"The notion of the ‘authentic enterprise’ is that how we are as a company is who we are"

Senior Vice President, Marketing and Communications, IBM

Jon Iwata speaking at the European Communications Summit 2012 in Brussels

IBM is regularly cited as one of the world’s most valuable brands. Communicating on behalf of such a prestigious brand must be a considerable responsibility, and yet it is something you train your employees to do themselves.  Could you expand on this – how does IBM go about achieving this?

We learned several years ago that the biggest influence on a person’s perception about our company is their personal interaction with IBMers. Today, ‘interaction’ is not limited to face-to-face contact and the IBMers with whom they interact can be anywhere in the world. In the transparent world we live in, how we act as IBMers, no matter our role, is on display for the world to see.  Because of this, our role as a marketing, communications and citizenship function changes quite dramatically. It is insufficient to merely communicate to employees. Our role is to help IBMers live our values. This requires creating and supporting a culture where employees are encouraged, empowered and recognised for manifesting the unique character of our company. This is why what we used to call ‘internal communications’ is called Workforce Enablement at my company.

What makes a great company?

A great company is not only a successful company, it is a unique company. What it decides to do, it does better than any company in the world. It is authentic. How it behaves and acts is entirely consistent with its character and what it stands for. 

It is still relatively unusual to find one person in charge of both communications and marketing. Could you tell us about how these two functions compliment each other at IBM?

Communicators instinctively think of multiple stakeholders simultaneously – the media, employees, retirees, governments, analysts, customers, neighbors and others.  This is of increasing importance in this world of instant communications and near-total transparency. Communicators also understand the art of influence, of relationships and mutuality. Again, this is a vital skill in the world of social networks, which works on the basis of influence and relationships. The strength of marketers is their rigour and how they see their ultimate goal. They go beyond the message, beyond changing opinion and perception. Their job is not done until the audience takes an action – typically, that means a purchase decision.  Marketing holds itself accountable for action, for outcomes. At IBM, we’ve found great advantages in having all of these skills and capabilities on one global team. It doesn’t mean we’ve homogenised professions. It means we can align and deploy what we need – and, most importantly, build new kinds of capabilities

From your vantage point as leader of IBM’s Smarter Planet strategy, how do you foresee the role of the corporate communicator being affected by increased transparency and readily available information?

Smarter Planet is a way of describing what some are now calling the era of Big Data – and that includes, but is not limited to, all of the information people generate through mobile devices and social networks. The implications of this for those of us in communications, public affairs and marketing are profound. We will have to learn how to capture and make sense of all of this data. I’m not talking about measurement. This is about truly understanding and engaging individuals – customers, employees, citizens – rather than broad segments or audiences. It is now possible to engage at the highly personalised, individual level, but really no one has figured this out, at least not at scale.

How do you quell the fears of your chief financial officer, or the general counsel, or human resources, about ‘leakage’ via employees’ use of social media?

There are legitimate concerns – disclosure of financial information, intellectual property leakage, information technology security risks, even recruitment of top talent. I’ve enjoyed a strong collaboration with IBM’s chief financial officer, general counsel, chief information officer, our head of human resources and our chief privacy officer. We haven’t always seen eye-to-eye on every issue, but we are in total agreement that social media is inevitable, so we have committed ourselves to figuring out how to use it to IBM’s advantage. As social networking has evolved, we have evolved with it. Years ago we established a progressive blogging policy that actually encouraged IBMers to blog, and to do so responsibly. We learned a lot from that, foremost that employees are responsible and worthy of trust. Of course, you read and hear things that are critical of management sometimes. But, of course, employees have always said such things. At least now we know what they think and can act upon it.  We have continued to emphasise both risk mitigation – through education and training of employees – and the use of social media to create business value. We are a company of experts, so we see social media as simply a new way for professionals to participate in and contribute to their fields. It is a way for them to enhance their expertise and, through that, to enhance IBM’s reputation and brand. 

By encouraging employees to take ownership of communicating the brand, doesn’t that take responsibility or power away from the professional communicator?

For more than 100 years IBMers have represented IBM. The very fact that we are known as IBMers rather than ‘IBM employees’ is testament to this strategy. Obviously, we have not – and could and would not – attempted to control what IBMers say and do in meetings, at conferences, at the office and the lab. Now technology has given them, and everyone, a printing press and a broadcast studio. We cannot think about this in terms of control or power. It’s about how any entity, whether a business, a country, a community or an individual, operates in this new world. As professionals I would say that we are moving from knowing how to marshal mass communications to empowering masses of communicators. Our job increasingly is to help IBMers be expert communicators.

IBM is heavily involved in redefining the corporation as a social citizen. Where would you pin-point the beginning of this kind of thinking, and could you describe your own role and involvement in IBM’s approach to corporate citizenship?

For the past 100 years, our core values have compelled IBM to take on a broad responsibility in the societies in which we operate. However, over the last dozen years or more, our approach to demonstrating or realising that commitment has become closer to the core of what we do as a company. Today, we apply the expertise of our people and our technology to some of the world’s most pressing societal problems. For example, our Corporate Service Corps sends groups of IBM experts from across the company to emerging markets, to work on local business or societal challenges on a volunteer basis. This is hugely motivating for IBMers who wish to make a difference in the world.  

In your position at the Arthur Page Society, you’ve spoken about the authentic organisation, those companies that stand out as having a unique identity that determines how they work on every level of the organisation. Could you expand on this for our readers – how does this kind of alignment of operations and cultures work?

The notion of the ‘authentic enterprise’ is that how we are as a company is who we are. Because of the transparent world we now live in, the actual behaviour of our employees and executives has a far more powerful effect on our brand and reputation than any formal communication or campaign. Each company must decide what makes it unique. What does it distinctively do in the world? What value does it alone create? This is the beginning of authenticity – what we call the ‘corporate character’. Of course, defining character is only the first step. It is a never-ending process to activate that character throughout the enterprise. This means instilling the company’s values and purpose in every employee. It also means examining gaps in our operations and performance and then systematically closing them. Of course, no communications function can do this alone. This is why collaboration across functions and operations is required. Some of my peers have even said that in the future the ‘CCO’ title may come to mean ‘chief collaboration officer’.  I don’t think they mean this literally, but the point is well taken.

Finally, we’ve spoken a lot about changes in the corporate and communications landscape; what are the things that don’t change?

The best CCOs will always take a holistic view of the enterprise – customers, employees, investors, neighbours. They will always be critical thinkers and clear writers. They will be trusted counselors. They will always be people of integrity.

Interview: Dafydd Phillips

Jon C. Iwata

Jon Iwata leads IBM’s marketing, communications and citizenship organisation. This global team is responsible for the marketing of IBM’s portfolio of products and services, market development and insights, communications and corporate affairs, and stewardship of the IBM brand, recognised as one of the most valuable in the world. He is chairman of the IBM Strategy Team, which focuses on long-term strategic issues and opportunities, and is a member of the IBM Operating Team, responsible for day-to-day marketplace execution. In addition, he is chairman of the Arthur W. Page Society, a professional association dedicated to strengthening the management policy role of chief communications officers.