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A BuzzFeed take on ex-IBM CEO's new book

Former IBM CEO Samuel Palmisano's new book, "Re-Think: A Path to the Future," is one part history lesson and one part management guide for the global executive.

Palmisano explains how a mix of open standards and the Internet have allowed for global work. He contrasts this to a prior era. For example, during his time in Japan for IBM, phone calls were too expensive to allow for frequent communication, resulting in quarterly trips to IBM headquarters in Armonk, NY.

Jon Steinberg
Source: Jon Steinberg
Jon Steinberg

Palmisano traces how, beginning in the 1960's IBM adopted global standards for computing platforms beginning with its S/360 mainframe. This allowed for projects to be segmented and performed globally. The unbundling of software from hardware further cemented the ability for the company to break work into discreet tasks that could be tackled across the globe.

This technical shift combined with the operational shift of "lower[ing] our center of gravity — away from headquarters, closer to markets and customers" allowed IBM, in Palmisano's view, to truly go global.

As I think about the book in light of BuzzFeed's international expansion, Palmisano's line in his recent CNBC op-ed "You need to be globally consistent but locally relevant" resonates completely.

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A core part of BuzzFeed is capturing and covering culture. We've been vigilant about that as we've expanded into new markets (like BuzzFeed UK and BuzzFeed Australia) and always started with editorial talent that understands the market. We need to be locally relevant, but we also consistently deploy the BuzzFeed technology stack and best practices. This line perfectly fits how we at BuzzFeed think about being a globally-integrated enterprise.

The overarching thesis of the book is that the most effective companies use a mix of technology and management to operate truly globally. Units and tasks flow freely across the globe in ways that allow for the best service of employees and customers.

The book also describes the movement of IBM into services as the economy becomes increasingly knowledge- driven — this reminded me a bit of Robert Reich's "The Work of Nations" (1992), which I read in college.

The final chapter concludes with some personal insights by Palmisano of growing up in Baltimore and working for more than a decade at IBM before getting international exposure. He notes the importance of being an internationally versed executive because "Every company — indeed, every country — can fall prey to groupthink, which has a corrosive effect as it stifles the innovative impulse that's so essential to progress."

This made me reflect on my recent CNBC op-ed about the up-and-coming Asian internet companies and how Whatsapp was surprisingly off Americans' radar despite its enormous scale, even according to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. Internet services and media will flow even more seamlessly than many of the enterprises Palmisano discusses. This makes me think that his insights for operating globally are even more important to Internet companies than those of the mainframe/pc era and I'd love to see him at some point add a chapter on companies like: Dropbox, Alibaba, Apple, and maybe even BuzzFeed.

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—By Jon Steinberg

Jon Steinberg is the president & chief operating officer of BuzzFeed and is responsible for all business management, company operations, finance, and social advertising operations. Follow him on Twitter @jonsteinberg.

Disclosure: IBM is a BuzzFeed advertiser.

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