05 Mar. 2015 | Comments (0)
“Eight out of 10 participants in the Corporate Service Corps program say it significantly increases the likelihood of them completing their career at IBM,” Stanley Litow, VP of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs, told us.
Recognizing that corporate responsibility can offer a company a competitive advantage today, we became interested in IBM as a pioneer in establishing a skills-based volunteerism initiative that also influences its talent and professional development strategies. Several executives at the company offered to talk with us to figure out why the program has been so successful—not just as a philanthropic gesture, but as a talent development system. As Litow put it, “If participation in these programs increases our retention rate, recruits top talent, and builds skills in our workforce, then it’s addressing the critical issue of competitiveness.”
The IBM Corporate Service Corps, a hybrid of professional development and service, deploys 500 young leaders a year on team assignments in more than 30 countries in the developing world. Employees engage in two months of training while working full time, spend one month on the ground on a 6- to 12-member team tackling a social issue, and then mentor the next group for two months. So far, IBMers have completed over 1,000 projects.
The IBM Corporate Service Corps is an example of how IBM is incorporating service into leadership development as a result of the success of another IBM program, IBM’s On Demand Community, which was launched in 2003 as an online marketplace to connect nonprofits with employees and retirees, as well as a portal offering resources to nonprofits of all kinds. According to Litow, the objective was threefold: to support IBMers in their service engagements, to invest the intellectual capital of IBMers in tackling social issues around the world, and to develop the expertise and leadership of IBMers through volunteer opportunities that leverage their skills and abilities.
Argentinian software developer German Attanasio Ruiz, now part of IBM Watson Research, took advantage of On Demand Community and worked with a team of volunteers to produce a mobile application that helps children with special needs recognize emotions in everyday situations. It has now been translated into five languages. Ruiz volunteered significant hours over a six-month period and added mobile app development to his skill portfolio in the process. The volunteer team has since produced a second app, El Recetario, for more advanced students. They received the Volunteer Excellence Award in 2013 and developed a volunteer tool for On Demand Community called ”Mobile Applications for Kids with Special Needs.”
Since the inception of On Demand Community, nearly 260,000 former and current employees from 120 countries have collectively logged more than 17 million hours of service. There’s a clear impact on employee engagement: “When I work for IBM,” says Ruiz, “my hands are bigger in terms of what I can do.”
Diane Statkus, an IBM project manager in Boston, echoes Ruiz’s sentiments. She’s volunteered at Girls Inc., the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, and has used her project management expertise to lead a job-skills assistance event with a team of volunteers each year. She’s startlingly honest in her assessment of how these experiences have affected her: “If I didn’t have the ability to be involved in this volunteer work, I’m not sure I’d still be there.”
So what makes the IBM programs so compelling? We noticed three key differentiators:
A multitude of options, so that everyone can find (or design) something they’re interested in. At the core of the Corporate Service Corps and On Demand Community are projects created by employees, retirees, and not-for-profit organizations. The thousands of IBMers who are engaged in service on a regular basis can select the projects they want to work on from the multitude available.
The On Demand Community portal is more than a marketplace; it’s a library. Volunteers can tap into ready-made presentations, videos, reference links, and software tools. (To expand its breadth of support for volunteerism, IBM made these free resources available to the public in 2011.) This library of tools helps employees get their projects off the ground, and ensures the quality of services that the organizations will receive.
Opportunities are actively pushed to interested employees, and can be used to satisfy professional requirements. Project listings are periodically emailed to employees who’ve filled out profiles with their locations, interests, and skills. Employees also can fulfill their professional development requirements through community service projects.
As a result, not only do IBM employees get to give back while developing their skills, but local communities get a great impression of IBM. One of the organizations that has benefited from IBM’s program is the Girls Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma (GSEOK). Among other efforts, IBMers have volunteered to teach classes and help develop an age-appropriate STEM curriculum. Says CEO Roberta Preston, “The real benefit for us as a not-for-profit is that we have world-class expertise at our fingertips that would otherwise be beyond our reach.”
When employees acquire new skills through volunteering, and enhance the company’s brand by giving back to their communities, there’s a clear benefit to Big Blue’s bottom line. “This is a very important attraction and retention vehicle for our company,” says Diane Melley, VP of IBM Global Citizenship Initiatives. “This brings value to our employees in terms of supporting them as well as acquiring the skills that they need to be successful as IBMers.”
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 11/05/2014.