Less than a year into her tenure as IBM's Chief Marketing Officer, Michelle Peluso has announced that her thousands of marketing team members must now work out of one of six different locations—Atlanta, Raleigh, Austin, Boston, San Francisco, and New York.
Many of these employees have either been working remotely from home, or from other IBM offices. The Register reported that "employees will not get to choose a nearby office, but will instead be assigned a location based on where their team is predominantly situated."
Quartz reported that "before the marketing department, IBM’s design department, security department, procurement department, large parts of the IT department, and teams that work on Watson, Watson Health, Watson Internet of Things, and Cloud Development had already been co-located, among others. Some of these teams have worked together in offices from the start, while other departments, like marketing, called employees together from distributed locations. Though not every department at IBM will be colocated, many will."
In an internal video, Michelle explained:
I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, and a lot of time working with teams from real-estate, finance, HR, operations, the geo leaders, the marketing leaders – and starting with the US, it's really time for us to start bringing our teams together, more shoulder to shoulder.
There is only one recipe I know for success, particularly when we are in as much of a battle with Microsoft and the West Coast companies as we are, and that is by bringing great people with the right skills, give them the right tools, give them a mission, make sure they can analyze their results, put them in really creative inspiring locations and set them free.
I beg to differ.
There is never a single recipe for success, and the best way to make a massive company more innovative is not to gather thousands of employees in huge office buildings.
While I certainly understand the benefit of working shoulder to shoulder, let's explore some other options that Michelle could have taken before she wrenched families from their communities and fully embraced the 1950's concept of commuting to work on overcrowded highways:
Break into smaller groups, rather than combining into larger ones. Quick! Who's more innovative, a massive company or an aggressive startup? (This one doesn't even need any explanation.)
Use technology in more innovative ways. Back in January, IBM released its Principles for Transparency and Trust in the cognitive era. They include this line:
The economic and societal benefits of this new era will not be realized if the human side of the equation is not supported.
So the company smart enough to bring us cognitive computing can't find technological ways to make people successful without driving them to the same locations?
In other words, there is NO way to use technology to unite diverse groups of people in numerous locations and make it possible for them to be highly productive?
Michelle Peluso, do I have that right?
Recognize that a lack of innovation isn't a function of location. There are numerous reasons why large companies cease to be innovative. They range from rigid processes and thick layers of management to the simple fact that over a certain size, corporate growth typically slows down.
If you had to list the reasons why IBM's growth isn't what management wants it to be, "geographic dispersal" probably wouldn't be in the top ten.
But let's return to the human cost of this decision because most massive companies never want to stop and focus on that side of the equation.
Here's the real problem: IBM is too large for Michelle and her team to go employee by employee and decide whether they would be more innovative, more productive, and make a greater contribution if they worked out of a specific IBM office.
Instead, she has made a one-size-fits-all decision that ignores the human cost entirely. IBM matters, families don't.
I'm not saying that it is never appropriate for a company to tell an employee: we need you here.
I'm saying it is always wrong to make blanket decisions that uproot families and fail to leverage any personal insights about the actual human employees whose lives you are changing.
Sorry, Michelle, but this is the least innovative move I have seen in a very long time.