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IBM Senior VP Ginni Rometty Offers Lessons to Northwestern Community

Watch a video of the lecture here.

Over the past 100 years, IBM has continually reinvented itself and its products — from hardware to services to software to business solutions.

That reinvention is the key to the company’s continued success in a world where success is fleeting, said Ginni Rometty, senior vice president and group executive for sales, marketing, and strategy for IBM. Rometty was at Northwestern March 11 to give the IBM Centennial lecture to a packed room of students, faculty, and alumni.

It was the first of six lectures she will give at universities around the world. Rometty selected Northwestern — the only U.S. university where she will speak — because she is an alumna and because, when she was here in the late 1970s studying computer science, she learned an important lesson that has guided her throughout her 30 years at IBM.

“What I felt I took away was how to think,” she said.

In the lecture Rometty shared three lessons she’s learned throughout her career: how to stay alive, how to make big bets, and how to use culture as a competitive weapon.

IBM started in the meat and cheese slicer business, but when it was taken over by Thomas J. Watson Sr. in 1914, he said, “We must never think what we have today will satisfy demand ten years from now.” IBM has taken that creed to continually reinvent itself throughout the last century. What began as a hardware company eventually shifted to a service company. In 2002 Rometty led the successful integration of PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting — the largest acquisition in professional services history, building a global team of more than 100,000 business consultants and service experts.

Acquiring a business of mostly human capital was risky, but Rometty says that when you take big bets (her second lesson), you must believe in what you’re doing. History is littered with companies who were too slow or cautious to make change, she said, but you can’t change for change’s sake, or you’ll fail.

So what does IBM believe in? Globalization and integrating and innovating through technology, Rometty said.  This belief led the company to develop what may be a new golden age of computing: Watson, a computer system capable of understanding and learning the nuances of language. IBM engineers worked on the system for five years before the computer competed in a Jeopardy! game this February, easily understanding the nuanced clues to crush its human opponents. Investors recently watched as Watson, who was also taught to make medical diagnoses, diagnosed a difficult case with just four questions.

“What they saw was the future of doing something for a higher purpose,” Rometty said. “It gives me hope.”

That idea of creating a culture of working for a higher purpose (Rometty’s third lesson) is essential to any successful business, she said. The next generation must choose wisely where they work, how they teach, and how they lead.

“The greatest measure (of something) is the impact it has,” she said.