How IBM revolutionised corporate volunteering

Corporate Social Responsibility 6 Comments

The idea of corporate volunteering – companies encouraging staff to perform volunteer work – has long gained acceptance as a form of corporate social responsibility.

But IBM takes this concept to a whole new level.

Rather than work on local projects, participants in Big Blue’s Corporate Service Corps. (CSC) initiative are posted to places like Ghana, Vietnam, Kenya and other emerging economies. And they work with colleagues not from their own office but rather in multi-ethnic teams comprised of eight-fifteen IBMers chosen from different parts of the world.

Bold in nature, CSC represents a groundbreaking initiative in combining corporate social responsibility with global leadership training. It is well worthy of commendation.

Background – about the program
Modeled on the US Peace Corps., IBM’s Corporate Service Corps. initiative represents part of the company’s efforts to develop leaders who can think and act on a global scale.

Chosen from around the world, groups of eight to fifteen high performance IBM staff spend four weeks working on a pro-bono basis with governments and private enterprise in developing nations to design and plan infrastructure projects or generate ideas for process improvements.

(The make-up of each group is specifically chosen to ensure a breath of cultural diversity within each team.)

Kate Robertson, for example, an IT consultant in the UK, helped the provincial government of Bohol in the Philippines to develop practices and structure relating to human relations management. In Romania, engineer Al Shakria and his team reengineered the manufacturing process at a furniture manufacturing plant which doubled productivity by recommending a device which allowed machines to be positioned in such a way that the operator could drill and spray at the same time (refer IBM corporate video). And in Kenya, the team of eleven IBM staff from seven different countries worked alongside the Kenya Information, Communications and Technology Board, the Ministry of Information and Communication and the Digital Opportunity Trust to develop strategies to narrow the digital divide between rural and urban areas and accelerate the growth of communications in technology across the country (Kenyan CIO Magazine, Oct 13). 

The program has been enormously popular with IBM staff. According to The Economist (Oct 28), the company has received more than 10,000 applications since the program’s inception in 2007. Around 500 participants are chosen each year.

Win-win-win thinking
The delivers significant benefits to three key stakeholder groups:

• Recipient communities.

Obviously, individual communities in which the program operates derive immediate benefits as a result of the service provided.

Just as importantly, however, they also benefit through empowerment. IBM provides ideas and a plan, but local communities themselves do the implementation and achieve the outcome – with IBM having enabled them to do so.

• Individual participants.

Individual project participants benefit through experiencing a different country and culture and working alongside people from different parts of the world.

Project participants also benefit through a sense of accomplishment associated with having achieved something meaningful, contacts and friendships with other IBMers beyond their immediate office or location, and an expanded and more globalised outlook and perspective on life.

• The company itself.

Arguably the biggest beneficiary in all this is IBM itself.

From Big Blue’s perspective, the program delivers enormous benefits in terms of profile and corporate image in countries where a large portion of growth prospects lie. And though locals do most of the actual work associated with the individual projects which IBM helps plan, the company does on some occasions receive paid contracts for follow up work in areas of the implementation which are especially pertinent to its areas of expertise. Piotr Uszok, the mayor of Katowice, Poland, for example, who is extremely happy with the smarter-city advice he received this year, hopes that IBM will take part in the tendering process regarding projects which follow on from this (The Economist, October 28).

(IBM stresses its CSC services are offered without any strings attached, and that recipient communities face no obligation whatsoever to reward the company with any follow on contracts which arise out of CSC work.)

More broadly, projects like this go a long way toward retaining top performers, breaking down internal cultural barriers within global operations and maintaining the company’s reputation as a global leader.

But the most important benefit for IBM relates to the development of global leaders. Organisations which aspire to global industry leadership (or, in IBM’s case, maintaining global leadership) need leaders who understand how the world works. And the best way to develop these leaders? Exactly as IBM is doing: send up-and-comers out into the world.


6 Responses to “How IBM revolutionised corporate volunteering”

  1. Brad Shorr Says:
    November 30th, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    Andrew, Thank you for reporting on these positive stories. Maybe I’m simply oblivious, but I never find stories like this in the mainstream press … mostly you just get negativity. IBM is using its power to bring some much needed good into the world. Let’s hope other companies follow their example 0 what a difference it would make.
    Brad Shorr recently posted..Facebook SEO- Open Graph and New OpportunityMy ComLuv Profile

  2. Andrew Heaton Says:
    December 1st, 2010 at 7:44 am


    I once did a little experiment whereby I got out the first eight or so pages of a daily newspaper. In those eight pages, I counted a total of fifteen negative stories, several stories which were neither negative nor positive, and just two stories which had a positive or inspiring tone.

    It’s understandable why the news focuses so much on negativity. Scandals and controversies can be analysed from many different angles and make for interesting debate. Positive behaviour, by contrast, is the expected norm, and so it is not always newsworthy unless there is something unique or extraordinary attached to it.

    Still, I wish the media could be more positive. The negative should not be ignored and it is good to be aware of challenges and problems both locally and globally. But I would like to see a more even balance between negative and positive.
    Andrew Heaton recently posted..How IBM revolutionised corporate volunteeringMy ComLuv Profile

  3. Ana Says:
    December 4th, 2010 at 8:50 am

    I wonder if more coverage of positive corporate responsibility would lead to greater “peer pressure” on other companies to behave the same?
    Ana recently posted..Another Research Company Accused of Animal MistreatmentMy ComLuv Profile

  4. Andrew Heaton Says:
    December 6th, 2010 at 1:04 pm


    It may do. Certainly, better coverage of different ways in which individual companies contribute toward social well-being would add to the incentive for companies to become more innovative and creative in this area.
    Andrew Heaton recently posted..How IBM revolutionised corporate volunteeringMy ComLuv Profile

  5. Dylan M. Says:
    December 9th, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    Hey Andrew – thanks for the coffee and discussion on Wednesday after the mostly disappointing information session/interview in the city.

    Love the blog – the topics you talk about aren’t necessarily ones I have much knowledge or experience with, but they are well written and most importantly: interesting. I’ll certainly be adding you to my RSS reader.

    Take care!
    Dylan M. recently posted..Australia and the R18 Rating – Moving ForwardsMy ComLuv Profile

  6. drew Says:
    December 10th, 2010 at 9:36 am

    Hey Dylan,

    Thanks for your kind feedback.

    I was delighted to meet you on Wednesday and hope to catch up with you again.

    In the meantime, I’ll wander over to your blog.

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