This is a summary of my January 2011 report “IBM Corporate Service Corps: Integrating Business Objectives and CSR”. For more information on this report or to purchase it for $995, click here.
IBM has one of the strongest talent development programs and one of the strongest corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs in the technology industry. What do you get when you combine them? IBM’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC)—a great example of how companies can do well by doing good (see my May 2010 report for a view of another IBM initiative, this one or integrating its university CSR and internal talent development initiatives.)
IBM’s Corporate Service Corps is a leadership development program, inspired by the U.S. Peace Corps. It is intended to put IBM’s most valuable resource—its people—in places that can most benefit from their expertise, and provide these employees with experiences from which they can gain broad leadership and cross-cultural experience. It provides select, high-potential employees with intense experience in working with global teams on short-duration, high-intensity projects in emerging countries. It is also a big expansion of IBM’s CSR efforts that turns social volunteerism into a life learning experience.
The program, which was launched in 2008, deploys small, 8-12-person multi-disciplinary teams to provide pro bono consulting—helping emerging country government, nonprofit and non-governmental organizations develop specific plans for addressing some of their most pressing societal needs. These can range from upgrading a government agency’s IT environment and processes, to developing a supply-chain management process for getting agricultural products to market, to improving the quality of a community’s public water supply. While each project is different, each is intended to result in practical blueprints for solving problems that are limiting a country or a community’s growth and their peoples’ ability to contribute to that growth.
Although CSC is absolutely intended to deliver broad societal benefits to emerging countries, it is first and foremost a corporate leadership development program. Its goal, however, is not so much to teach specific business skills as it is to instill the qualities individuals require to become leaders in a globally integrated business. Participants are given deep, intensive exposure to emerging markets and diverse cultures and experience in forming and working in multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary teams. They are expected to return with improved cultural literacy, better appreciation for the strengths and limitations of different cultures and work styles, and especially greater adaptability and global teaming skills.
Although the program entails a lot of additional work (30-day in-country assignments plus extensive preparation and post-return requirements) in addition to the employee’s day job, participation is seen as both a privilege and a reward. It is a validation of one’s accomplishments in the company and as a steppingstone to advancement within the company. This makes the program extremely popular and selective—attracting about 10,000 applicants for the first 400 positions.
Although there is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence to validate the program. IBM, being IBM, requires more formal evidence that its goals are being met. Harvard Business School assistant professor Christopher Marquis designed and conducted a formal survey of participants and recipients and evaluated the results as part of a case study on the program. His findings: CSC is “effective and executing on its goals and mission” (of providing a unique—and highly scalable and cost-effective—leadership development experience, societal benefits to emerging countries and improving employee’s perception of and commitment to IBM). IBM claims the program also delivers some additional side benefits, as in improving IBM’s brand in new and emerging markets and even in creating some new sales opportunities for the company.
In some ways, there is little that is really new in CSC. It combines two relatively common corporate practices—the use of overseas postings as an executive development tool, and encouraging and funding employees to perform volunteer work. The big difference is that IBM has integrated them into a fundamentally new form that delivers these experiences to far more executive candidates than would be previously possible, and does it in a cost-effective way that delivers additional benefits to the company.
IBM will absolutely continue, and modestly extend the program. Its ultimate value, however, is likely to transcend IBM. Some of IBM’s customers, including Novartis, Federal Express and Dow Corning are already learning from and have begun to implement similar programs. Meanwhile, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with IBM to create the Alliance for International Corporate Volunteerism (ICV). The alliance will expand upon the CSC model to facilitate participation by many other companies and create corporate responsibility networks that integrate activities of corporations, governments, international organizations, foundations and other participants. USAID will also serve as a delivery coordinator for some of these projects, thereby increasing the chances that CSC’s consulting recommendations will deliver their intended value.