For someone who once scoffed at the idea of needing a vision for the company, IBM Chairman Lou Gerstner is leaving Big Blue with a mighty big vision. In the history of corporate success stories where a floundering giant is saved by an outsider, Gerstners success at getting IBM on an even keel and headed in the right direction will be difficult to top.
Rather than looking at trying to acquire his way to success or spending a lot of time with the media talking about a winning plan, Gerstner came up with a simple, but not an easy, plan. He seemed to spend the bulk of his early days at IBM flying around to customers asking them what they needed. Once he had that information, he went about restructuring the company to deliver on those needs.
What he apparently heard from those customers was the desire to buy services from a big, professional company that would provide the best products regardless of whether those products were produced by the company. IBMs service organization first said it would make decisions based on best-of-breed products rather than those necessarily carrying the companys label and then, to everyones surprise, actually delivered on its promise. No easy task in a company that always assumed it had the best product.
What will Gerstners successor hear if he embarks on the same walk around the customer sites? Id guess that Sam Palmisano would hear a lot about open standards arrived at in an open forum, the desire to build IT systems using products from many vendors rather than just one, the need for tools to integrate and administer computing resources wherever they exist, and a demand that vendors think about customer needs rather than try to rebuild profits.
Whereas Gerstner had to sort out all the competing fiefdoms and settle on a strategy to rebuild one big company moving in only one direction at a time, Palmisanos task is to deliver on the promise that IBM has been making to the computing community. IBM the proprietary company has become IBM the champion of open standards and open software. The promise of seamless and efficient e-business transactions among suppliers, customers and vendors is being hammered out under the WebSphere name. But customers are already looking for more tools, more integration methods, and even faster development of those open standards and software. Palmisanos task isnt to find a new direction but to increase the pace of the current direction.
Lou Gerstner was not much of a friend to the media and, in an era of corporate executives making lots of promises, was largely absent from the television and media circuit. He simply set out on a course and kept IBM moving in a direction that he felt would find success. And he was right.