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IBM Research is the world’s largest corporate research organization, with eight labs and 3,200 researchers in six countries. Every year Sam Palmisano, IBM Corp.’s chairman, visits its headquarters in Yorktown Heights, New York, to review progress.
When Palmisano toured the labs in early 2006, enthusiastic scientists showed him all manner of newly developed capabilities. One technology promised to forecast the weather so precisely that school districts could tell whether their town would get an inch or two more snow than their neighbors and therefore have to close school. Another project would enable the building of an Internet where shoppers could visit 3-D stores and see realistic 3-D demonstrations of products. Yet another new software program would perform realtime translation of speech so that the words on China Central Television or the Middle East’s Al Jazeera news network could appear in English underneath the speakers without human intervention.
After the demos, IBM’s Paul Horn, chief scientist, and Cathy Lasser, research chief information officer, met with Palmisano. “He was clearly very excited,” says Horn. But he was also already thinking about the next challenge — how to commercialize the breakthroughs successfully, a challenge IBM hadn’t always efficiently met. “He said, ‘Let’s come up with some novel way to get this stuff to the market more quickly. Let’s think out of the box.’ ” Palmisano felt that with 346,000 capable employees, there had to be faster ways to move products based on new technology to market.
The executives conceived the idea of a “Jam” to promote innovation. “Jam” was IBM’s term for a “massively parallel conference” online. IBM had developed its first in 2001 as a way to unite the organization. More and more employees were working at home or at client sites, rarely coming to IBM offices. The idea was that a Jam — a group of interlinked bulletin boards and related Web pages on IBM’s intranet, with systems for centrally managing everything and seeking substantive answers to important questions in three days or so — would give people a sense of participation and of being listened to, as well as generate valuable new ideas. From the beginning, the Jam process showed it could engage tens of thousands of people at a time.
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