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The Future of Employee Engagement: IBM’s Triple-Benefit Programs

Raz Godelnik
| Friday October 25th, 2013 | 3 Comments

BRAZIL_2bCurrently, I am working with a group of MBA students on developing an employee engagement strategy focusing on sustainability for a large corporation. It is an interesting task, since everyone seems to agree that this sort of employee engagement can be very beneficial for any corporation, but it’s still very difficult to find companies that have implemented it successfully and can provide a good example of how to do it right.

Then I attended COMMIT! Forum earlier this month in New York, where I finally saw the light. I found one company that not only provides a great example of successful engagement, but also offers a model that can be a game changer in the intersection of business and sustainability. It is no other than the Big Blue, aka IBM.

Two IBM programs were presented during the first day of the conference: Corporate Service Corps and Smarter Cities Challenge. Now, neither of these programs is new – the first began in 2008 and the second in 2010, but this is actually even a better reason to pay more attention to what they have to offer as they already have a record to show.

First came Corporate Service Corps. The program, IBM explains, “empowers IBM employees as global citizens by sending groups of 10 – 15 individuals from different countries with a range of skills to an emerging market for four-week community-based assignments. During the assignment, participants perform community-driven economic development projects working at the intersection of business, technology, and society.”

The program started “to help provide IBMers with high quality leadership development while delivering high quality problem solving for communities and organizations in emerging markets.” Since then, the program has sent over 2400 participants in over 200 teams to more than 34 countries around the world, working on issues like developing a road map for a smarter city in Ho Chi Minh City, creating a free health care program in Nigeria, and formulating a national supply chain for medicine in Ghana.

As you can see, from the start this program was about creating shared value. An even better way to describe it was offered at the conference by Stanley Litow, IBM’s VP of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs. This is a triple benefit program, he explained. For IBMers, this is a highly-regarded leadership development opportunity.  For the communities, it provides access to resources and knowledge, and for the company, it helps build continuing value and enhances its reputation in growth markets for IBM.

Not just any IBMer can participate in the program – Litow described a very competitive process, where the company is putting a lot of effort into finding the right people that will have the best mix of skills and geographic representation. In addition, the company includes in the program only employees it wants to invest in for the long-term.

What’s interesting here is that IBM managed to take the idea of volunteering in communities, which is nothing new, and transform it into a highly-regarded executive leadership development program that is directly connected to the company’s core business strategy (in this case increasing its understanding and presence in global growth markets). And all of this without using the S word even once.

Now, let’s talk about results. IBM reports that in its first five years the program has completed 850 assignments, helping to improve life for at least 140,000 people. When it comes to the employees, nine of every ten IBM participants say, according to the company, that “their international corporate service experience provided them with excellent leadership opportunities, while helping them better understand IBM’s role in the developing world, increasing their cultural awareness, and making them more effective at their jobs. Most employees say that participation in the program boosted their desire to complete their career at IBM.”

And IBM? For IBM this program provided many benefits, but I think the main one, outside the enhanced employee retention and satisfaction, is the foot-in-the-door opportunity in new markets that it sees as important to its future. For example, Litow mentioned that one assignment led to receiving the company’s first large-scale contract in Nigeria.

These triple benefits are also evident in the second program – Smarter Cities Challenge, which was presented at the conference by Doris Gonzalez, Director Corporate Citizenship, Americas at IBM. In this case the program contributes the skills and expertise of IBMers to specifically address critical challenges facing cities around the world like transportation and health. The program puts teams on the ground for three weeks to work closely with city leaders and deliver recommendations on how to make the city smarter and more effective. Over the past three years, 100 cities have been selected to receive grants totaling in over $50 million to date.

Overall, the opportunity here is very clear – redefining employee engagement by creating triple benefit programs that can gradually become leadership development programs. After all, many of the participants said this is much better than any other executive leadership program they had ever participated in. It’s also important that these opportunities will be offered only to employees that go through a competitive screening process. This way, you make a sustainability program exciting, highly-regarded and desirable (three adjectives that usually don’t go hand in hand with sustainability).

And let’s not forget the impact on the future c-suite – having more executives participate in this kind of leadership development program will surely guarantee a much friendlier c-suite culture toward sustainability and its benefits to business.

[Image credit: IBM]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Read more about what makes a responsible company on our  social responsibility page here.


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  • Don’t Drink the Blue Koolaid

    Funny you should use the spin from IBM as a “good” example. If this is the best there is out there, then public corporations’ attempts at CSR are as cynical as I believe. I’m a former denizen of the hallowed halls at Big Blue and I can tell you there is nothing that is done for altruistic reasons. Everything has a connection to the bottom line. I’m not sure it’s possible to utter “public limited company” and “good corporate citizen” in the same sentence. No CEO will ever be comfortable standing up and saying, sorry we missed our quarterly numbers by 2 cents because we invested in helping to the developing world for free. I provided advice to a colleague who was “selected” for one of the trips. She didn’t have a clue about the subject matter of the project she was assigned to. It was a photo op for Big Blue in the developing world and an expensive team building exercise for those who went.

    • jenboynton

      Thanks for your comments – we love a personal perspective! I think the challenge for any company is that CSR initiatives will always be the first to be cut, unless the financial pay back for them is solidly defined. We need to do a better job making that business case for behaving well and then there doesn’t need to be a choice between financial returns and doing the right thing.

    • razgo

      Thank you for your comment. I think there’s nothing cynical about aspiring to have an employee engagement program that also benefits the company. Actually, I think that any such program that doesn’t aspire to become a triple-benefit program isn’t good enough because it’s not making the most out of this important tool.

      Also, while I’m sure that not all the IBMers participating in these programs share a positive view about them, the evidence that IBM presents is very clear: “Nine of every ten IBM participants say their international corporate service experience provided them with excellent leadership opportunities, while helping them better understand IBM’s role in the developing world, increasing their cultural awareness, and making them more effective at their jobs. Most employees say that participation in the program boosted their desire to complete their career at IBM. Engaged and committed employees are inspired to provide exceptional client experiences.”

      I believe that this sort of feedback (which is also evident in the blog posts and tweets on the program’s page) as well as the positive feedback from the communities and cities participating in these programs helps in making the point that these programs are indeed what IBM claims them to be – triple-benefit programs.