IBM Schoolhouse, Endicott NY, 1930s
IBM’s legendary President Thomas J. Watson, Sr., was a leader of unbridled optimism. “This business of ours has a future,” he noted in 1926, just 12 years after he joined IBM. “It has a past that we are all proud of, but it has a future that will extend beyond my lifetime and beyond your lifetime.”
Much of that optimism was based on his faith in the knowledge, abilities, and character of IBM employees. “Very few persons throughout the country have seen our factory, our School, our Laboratory, or our World Headquarters Building, and the only way they have to judge the character of IBM is by the character of those who represent us.” But he recognized that IBMers were not born – they were made. To that end, he believed that one of his chief responsibilities as IBM’s leader was to unleash the collective potential of his workforce. One of the ways he did that was by placing great emphasis on employee development.
Watson was fond of saying, “There is no saturation point in education,” and he backed those words by building an educational infrastructure that was second to none. IBM’s tradition of investing in employee development dates to 1916 with the creation of the IBM Education Program. Over the next two decades the program would expand to include management education, volunteer study clubs, training for the disabled, and the construction of an IBM Schoolhouse in Endicott, New York in 1933. So deeply ingrained in IBM culture was the notion of personal development, that starting in the 1920s, IBMers began forming after-hour study clubs to increase their knowledge of their professions and the company’s business.
Watson’s emphasis on employee education was not the benevolence of a paternalistic leader – he saw clear business value in this investment in his workforce. “When a man stops studying, stops acquiring knowledge about the business or profession in which he is engaged, he doesn’t stand still,” Watson said. “He starts going backwards.” And backsliding was something every IBMer had to avoid … even Watson himself. “I found out years ago that because I gave so much of my time to my own business I was getting into a rut. So I decided to get out and see what other people were doing, to broaden my mind on business in general and see what I could bring back and apply to my own business.”
IBMers took Watson’s edicts to heart. Between 1938 and 1952, 40% of Endicott employees were enrolled in classes, covering 33 subjects. By 1954, IBM Education worldwide was running more than 50,000 students (internal and external) through its programs. In 1961 alone, 17,000 employees participated in voluntary study courses.
“In this day and age, education is the one Master Key we can depend on to open the door to future progress, “ Watson said in 1930. “The future of the International Business Machines Corporation, and of every person connected with the Company, depends not upon the amount of time we spend in study; but upon what we learn and upon our ability to transfer our knowledge to newcomers in the business so that they may keep step with the pace of IBM—a pace which is constantly increasing!” In the 80 years since, little has changed.
Paul Lasewicz, IBM Corporate Archivist
The January 2013 theme for The Greater IBM Connection is ”leadership”, and The Greater IBM Connection will be sharing various tips, tools, stories, and resources on this topic.