Organizational man

Irving Wladawsky-Berger started working at IBM in 1970 and retired in 2007 with what is, to me, the smartest corporate response to Linux/OpenSource as his capstone accomplishment.

TG: Sun has committed to releasing all of its code as open source. Do you think IBM will do the same?

IW-B: I don’t think so, because I honestly don’t think everybody wants to see all your code. Remember, the key to open source is not the ability to see the open software, it’s the forming of a community around it that will participate in its development and its maintenance.

You cannot go in your closet and look for old code and throw it out there and tell people to form a community around it. They may say, Irving, that’s legacy code that we have zero interest in working on. We continue to open source quite a bit of code, but we are fairly selective, and we work very closely with communities to decide whether to open source or not. (Guardian)

I think this second paragraph is misdirection, but nicely done – the highly paid corporate officers at Sun watched that zip over the plate, get caught, called strike, and tossed back to the pitcher before swinging wildly and falling over. More interesting, Wladawsky-Berger is thinking about the structure of corporations and the changes of the last 50 years.

The whole relationship between individuals and corporations started to change around twenty years ago because the old ways no longer worked.  Innovation and creativity are now needed more than ever in order to keep up with a continuing stream of technology and market changes.  Enterprises have had to become much more flexible and dynamic in order to survive the intense competition they started to face from companies around the world, large and small.  To do so, they have had to embrace a lot of the innovative entrepreneurship culture pioneered by VC’s and start-ups.

Similarly, individuals can no longer assume that just being loyal to a company will translate into a stable, orderly, life-long employment.  They are responsible for their own careers, and have to look out for their own opportunities. No matter how great a business they work for, they can no longer just rely on the company to take care of them.  Such a culture has much more in common with an entrepreneurial form of capitalism than with the corporate capitalism William Whyte wrote about.

This seems true and perceptive, as far as it goes. But if you read the blog of people at the other end of IBM’s changing business model you get another sense. “Entrepreneur” starts to sound a lot more like  Dickens and a lot less like Serge and Larry make a cool company.  The old corporate model depended on a social contract, that was stultifying, but the new model seems to me to depend on an unsustainable asymetrism of loyalties.  I wonder what Wladawsky-Berger really thinks of the stultifying and terrifying evaluation metrics that keep the company’s workers in line as the nimble behemoth sheds its high paid US staff.  One does not have to be in the grips of a nostalgia for the “organization man” days to wonder about the sustainability of a company that openly tells its workers and host communities that there is no social compact at all.