The Past and Future Legacy of IBM’s “THINK”

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  August 12, 2015

During IBM’s centenary celebration in 2011, a great deal of attention was given to the enduring popularity and impact of the company’s “THINK” slogan. That was fully understandable considering its remarkable durability. THINK certainly helped define IBM’s culture, along with the technological and business value of the company’s solutions and services.

But it also went some ways toward establishing a baseline for business and consumer expectations regarding the greater information technology (IT) industry. Just as rational thought bolsters the desire for information and education required for personal or professional growth, IBM’s THINK became shorthand for what became the notably commonplace technological innovations delivered by IBM and other vendors.

However, “THINK” as a concept didn’t actually arrive at IBM until 1915, the year after Thomas J. Watson Sr. joined the company (then called the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company or C-T-R) as its president. Since this year is the true centenary of THINK at IBM, it seems appropriate to consider the slogan, its impact and its continuing relevance.

The origin of THINK

According to IBM’s archives, Watson first used the “THINK” slogan in 1911 when he managed sales and advertising for the National Cash Register Company (NCR). He brought those central concepts, that “Thought has been the father of every advance since time began,” and that the phrase “‘I didn’t think’ has cost the world millions of dollars” to C-T-R.

Soon after, the THINK logo began appearing on signs in company plants and publications. Over the coming decades, IBM would distribute hundreds of thousands of pocket notepads with “THINK” embossed on the cover – the first generation THINK pads, if you will.

However, it would be a mistake to consider Watson’s predilection for THINK to be a simplistic public relations gag or exercise in corporate-speak. Instead, Watson’s focus on THINK and its implications for the workplace were aimed more at effectively managing a geographically dispersed company (with offices in New York, Washington, D.C. and Ohio) that faced myriad organizational and business challenges.

In a real sense then, THINK qualified as an early effort to nurture a unified company and establish what would become a workplace culture. But the fact is that the fundamental concepts and practices that are today considered essential to building and maintaining corporate culture simply didn’t exist in 1915.

Moreover, the United States, where C-T-R did business, is barely recognizable in modern terms. Consider that in or around 1915:

In other words, while Watson may have initially intended to encourage care and mindfulness among C-T-R employees, THINK also helped establish behavioral guidelines that were uncommon or even entirely absent in most workplaces. It would be a mistake to imply that a corporate motto could be entirely responsible for IBM’s remarkable success under Watson’s leadership. But over time, THINK became enduringly affixed to IBM both inside and outside the company.

21st century THINK

This is all interesting stuff, but is THINK still relevant to IBM and the IT industry today?

Most traditional competitors would likely argue not, especially given IBM’s systematic exit from increasingly commoditized products and markets, including PCs and hard disk drives (both of which the company originated) and Intel-based servers. To some critics, IBM’s sharpened focus on enterprise IT infrastructure hardware, software and services while the rest of the market obsesses over powerful mobile endpoints indicates an increasingly out of touch organization.

But those critics are wrong.

Notwithstanding the inclination of consumers and commercial markets to focus on shiny new things and technology enablers of entertainment and diversion, few of those products would be possible, let alone as powerful without the support of bulletproof backend data centers and IT infrastructures. IBM’s recognition of this point and its ongoing development of related solutions and cloud-based services simply emphasize its long term strategies and market leadership goals.

But the company’s efforts seem especially prescient when one considers its substantial analytics assets and solutions. Those investments are clearly paying off today but should gain increasing importance as industries and markets continue to embrace the company’s advanced analytics and big data solutions and services – 21st century iterations of IBM THINK.

It’s no surprise that IBM has long been deeply involved in a range of data analysis and business intelligence efforts. In fact, the company’s research division can claim numerous firsts in this regard, including developing (in 1970) the earliest relational data model and creating what would eventually become the SQL programming language.

Over the past decade, IBM has invested over $26B in acquiring and creating new and next generation analytics technologies to bolster its traditional data warehouse and data mining processes. A list of the company’s acquisitions includes notable firms, like Cognos, Coremetrics, SPSS, StoredIQ, Netezza and Cloudant. Analytics solutions developed in-house include a host of descriptive, diagnostic, predictive and prescriptive offerings, along with powerful yet user-friendly cognitive solutions powered by IBM’s well-known Watson platform.

Key partnerships with Apple, Box, Twitter and The Weather Company have helped IBM expand its analytics services, as have ongoing contributions to related open source projects, including Hadoop and Apache SPARK. The company is also looking even farther ahead with literally cognitive (in the sense of mimicking actual brain functions) projects like the SyNAPSE processors and systems under development by IBM Research.

Next generation analytics technologies are also key to the success of IBM’s Internet of Things (IoT) strategies and solutions. In essence, though digital intelligence will flow outward to the edge of globally-dispersed IoT networks, information gleaned from millions or billions of smart sensors and other endpoints, will flow back to enterprise data centers. Making sense of and gaining value from those massive stores of data is the essential promise that IoT and IBM’s analytics solutions offer its business customers.

In other words, IBM THINK has never been more relevant or resonant.

Final analysis

Advanced analytics and cognitive computing are logical destinations for the journey that began when Thomas J. Watson Sr. introduced the THINK motto to C-T-R employees in 1915. It seems unlikely that such a notion crossed Watson’s mind then or even in the following years and decades. At the time of his death in 1956, computers were confined in corporate and government data centers, and the potentialities of personal and mobile computing were largely the stuff of pulp science fiction novels and magazines.

But the rationality and mindful action that THINK inspired among IBM employees and customers has never lost its practical value. In fact, given the ever growing volumes of information being created, managed, stored and analyzed, those qualities are probably more important today than they have ever been. The fact that IBM is pioneering computing solutions that are relevant to these issues is a testimony to the farsightedness of Thomas J. Watson Sr., as well as the value that the company’s current leadership places on the continuing value of THINK.

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