This week’s blog is an overview of the findings of my new report, “IBM’s Plan to Transform University IT Education: And Spur Student Enthusiasm in the Process” in which I examine how IBM’s university alliances have evolved to emphasize education in areas that transcend IT skills, and the long-term benefits that IBM is likely to derive from this approach.
IBM started its Academic Initiative in the 1950s when it helped universities create Information Science programs. It extended this program around specific IT and engineering skills and then, in 2003 added a Service Science, Management and Engineering (SSME) initiative.
This SSME initiative went way beyond the university efforts of IBM—as well as most other vendors—that traditionally focused on “hard” science and technology skills, such as around programming, database design, electrical engineering and physics. SSME, in contrast, emphasizes the needs for universities to encourage multi-disciplinary education and the need to develop T-shaped skills, which combine deep skills in one or more fields, plus a high-level understanding across many others. IBM worked with universities to help professors expand the focus of their own courses and departmental curricula and, most importantly, to coordinate curricula across multiple schools within a university.
It, for example, encouraged and helped schools refocus engineering education around real-world problems and train engineers to work in multi-disciplinary teams. It also challenged business schools to evolve their traditional focus on management of manufacturing companies (which now accounts for less than 20% of developed-country economies) to developing a similarly rigorous management science around services (which already account for about 60%). Some 40 universities have are going further, creating truly integrated curricula that cross traditionally sacrosanct boundaries—integrating courses across schools including management, information science, engineering and social science. A few have even begun offering new cross-school degree programs around SSME-related themes.
Smarter Planet—Using SSME to Change the World
IBM’s huge, corporate-wide Smarter Planet initiative is, in many ways, the application of SSME to critical, real-world problems. SSME, after all, is an effort to create a science around decomposing and recomposing service-based processes, optimizing service supply chains and value chains and creating interdisciplinary research centers to design and optimize complex “service systems”—combinations of people, organizational networks and technologies that are aligned around a specific objective, such as designing and managing more livable cities, more effective healthcare systems and more efficient energy networks.
This effectively transforms SSME from an academic discipline into an instrument for addressing societal needs. It provides universities with the tools required to create education tracks and, eventually, degree programs around social goals—thereby attracting and making it easier for students who want to “change the world”. Moreover, IBM’s efforts to help shape educational curricula across Smarter Planet initiatives now transcends traditional information science, engineering and business schools to reach into areas including mathematics, architecture, healthcare management, public service, urban studies, and others.
Although such programs may not attract those students who are driven to become hedge fund managers or musicians, they do have the potential of attracting and providing “employment-ready” educations for millions of other students with similarly strong drives in other fields.
Engineering a Path to an IBM Job
Virtually all corporate university education programs share a common goal—to facilitate the education of students with the skills and perspective required to address the talent needs of the sponsor corporation, its customers and its partners. It’s easy to see the direct benefit that IBM can gain from programs that teach System z mainframe skills, that Intel can gain from multi-core architecture design programs or that Wal-Mart can derive from the University of Arkansas’ supply-chain optimization program.
But what benefits will IBM gain from encouraging universities to launch broad, non-vendor specific programs like SSME, healthcare management and transportation system design? The company’s logo isn’t on or necessarily associated with these programs, nor is IBM the first place most newly-minted graduates would look for a job to solve world hunger—unless, perhaps, you know about IBM’s Smarter Food program and its projects to increase agricultural yields, improve sustainability, reduce waste through the optimization of supply chains and improve food inspection processes.
That’s where some of IBM’s multiple university outreach programs fit in. The company has 4,000 University Ambassadors, typically IBM domain experts, who volunteer to work with universities to engage with faculty members, develop classes around real-world problems, deliver guest lectures, participate in seminars and otherwise engage with professors and students. The company also provides education tools, such as its INNOV8 Business Process Modeling (BPM) simulation game and is adapting many of its other courses to new learning methods, as through support of community portals and wikis, discussion forums, blogs, and Facebook and Twitter communities.
It also has an active university research program through which it funds professors and graduate students to conduct specialized research and all types of fellowship and internship programs in which it works with professors to identify high-potential students. It also partners with universities on IBM’s annual Battle of the Brains competition, the most recent of which attracted more than 28,000 students from 2,000 universities worldwide. These competitions engage interdisciplinary teams to tackle real world problems. The theme of these competitions? Would you guess they are typically aligned around one of IBM’s 21 (and growing) Smarter Planet themes?
IBM will certainly not attract or hire all of the graduates from SSME and Smarter Planet-theme programs. Nor does it want to. Although it hopes, and is positioning itself to identify and recruit some of the most talented graduates, its ultimate objective is to seed the world—its businesses, governments, NGOs and universities—with people who think about the world’s needs (and solutions) in much the same way that IBM does, who have been touched by IBM Ambassadors and programs, who understand IBM products, and who recognize that IBM is dedicated to addressing the same types of needs as are they.
This all leaves me with two questions. When will other corporations recognize the long-term payoffs of this broader approach to partnering with universities? And, how will they reach professors and students in the myriad fields that will be increasingly reshaped and redefined by IT?