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百年老字号IBM的五大启示

Kevin Maney 2011年06月21日

不管你是哪一类科技公司首席执行官——从谷歌的拉里•佩奇到Facebook的扎克伯格——都能从这个“蓝色巨人”身上学到点什么。

    本月,国际商业机器公司(IBM)迎来了其百年诞辰。最难得的是该公司自成立以来,大多数时候在业内都保持了举足轻重的地位,除了20世纪90年代初,公司一度濒临倒闭。1911年, 公司实现净利润80万美元,而到了2010年这一数据已至148亿美元。IBM股价已上涨约4万倍。

    IBM的辉煌业绩大多可以追溯到公司成立的初期以及老托马斯•沃森1914-1952年间执掌公司期间的决策。当今的企业家和首席执行官们,特别是那些志在打造百年老店的人,都可以从沃森身上汲取经验。

    下面是沃森打造百年企业的五大经验。

1. 首先,要让整个团队深信公司就是他们的宿命,即使这听起来有些疯狂。

    IBM成立之初名为Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co. (C-T-R),1911年由华尔街金融家查尔斯•弗林特收购的三家初级信息公司合并而成。1914年沃森受聘执掌该公司时,C-T-R处于风雨飘摇之中。公司员工士气低落,部门经理间内斗不断。那么,沃森当时做了些什么?他告诉目瞪口呆的员工们,他们正在打造一家世界级的重要企业。

    根据沃森首次会晤30位高管的文字记录,沃森告诉高管们要努力销售产品,“要始终铭记,公司有光辉的未来,公司的未来与每个人都息息相关。”他反复宣扬光辉的未来,并将小小的C-T-R更名为听起来野心勃勃的国际商业机器公司。慢慢地,员工们相信了沃森,他们感到自己并不是单纯地在做一份工作,而是肩负某种使命。如今,IBM内部仍然传承了同样的态度。

2. 建立宗教式的企业文化,员工要么接受,要么离开。

    “一个强大的企业就如同一个国家一样,是建立在企业文化和共同的价值观体系基础之上。” 沃森是第一批真正理解了这一点的首席执行官之一。不仅如此,沃森将这一理念发挥到了极致,创造了一种奇特的企业文化,紧密团结所有接受这种文化的人们,同时将异见者排除在外。

    IBM的怪异之处包括著名的“思维”标志、禁酒政策(如今的IBM仍不会为出差高管餐桌上的酒水买单)、以挺括的白衬衫为特色的着装要求以及IBM歌曲大合唱传统等。这种奇特企业文化在20世纪中叶的一次年度聚会上达到了巅峰,当时IBM数千名顶级销售人员齐聚于纽约州恩迪克特的一个山坡,全部住进帐篷!

    如今新一代的科技企业鲜有如此另类的做派,但Netflix不同寻常的、强大的企业文化仍堪称典范——因此,其员工流失率在硅谷也居于最低之列。

3. 不甘于守成;能时而跳出思维定势,勇于冒险。

    20世纪30年代当大萧条肆虐时,沃森走出了一招险棋。当竞争对手纷纷裁员、关闭工厂并削减研发时,沃森却反其道而行之,于1933年在恩迪克特建造了一个一流的实验室。他希望为经济好转时的需求爆发做好准备。然而由于大萧条旷日持久,IBM的财务几乎被拖垮。

    到了1936年,美国《社会保障法》(the Social Security Act)的通过催生了极其庞大的信息处理需求——跟踪迄今所有的政府和企业薪金数据。然而,此时只有一家公司有应对能力,那就是IBM。IBM有现成的设备、正在运转的工厂和最新的技术。IBM的业务获得了突飞猛进的发展。

    沃森和他的儿子小托马斯•沃森后来还有多次孤注一掷的决策,包括可能是IBM史上最大胆的一次赌博,即20世纪60年代推出的System/360电脑。360电脑就好比如今苹果公司(Apple)的iPhone,不同的是苹果公司同时还生产其他的产品。

4. 成为大众的话题。

    在沃森的时代,大多数人都没有接触过,也不了解IBM的后台计算机设备。因此,沃森不断地寻找方式吸引公众注意。1939年,他在纽约世界博览会上资助了盛大的IBM Day活动。20世纪40年代,他在纽约麦迪逊大道的公司总部大堂里架起了一台IBM首批电子计算机,每个经过的人都能看到它在运转。

    IBM从未忘记此类做法的价值。20世纪90年代,当IBM的超级计算机“深蓝”击败国际象棋世界冠军加里•卡斯帕罗夫时,它登上了媒体头条。今年,IBM的超级电脑“沃森”在美国电视节目《危险边缘》(Jeopardy!)中击败了两位总冠军。

5. 找到比自己更优秀的继任者。

    这可能是最难的——但对于打造一家百年老字号至关重要。任何人都无法执掌企业达一个世纪。首位接任者必须是一个同样有魄力的领导人,甚至能掩盖创始人的光芒。问题是非凡的公司创始人往往具有很强的个性,容不下个性强烈的下属。

    沃森是幸运的。他有一个儿子小托马斯•沃森,他拥有像父亲一样强大的意志和卓越的才能。父子两人针锋相对,但小托马斯没有离开。沃森在执掌IBM近40年后,将领导权交给了儿子——后者很快就将IBM带入了电子计算的新时代。电子学的发展使得小托马斯•沃森能继往开来,抛弃过时技术——即IBM对打卡机的依赖。

    很多公司在致力于打造百年企业的道路上都会遇到接班人这个问题。微软(Microsoft)需要一位有魄力的领导者来接替比尔•盖茨,让公司摆脱过去Windows和个人电脑时代的辉煌,进入互联网时代。然而,史蒂夫•鲍尔默无法胜任这一使命。史蒂夫•乔布斯之后,苹果公司也需要一位新的领导者,正如他们所说,新的领导者必须具备迥异于乔布斯的思维方式。

    显然,公司要在长达百年的历史中长期保持欣欣向荣并非易事。公司需要在早期就奠定企业文化的基础、关键时刻的放手一搏和一些运气,同时还有首位继任者掌权后的成功转型。基于这些要素,或许可以判断当前哪些公司有望成为百年老字号。

    IBM turns 100 this month. Remarkably, IBM (IBM) has stayed vital and important for most of its history -- except for that blip in the early-1990s when the company nearly collapsed. In 1911, the company had $800,000 in net income. In 2010, IBM's net income was $14.8 billion. Its stock has appreciated about 40,000 times.

    A lot of IBM's success can be traced back to its earliest years and the actions of Thomas Watson Sr., who ran IBM from 1914 to 1952. Today's entrepreneurs and CEOs could learn some lessons from Watson, especially if they want to build a company for the ages.

    So here are five lessons from Watson on making a 100-year company.

1. At the start, convince the troops you're a company of destiny, even if that seems crazy.

    IBM began life as Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co. (C-T-R), a rag-tag amalgamation of pseudo-information companies assembled in an acquisition by Wall Street financier Charles Flint in 1911. C-T-R was flailing when it hired Watson to take charge in 1914. Morale was down. The division managers fought each other. So what did Watson do? He told his amazed employees that they were building a world-class, important company.

    In verbatim notes from Watson's first meeting with 30 senior executives, Watson tells them to sell their products hard, "always having in mind that this business has a great future, and that everybody has a bearing on the future of this business." He repeated messages of grandeur time and again -- and renamed little C-T-R with the expansive name of International Business Machines. Eventually, employees believed him, and they felt like they didn't just have a job -- they were on a mission. You still find the same attitude in the halls of IBM today.

2. Build a cult-like culture that people either buy into, or run away from.

    Watson was among the first CEOs to really understand that a strong company -- like a nation -- is built on a culture and shared set of values. And then Watson took it to an extreme, creating a culture that was so quirky, it tightly bonded people who joined -- and ejected people who didn't buy in.

    The quirks included the famous THINK signs, a no-alcohol policy (IBM today still won't pay for a traveling executive's glass of wine with dinner), a dress code of stiff white shirts, and a tradition of group-singing of songs about IBM. The culmination of Watson's odd culture was an annual event in the mid-twentieth century that brought thousands of the company's top salesman to a hillside in Endicott, N.Y. -- and housed them in tents.

    While it's hard to find a young tech company today that's that quirky, Netflix is one example of a strong, unusual culture -- and as a result has one of the lowest employee turnover rates in Silicon Valley.

3. Bet the company once in a while.

    In the 1930s, with the Depression raging, Watson rolled the dice. While competitors laid off workers, closed factories and cut R&D, Watson refused to do any of that and in fact built a state-of-the-art lab in Endicott in 1933. He wanted to be ready for an explosion of demand when the economy turned around. But as the Depression lingered, IBM's finances were nearly in ruin.

    Then, in 1936, the Social Security Act passed, creating the single biggest information problem -- tracking all those paychecks -- for government and business to date. Only one company was in a position to handle it: IBM. It had machines ready, factories running, and new technology. IBM's business rocketed.

    Watson and his son, Thomas Watson Jr., would go on to bet the company several times, including perhaps IBM's most daring bet, the System/360 computer in the 1960s. The 360 was like Apple's bet on the iPhone -- if Apple stopped making every other product at the same time.

4.  Make people talk about you.

    In Watson's day, most of the population never touched and didn't understand IBM's back-office computing machines. So Watson continually found ways to make the public take notice. In 1939, he funded a grand "IBM Day" at the World's Fair in New York. In the 1940s, he set up one of IBM's first electronic computers in the lobby of corporate headquarters on Madison Avenue, so everyone passing by could see it in operation.

    IBM has never forgotten the value of such acts. In the 1990s, it got headlines when Deep Blue beat world champion Gary Kasparov at chess. This year, IBM's Watson computer beat two all-time champs in a Jeopardy! match on TV.

5.  Hand off to a successor who is better than you.

    This may be the hardest trick of all -- but it's crucial to building a 100-year company. No leader is ever going to stick around for a century. That first successor has to be an equally bold leader, who perhaps can even overshadow the original company builder. The problem is, great company builders are often powerful personalities who drive away other strong personalities below them.

    Watson got lucky. He had a son, Tom Watson Jr., who was as strong-willed and gifted as the father. The two of them fought like crazy, yet Tom didn't leave. After running IBM for almost 40 years, Watson handed leadership to Tom -- who quickly plunged IBM into the new era of electronic computing. The arrival of electronics allowed Tom Watson to build on the past, yet toss out what had become stale -- in this case, IBM's reliance on punched-card machines.

    This is where a lot of companies stumble on the path to 100 years. Microsoft (MSFT) needed a bold successor to Bill Gates who could break from the company's Windows and PC past and take it to an Internet future. Steve Ballmer couldn't do it. Apple (AAPL_ after Steve Jobs will need a new leader who's willing, as they say, to think different from Jobs.

    Obviously, it's not easy to be a vibrant company for most of 100 years. It takes a cultural foundation at the start, some big bets and luck along the way, and a great second act when it's time for the first successor to take charge. Keep those things in mind, and it might be possible to guess which of today's companies will be around at 100.

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