Lessons from IBM | Sherpas in Blue Shirts

Posted On May 11, 2015

Have you noticed how few service providers have the ability maintain a market leader role when the market changes to favor new technologies, or new service models? It’s very difficult to make this shift, and I’ve seen very few companies achieve the shift – let alone do it three times. Just one. Wow!

If we look back at the service provider landscape in the early 1990s in the classic outsourcing space, the leaders in the service industry were Accenture, CSC, EDS, IBM, and Perot.

Then the growth opportunities shifted to the labor arbitrage model in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Suddenly the group of leaders changed to Accenture, Cognizant, IBM, Infosys, and Wipro.

Now as we move away from those classic leaders and shift to the new models (SaaS, BPaaS, platforms, and consumption-based), there are three leaders: ADP, IBM, and Salesforce.

Lessons from IBM

Looking back at the market leaders over the years, some have disappeared, as the figure above illustrates. EDS is now owned by HP, Perot is owned by Dell, and ACS is owned by Xerox. What stands out in the graph is that only one company has been able to consistently shift when the market shifts – IBM.

How have they managed to do this? Here are some lessons we can learn from Big Blue.

  1. Be willing to divest. IBM has been absolutely ruthless and relentless in forcing itself to divest businesses that constrain the firm and prevent them from successfully moving into the markets.
  2. I blogged about the noise in social media earlier this year about IBM’s potential layoffs and explained it was a reskilling issue. I think this is yet another example of the firm having the discipline to take the medicine and do the things that allow it to succeed and maintain a leadership position.
  3. Buy, don’t build. IBM’s approach to entering new markets is often through acquisitions. The firm is quite willing to learn from others and leverage an existing business. IBM recognizes that business models are different, and it’s very difficult to build a new business model inside of the old one. Therefore, they buy new companies.
  4. Protect new businesses. After acquiring a company, IBM protects that business. They incubate them and allow them to grow. In the last two years, IBM launched two new divisions: analytics (Watson) and cloud. The firm pulls those businesses out of the rest of the company and connects the R&D to Big Blue’s customers in a tight loop. It also protects these businesses from IBM’s mainstream businesses, which would tend to prey on them and inhibit their progress.

These four strategies have enabled IBM to maintain market leadership despite market shifts. They stand out as lessons for other firms seeking to stay relevant and stay in leadership positions in the market.


Photo credit: Flickr

Everest Group Executive Viewpoints icon Related Articles