart lung machine for free.
“A long time ago we ceased to think of IBM as a business,” Watson once reflected. “We hope that all IBM people will keep in mind that they have a duty to perform outside of the boundaries of IBM. Some of us must do things outside of our regular vocations, in order to develop this civilization to the point where we believe it ought to be.” He would be happy to know that today’s IBM remains just as committed to corporate citizenship as he was.
by Paul Lasewicz, IBM Corporate Archivist
For more on IBM History: http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history
For more on IBM at 100 Years: http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/ibm100/us/en/
For more on IBM’s History of Innovation: http://www.research.ibm.com/featured/history/
This post is part of The Greater IBM Connection’s July theme of Corporate Citizenship.