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IBM Singing from the Same Sheet of Music

Whistling while you work.

By Guest Editorial  |  August 25, 2011

Your series on IBM gave me a touch of nostalgia.  You said the factual objective things, but you left out the touchy-feely part of IBM.  I guess you younger folks never saw the IBM song book.  That was more important to IBM's success than anyone will admit.

I remember American newspapers making fun of Japanese companies who had company song books, but it works.

Management theorists pump up "core values" and "mission statements."  This is good.  People can't serve the company's interest unless they know what it is.  The mission statement tells what the company is trying to do and the core values give an idea how to do it  Problem is, nobody wants to read 'em.

Mission statements, team building exercises, off-site meetings and such are efforts to get all the employees "on the same page" or get them "singing off the same sheet of music."  If the employees are together in what they're trying to do, the company's more competitive.

What are all these mission statements and core values pushing back against diversity?  Big companies have wonderful words about diversity on their web sites.  Some say diversity is "one of our greatest strengths," but that's silly.

If employees all have different ideas about what to do and how to do it, the company won't get much done.  Mission statements, meetings, and suchlike try to get a diverse herd "on the same page."  They try to undo the chaos caused by all that diversity and get the herd heading roughly west.

That's one of the goals of the IBM song book.  How could you do a better job of getting all those flocks and herds singing off the same sheet of music than by giving them the same sheet music to sing?

And, yes, IBM did have an official songbook.

Finding unity in song wasn't the only purpose, of course.  Songs tried to explain what IBM was all about and identified corporate heroes so people would know how to behave.

The Song Book passed out of official use long ago, but bits float around.  This .doc file is missing the most basic, most foundational songs I remember.  It doesn't have "We'll Sell, Sell, Sell for IBM," so it's not complete, but it'll give you the idea.

Humans learn better through music.  Most people remember more words of familiar songs than anything else. Singing IBM songs not only taught IBM-ers what the firm was all about, it taught 'em well.

Confidence in the Firm

Some of the songs built confidence in leadership.  Many executives had their own songs, not just the big boss.  Confidence is important - when a soldier risks life or limb, the mission goes better if the soldiers have confidence that leaders know what they're doing.

Same thing applies to countries.  It's more important for businesses.  It's easier to find another job than for a soldier to leave the army or a citizen to swap countries.  If management loses the troops' hearts, the best leave first - they're better able to find jobs.  Being left with the less-capable doesn't help get work done.

Confidence is vital:

Imagine an industrial general whose force has been selling, very successfully, against a much larger and wealthier competitor.  Say the product is a fairly expensive sports car.  And then the competitor brings out a cheaper competitive model - better performance and more up to date - which topples their sales dramatically.  But just as the salesmen are wondering where their next month's bonus is coming from, out comes their own firm's brand-new model aimed at a different, less wealthy market, where it will obviously have a guaranteed sale for years.  The salesmen realize that the defeat of the previous model had been foreseen well in advance, and the new one had been prepared long before as a safe line of defense.  Clearly such generalship builds confidence and morale that will be invaluable in the future and a willingness on the salesmen's part to do whatever they are told simply because they know they can trust their leader.

 - Management and Machiavelli, Anthony Jay, pp 187-188  [emphasis added]

This quote neatly illustrates the trust-building purpose of two types of IBM songs - praising leaders and praising engineers who create new products as needed.

The famous cardsorter.

RAH! for Engineers

IBM drew heavily on mechanical skills in the Beacon / Newburgh / Poughkeepsie area.  The citizens were skillful with mechanical gadgets, either inventing or making them.  As the New York Garment District where workers walked between their apartments and their jobs died, those skills and jobs are gone.  While they lasted, IBM made money selling scales, time clocks, keypunches, typewriters, and all manner of mechanical contrivances.  Everybody paid lots of taxes, too.

The card sorter was one of the more wonderful devices.  You put in a stack of punch cards, select a column number from 1 to 80, and push Start.  Gears whirr, rollers roll, and cards end up sorted into 12 different bins.  Why 12 bins?  Few know any more.

A little finger reached through the first hole in the card and touched a copper drum.  This fired a relay which yanked a metal strip down.  The card slid between the strip and the one above it.  This guided the card down the length of the machine to the proper bin.

These were incredibly useful in the days before computers.  Suppose the telephone company had a stack of 10,000 punch cards which subscribers sent back with their bill payments.  Drop them in, set the column for the last number of the phone number, and sort.  Phone numbers ending in 0 ended up in the 0 bin, cards whose phone numbers ended with 1 were in the 1 bin, and so on.

Now stack the cards on top of each other and sort the column with the second digit of the phone number.  Stack the cards again, and sort on the 3rd column.  Eventually, you ended up with all the cards sorted in phone number order.  You match that pile with a master deck of cards which listed how much each phone number owes you.  The machine skipped through the master deck.  When it found a card showing a payment, it punched a new card giving what that person owed now.  

This was data processing in the old days.  The sorter was key - without the ability to sort, tabulating cards would have been less useful and IBM would have sold far fewer.  Cards didn't cost much, but when sold by the forest-full, profits added up.

The sorter was so important to selling related products that the engineer who invented it had his very own song in the Song Book:

Tune: "While We Were Marching Through Georgia"

1. I. B. M. leads all the world with wonderful machines.
Our great Corps of Engineers command the highest esteem.
Every problem wisely solved by these Inventors keen,
To meet the needs of all people.

2. E. A. Ford's new Horizontal Sorter pleases all.
Speedy, quiet, beautiful! It surely has the call.
Every demonstration brings in orders large and small;
To Mr. Ford we are grateful.


Hurrah, hurrah, for E. A. Ford's machine.
His Sorter and our Printer -- marvellous team;
Everyone acknowledges our products are supreme;
I. B. M. gives World Service.

The most rabid IBM-ers I know admit that these lyrics aren't quite Gilbert and Sullivan, but the sentiment is plain - be grateful to engineers who design products.  Other songs about salesman reminded the crowd to be grateful to people who sell.  The message was, do your part.  Take care of the product, the product takes care of the customer, the customer takes care of IBM, and IBM takes care of you.

You got that part right, and so did IBM in those bygone days.  It may seem old-fashioned, but don't forget that IBM provided well-paying, reliable, long-term jobs for hundreds of thousands of Americans.  Wouldn't it be nice to have those jobs back?