I.B.M.'s Chief Criticizes Staff Again

By John Markoff
The New York Times

June 19, 1991

John F. Akers, the chairman of I.B.M., wants all his employees to know that he meant it in April when he vented his frustrations about the company's poor performance to a group of managers.

On Friday, in an electronic message to employees, Mr. Akers punched home his original point that some of them were not working hard enough. [Text of message, page D5.]

"While I know many I.B.M.'ers have never worked as hard as they are working today," he wrote, "I am convinced that some of our people do not understand that they have a deeply personal stake in declining market share, revenue and profits."

The original controversy began after a manager's notes from a hard-hitting talk given by Mr. Akers in April were widely distributed on I.B.M.'s electronic message system.

A Heated Debate

That touched off a heated debate, with some employees attacking Mr. Akers for shouldering none of the blame personally. On Friday, Mr. Akers did accept some responsibility for the company's troubles.

Analysts said that the latest Akers remarks contained a lightly veiled threat of deeper cost-cutting. The company has come through several years of a difficult adjustment to stronger competition.

"It reinforces everything he said more eloquently and without the profanities," said Robert Djurdjevic, president of Annex Research, a market research firm based in Phoenix. "The only problem is that it is six years late."

Mr. Akers has refused to comment directly on his remarks. "I'm not sure what more we could say," Steven Eames, a spokesman for the Armonk, N.Y., computer maker, said yesterday.

Since his earlier remarks, Mr. Akers has been attacked both inside and outside the International Business Machines Corporation for blaming the computer maker's employees rather than its managers for the declining profitability. But in his Friday message, which will shortly be reprinted in the company's Think magazine, he stuck to his criticisms.

Mr. Akers, wryly distinguishing between communications "unfiltered and otherwise," said he wanted to take his message directly to the company's 370,000 employees. He added that "a healthy level of concern and urgency" -- what he referred to earlier and again last Friday as "tension" -- was essential for everyone in the company.

Mr. Akers also noted that some of its problems had been with I.B.M. for years. He drew parallels between his own situation today and that of the company's founder, Thomas J. Watson Sr. He quoted Mr. Watson as saying more than 45 years ago: "It becomes increasingly apparent in my small sphere of observation, and I conclude the company as a whole, that the average I.B.M.'er has lost sight of the reasons for his company's existence. I.B.M. exists to provide a return on invested capital to the stockholders."

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," Mr. Akers said.

In a question and answer section appended to the message, Mr. Akers, now in his sixth year as chairman, accepted some of the blame for I.B.M.'s struggles. "Some want to know if I hold myself accountable," he said. "The answer is yes. I certainly do. And I expect our management team, to whom we have delegated a great deal of decision-making, will be just as responsible and accountable. There should be no doubt about that."

Mr. Akers also expressed some chagrin about the way his remarks became public. "When I asked a small group of managers to help get the message out, I got more help than I expected," he said. "I would have preferred that more managers communicate face to face with people. And I absolutely believe people should learn about what's going on in I.B.M. within the company, rather than second-hand, through the media."

GRAPHIC: Photo: The chairman of I.B.M., John F. Akers, whose remarks in April about his company's problems brought him criticism from both inside and outside the company. (The New York Times)


Copyright 1991 The New York Times Company