On April 18 I participated in a TEDx conference at my local community library in Westport, CT. TEDx programs were developed to help independent organizations create their own TED-like events in the spirit of TED’s mission, - ideas worth spreading. As is the case with TED, TEDx talks should be carefully curated, compelling and short, lasting no more than 18 minutes.
Imagination was the overall theme of the Westport Library conference. Five different speakers applied the theme to their various talks, ranging from Imagining Risk to Boredom - A Source of Inspiration. Imagination as a Journey of Survival and Discovery was the title of my own talk. I’ve given many seminars and taught semester-long courses on the subject. But, boiling down your key message into a meaningful, 18-minutes-or-less TED talk is quite a challenge. It forces you to think really hard about the very essence of the story you are telling, as well as why the audience should be interested in what you have to say.
I focused my talk on the role of imagination during times of major economic and societal change. At such times, when survival and discovery are at a premium, imagination is badly needed to help us accept the need to deal with a fast-changing present, as well as to encourage us to take the necessary actions and embark on a journey toward an uncertain, and possibly perilous future.
I followed the wise advice once given by Leo Tolstoy - Describe your village, and you will describe the world. Part of my talk was about Westport, the village or town where I’ve lived for the past 24 years, and in particular about our community library with which I’ve been closely associated for most of those years. But first, I talked about IBM, which while not quite a village, was for me a kind of extended family for over 40 years, from the time I joined in 1970, - right after school and shortly after my 25th birthday, - until my retirement in 2007, followed by an additional 3 years as a consultant.
When I look back on those four decades, it feels as if I worked in two radically different companies: the IBM from the time I joined until the late-1980s; and the IBM after the mid-1990s, - with several years of transition in-between when it wasn’t at all clear if and in what shape the company would survive.
In April of 1964, IBM launched the System/360 family of mainframe computers, a bold initiative that helped it become the undisputed leader in the fast growing IT industry through the late 1980s. In 1985, for example, IBM was America’s most profitable and most admired company. As this recent NY Times article points out, in 1985 IBM’s leading market cap accounted for a staggering 6.4% of the S&P 500, making it 2.35 times the size of Exxon, the then second most valuable company. As a point of comparison, today Apple has the biggest market cap, about 4.1% of the S&P 500 and 1.95 times the size of the second most valuable company, Microsoft.
Then everything changed. In the 1980s, rapid advances in microprocessors and personal computers opened the door to a new generation of significantly less expensive and simpler client-server products. Mainframe sales and profit margins declined. In 1992 IBM posted a net loss of over $8 billion, which was then the largest single-year corporate loss in U.S. history. IBM came close to running out of cash and going out of business.
Few companies survive the kind of near-death experience that IBM went through in the early 1990s. Fewer still not only survive but are able to transform their culture and re-invent themselves to the degree IBM did. The turnaround was led by Lou Gerstner, who became IBM’s chairman and CEO in April of 1993. Gerstner put in place the painful restructure and strategic changes that were absolutely needed for IBM to survive. But beyond that, he also dealt with IBM’s culture.
In Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?, his excellent book about his years at IBM, Gerstner wrote about the culture he found when he first got to IBM: “… all the assets that the company needed to succeed were in place. But in every case - hardware, technology, software, even services - all these capabilities were part of a business model that had fallen wildly out of step with marketplace realities. There is no arguing that the System/360 mainframe business model was brilliant and correct when it was conceived some forty years ago. But by the late 1980s it had become fatally outmoded. It had failed to adapt as customers, technology and competitors changed.”
By 1995 IBM’s survival was no longer in question. And luckily for us, right around the same time the Internet was emerging as a major marketplace force. IBM then made what many thought was an out-of-character decision: we strongly embraced the Internet across the whole company, and created the IBM Internet Division, with me as general manager, to orchestrate this company-wide effort.
“I decided to declare e-business as our moon-shot, our galvanizing mission, an equivalent of the System/360 for a new era,” wrote Gerstner in his book. “We infused it into everything. It provided a powerful context for all of our businesses. It gave us both a marketplace-based mission and a new ground for our own behaviors and operating practices - in other words, culture. Most important, it was outward-facing. We were no longer focused on turning ourselves around. We were focused on setting the industry agenda again.”
IBM’s Internet strategy, which became known as e-business, was very well received in the marketplace. But the Internet, its open standards and overall market-focused approach, turned out to be much more than a technology change for IBM. It had a huge impact on the overall culture of the company, and helped transform IBM into an open, globally integrated enterprise, far more ready for business in the 21st century than we ever were before.
The second part of my TEDx story was about the similar, if not-quite-as-dramatic journey of the Westport Library. In the late 1990s I became a member of the Library’s Advisory Council, which was organized and led by its new Executive Director, Maxine Bleiweis. We wanted to make sure that the library properly leveraged the new capabilities of the Internet, - such as having a good website, a state-of-the-art online catalog, and wireless Internet access in its building. But, we were also trying to understand how the explosive growth of the Internet would impact the future of libraries.
As part of the Internet frenzy of the dot-com bubble years, many were saying that everything would soon become digital and virtual, and the new online world would overtake and become more important than the physical world. Given the growing digitization of books, music, videos and other content, would there still be a need for physical libraries in the future if people could more easily find whatever content they wanted to read, listen to or watch over the Internet? Why would anyone go to a library when everything they could ever want was available over the Internet?
Answers to these questions began to take shape as the Web continued to evolve toward its Web 2.0, social networking phase. While access to information and digital content of all sorts is very important and has continued to grow, a more profound kind of connectivity has evolved helping people interact with each other. These social networking capabilities remind us that humans are inherently social. We get together, establish communities and work and play as a team. We organize into a wide variety of institutions to get things done more effectively. We like to communicate, share ideas and learn from each other.
A few years ago Deloitte conducted a major study to measure the long term impact of digital technologies on business and society in general. One of their major findings was the growing importance of what it called knowledge flows. Economic value, for individuals as well as institutions, has been shifting from the amount of knowledge we have acquired over the years, to our ability to constantly learn. It is within this context that one has to consider the value of social networks and institutions, like libraries, and their impact in helping people better connect with each other and build sustaining relationships that enhance knowledge flows and innovation.
The study concluded that while digital, virtual interactions are important, they are not sufficient. “As computing, digital storage, and bandwidth performance improve exponentially, virtual [knowledge] flows are likely to grow more rapidly… However, physical flows will not be fully replaced by virtual flows. As people become more and more connected virtually, the importance of tacit knowledge exchange through physical, face-to-face interactions will only increase, leading to more physical flow… Talent migrates to the most vibrant geographies and institutions because that is where it can improve its performance more rapidly by learning faster… Increasing migration suggests virtual connection is not enough - people increasingly seek rich and serendipitous face-to-face encounters as well.”
Like all institutions in society, the role of the library is evolving and expanding in multiple dimensions. Its classic role as curator of its content and information is now extended to a hybrid collection of digital, as well as physical resources. Its role as the physical, intellectual center of the community has significantly expanded. With its many public events, - talks, panels, discussions, - the library provides an environment where people can physically interact with each other in an intellectually stimulating environment. The Internet makes it significantly easier to organize and publicize such physical events.
In addition, libraries play an important educational role as we transition from the industrial to our emerging information-based digital economy. The community library is one of the key places where everyone, from small children to senior citizens, can learn about and keep up with the latest technology innovations. For the past few years, for example, the Westport Library has had a MakerSpace, a place where people can learn about and get hands-on experience with 3D printing. And last year, the Library started a similar educational program on programmable robots.
From large global companies like IBM to community libraries like Westport’s, it’s not so easy to successfully reinvent an institution that has gone through a major disruptive change. And, a big part of what it takes to successfully do so, is the ability to imagine a potentially better future.