Remarks burn lines at Big Blue, Message Misfires

Akers' tongue-lashing of IBM employees seems to have been a strategic error

Geoffrey Rowan
The Globe and Mail

May 31, 1991

A SEVERE tongue-lashing of employees, which IBM chairman John Akers may have intended a Calgary-based manager to leak to the whole company as a motivational exercise, seems to be creating more disaffection than inspiration.

Electronic messages have been humming through the computer network of International Business Machines Corp. since Calgary branch manager Brent Henderson circulated notes from a meeting of fast-rising managers that he attended in April.

There is every indication that Mr. Akers intended his remarks, delivered to a small group of managers, to be circulated throughout IBM, although he probably naively thought his criticisms would stay within the company, said IBM analyst Robert Djurdjevic, president of Phoenix-based Annex Research.

The meeting took place sometime between April 19 and April 26 but the earliest anyone has reported seeing the comments on IBM's electronic mail system is May 17, said Mr. Djurdjevic, a former IBM Canada Ltd. executive who follows the company on a full-time basis.

"Why did it take so long for the message to get around? I have reason to believe the chairman's office either tacitly or actively condoned that way of dissemination, thinking that maybe it's not a bad idea for word to get out."

He thinks the three-week delay resulted when Mr. Henderson first went to his peers with his notes, then to his direct supervisors, who bounced it around, and eventually to the chairman's office, where internal release of the communication was approved.

Mr. Henderson was not available in his Calgary office yesterday. Reporters were referred to IBM Canada's Toronto public relations office.

If the harsh words were meant to motivate IBM employees, Mr. Akers' strategy seems to have backfired.

One employee, who sent one of scores of messages out over the company's computer system after Mr. Akers' remarks surfaced, suggested that the only way the chairman could save face is to resign.

"What Mr. Akers has done and is saying doesn't earn my respect," that employee wrote. He also speculated that he might lose his job "for telling Emperor Akers that he has no clothes."

Mr. Akers' message definitely misfired, according to Mr. Djurdjevic.

"It's analogous to a baseball manager blaming the team for the losses. You know how productive that will be for the next game. His comments served to demoralize the team."

The criticism of IBM employees are particularly hard to swallow for some employees, coming as they do from the least successful chairman in IBM's history, based on revenue growth and profit. Mr. Akers has led the Armonk, N.Y.-based company for the past six years.

The controversial notes, were apparently taken when Mr. Akers spoke at a seminar in the United States.

The chairman blasted employees for the company's loss in overall market share to about 23 per cent worldwide, from about 37 per cent in 1983.

"The fact that we're losing share makes me Goddamn mad," Mr. Akers is quoted as saying. "I used to think my job was at risk if I lost a sale. Tell them theirs is at risk if they lose."

He also said the tension level is not high enough in the business, the expectation level is not high enough for IBM people and "too many people are standing around the water cooler waiting to be told what to do."

Mr. Akers is "out of touch if he thinks that the tension within IBM is not high enough," one employee shot back. "From where I sit, it's so high that management is paralyzed and doing their best to paralyze any employee doing useful productive work."

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