IBM’s Multicultural Multinational Teams

Historically, IBM was one of the most tradition-bound companies on the planet. It was famous for its written and unwritten rules—such as its no-layoff policy, its focus on individual promotions and achievement, the expectation of lifetime service at the company, and its requirement of suits and white shirts at work. How times have changed.

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IBM has clients in 170 countries and now does two-thirds of its business outside the United States. As a result, it has overturned virtually all aspects of its old culture. One relatively new focus is in the teamwork area. While IBM, like almost all large organizations, uses work teams extensively, the way it does so is unique (Aguinis, & Kraiger, 2009).

To instill in its managers an appreciation of local culture, and as a means of opening up emerging markets, IBM sends hundreds of its employees to month-long volunteer project teams in regions of the world where most big companies don’t do business (Hymowitz, 2008). Al Chakra, a software development manager located in Raleigh, North Carolina, was sent to join GreenForest, a furniture manufacturing team in Timisoara, Romania. With Chakra were IBM employees from five other countries. Together, the team helped GreenForest become more computer savvy to help its business. In return for the IBM team’s assistance, GreenForest was charged, well, nothing.

This is hardly pure altruism at work. IBM calculates these multicultural, multinational teams are good investments for several reasons. First, they help lay the groundwork for opening up business in emerging economies, many of which might be expected to enjoy greater future growth than mature markets. Stanley Litow, the IBM VP who oversees the program, also thinks it helps IBMers develop multicultural team skills and an appreciation of local markets. He notes, “We want to build a leadership cadre that learns about these places and also learns to exchange their diverse backgrounds and skills.” Among the countries where IBM has sent its multicultural teams are Turkey, Tanzania, Vietnam, Ghana, and the Philippines.

As for Chakra, he was thrilled to be selected for the team. “I felt like I won the lottery,” he said. He advised GreenForest on how to become a paperless company in 3 years and recommended computer systems to boost productivity and increase exports to western Europe (Gupta, 2008).

Another team member, Bronwyn Grantham, an Australian who works at IBM in London, advised GreenForest about sales strategies. Describing her team experience, Grantham said, “I’ve never worked so closely with a team of IBMers from such a wide range of competencies.”

Assume you are employed by a consulting company that works with Fortune 1000 companies on Organizational Behavior topics. You have been asked to write a white paper in which you discuss the following questions. This paper will be used to inform potential clients about your company’s philosophy on teamwork and to give them a sense of how your company will prepare their teams. This is an extremely high profile assignment and its success is critical to your company.

Based on the above reading and the knowledge gained from your assigned readings, respond to the following questions:

  • If you calculate the person-hours devoted to IBM’s team projects, they amount to more than 180,000 hours of management time each year. Do you think this is a wise investment of IBM’s human resources? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think IBM’s culture changed from formal, stable, and individualistic to informal, impermanent, and team oriented?
  • Describe the stages of group development these teams should expect to experience. At each stage, make recommendations that will help move the team into the next stage.
  • Multicultural project teams often face problems with communication, expectations, and values. How do you think some of these challenges can be overcome?
  • Explain some of the group decision-making challenges the team may experience and recommend ways to overcome them.
  • Discuss at least three recommendations to help make these teams effective.
  • Identify three factors that will help make individuals into team players.

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