Van Kralingen: ‘Move the Future’

By Nancy M. Davis Oct 11, 2011

When Bridget van Kralingen, general manager of IBM North America, describes the corporation’s move from a defunct hardware manufacturer to an integrated “solutions” provider, she credits her human resource team for playing a vital role in the “transformation.”

The executive, who has training and experience as an industrial and organizational psychologist, advised attendees during an Oct. 6 general session at the 2011 Society for Human Resource Management Strategy Conference to “move the future before it moves you.”

IBM has 426,000 employees worldwide; many work remotely. Half of the employees stay less than five years. Consulting, technology services, software, hardware and financing accrue global revenue of $45 billion annually.

“You can’t stay where you are—you have to move,” she insisted. Ten years ago, an “end-to-end” IBM served 170 countries. “We took our backbone and made it global,” starting with back-office processes. Next came the “globalization” of research and development, software development and infrastructure, she said, advising: “Think about the minimum you have to do in a market and what you can do to create global hubs.”

It’s easier to integrate processes than culture, van Kralingen admitted. “We used a bottom-up approach to values and strategy. You have to get people to buy in. Getting people to comply is not what it’s about. It’s about getting them to innovate and team. We asked 426,000 people what values will hold us together to build a great global organization.” Leaders sponsored a “values jam” and an “innovation jam”—each online discussion lasted several days—so that all employees could participate in building corporate values and strategy.


Then, executives began looking at leadership in terms of global integration: “Everybody needs to think of themselves as a leader, whether they have a formal role or not,” she explained.

Two initiatives contribute to leadership development: A Corporate Service Corps sends managers into growth markets in groups of six to help small businesses in communities to grow. An integration and values team takes on companywide issues such as cloud computing and business analytics.

Van Kralingen credits her HR team with developing “behavioral guideposts” such as change leadership competencies “to suit a global enterprise.” The team identified competencies such as the ability to “lead systematic change and choosing risks and taking risks and seeing risks through.” These are different than previous leadership competencies, which included the ability to collaborate, for instance.

Van Kralingen traced the HR team’s transition from the role of service providers to that of strategic “advisors.” The HR transition was marked by development of consistent, rigid processes for services such as compensation and performance appraisals, and the outsourcing of some services, such as benefits, she said. Today, each key HR leader leads a business unit such as sales and has responsibility for a function such as compensation.

Now that HR professionals have their “feet in the broader agenda,” she concluded, “the work is not finished—we have a lot more transformation to do.”

Nancy M. Davis is editor of HR Magazine.


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