Cover Story

Hot Dogs, Roller Coasters, and Complaints

Evan I. Schwartz in Rhinebeck, N. Y., with bureau reports
Business Week

June 17, 1991

Family Days at IBM aren't as well known as the company's generous medical benefits or no-layoff custom, but they're just as much a Big Blue tradition. On spring Saturdays, the outings draw IBMers, spouses, and kids to places such as the sprawling Dutchess County Fair Grounds in leafy Rhinebeck, N. Y., 65 miles north of IBM's Armonk headquarters. There, on June 1, nearly 1,000 workers from the company's Kingston (N. Y.) plant turned out for hamburgers and hot dogs, rock bands and roller coasters.

Such events are supposed to foster goodwill between IBM and its workers. But the festive mood that day was tempered by IBM Chairman John F. Akers' hard-hitting remarks to managers, reported in the press just days earlier. ''Akers doesn't seem to be accepting responsibility'' and is blaming the rank and file for IBM's flat profits and declining market share, said a chip designer. In his 12 years at IBM, the employee said, he has more than pulled his weight, and doesn't deserve any blame. Others said that the remarks made them fear for their jobs. ''I've watched a lot of people around me get dismissed lately,'' said a field technician, who noted that the no-layoff custom doesn't protect nonperformers from getting fired.


Throughout IBM's far-flung empire, employees have greeted Akers' message with complaints, prescriptions, and confessions. A distribution manager in Boca Raton, Fla., said he and co-workers found Akers' language offensive -- mainly because IBM has worked hard, with its white shirts and blue suits, to build a squeaky-clean image: ''He swore a lot, and that's not the kind of example you set for your employees.''

Others lamented that Akers didn't address IBM's real problem: a bureaucracy that often stifles individuality and alienates customers. A saleswoman in New York City who last year sold $ 50 million worth of IBM gear said it is ''politically incorrect'' to question development plans. As a result, she said, information about what customers really want doesn't get to technical staff. Salespeople sell what's available, and development teams work on what's assigned, she said. Even if you ''scream loud enough'' to get through to developers, she said, they often react too slowly. ''By the time our product is out, my customers will already have a competitor's product in place.''

Back at IBM Family Day, employees had a lot to say about inefficiency. Indeed, half of those interviewed said many of their collegues don't work hard enough. While watching his daughter ride the Sooper Jet, a man who has been testing hardware at IBM for 13 years admitted that he slacks off. The reason: ''My managers don't motivate me.'' He said he is fed up with supervisors who ignore him and focus only on their own careers.

Others said this blame-it-on-someone-else attitude may be crippling the company. One employee claimed that his team, the one that designs the RS/6000 workstation line, has a take-charge attitude that could be a model for the rest of IBM. Since its debut in February, 1990, the RS/6000 has grabbed 7% of the cutthroat workstation market. What this design unit has that the rest of IBM needs most, he said, is ''real leadership.''


An IBM software developer for 10 years, he said that his managers don't hand out promotions to employees who simply agree with them, standard practice in other IBM units. Instead, he said, his supervisors hire good people and give them authority. ''I think John Akers is frustrated,'' he said, ''because the old way of doing things isn't working.'' After the carnival, a number of IBM families drove a few miles down the road to visit Hyde Park, home of Franklin D. Roosevelt. There, posted on one of the museum's walls, is a 1932 FDR campaign speech asserting that America needs bold new methods for dealing with its crushing problems. ''Above all else,'' he wrote, ''we must try something.'' If Akers has come to a similar conclusion, IBM's employees may be in for a New Deal of their own. 


Copyright 1991 McGraw-Hill, Inc.