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IBM chief talks change, and a little politics

Sam Palmisano says we can fix stuff - with IT, of course

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"We could always go to the past - we could build some bridges, put up protectionist walls, let's not trade because unemployment could hit seven per cent or eight per cent, and that's a real concern," he said. "But someone is going to stand up and say, 'The future is about building out this infrastructure that is going to support the long-term competitiveness of the United States, and that is digital infrastructure.'" Palmisano was sitting down at the time, but it was him who said it. Which is what you would expect him to argue.

But this is what he continued to say, which was interesting: "And by the way, this will solve problems. So not only do we talk about the affordability of healthcare, but now we look at the effectiveness of care."

He talked about establishing standards for healthcare procedures and coping with tort reform. Healthcare providers get very nervous about standards because they increase the likelihood of lawsuits (and I would say, the effectiveness of lawsuits against doctors who do not adhere to standards). "I mean, the balance sheet is broken - and that's the issue. You have to do both things, not just redistribute income so more people can participate, which should be done. But if you do not deal with the quality and cost, it is a never-ending cycle."

Palmisano said that he was baffled as to why each of these issues were not solved the way businesses do it every day: you get the brightest people in the field from business, government, and other interested bodies together, you tell them to leave their agendas at the door, and you don't let them out of a room until they have come to some sort of mutual agreement about a solution. Yes, this sounds an awful lot like politics, doesn't it?

Sticking with the healthcare theme, and obviously referring to President-elect Barack Obama, Palmisano said there was a shot at the desire for change to be used to fix problems such as the healthcare system in America. "We're going to come out with things, and we're going to bet on the best salesman in the world. And I think we've found a very good salesman," Palmisano said. "Again, I am not arguing political persuasion, but we do have a salesperson today that could lead, that could sell this case. Maybe we haven't had a salesperson before that could."

Earlier, in answering a different question, Palmisano said he had waited in a very long line in Greenwich, Connecticut, to cast his vote in the election - something that he really didn't have time to do. I leave it to you to infer who IBM's top dog voted for.

Palmisano knows a thing or two about arguing for change and hope and implementing one in the environment of the other, and he reminded everyone attending the Council meeting of this. "Now, I know that the mainframe was the only way to compute," he explained, tongue in cheek. "IBM went from 407,000 people down to 212,000 based on defending the past. Now, we are back to 400,000 because we are defending the future. How comforting was it to those nearly 200,000 people that we were intellectually correct? Technically, we were - today, the mainframe is one of the fastest growing platforms. It's OK to be hopeful, but you need more. As I like to say to my colleagues at IBM, we have to be somewhat right. We have shareholders. I can't just talk about the future - we need to be correct about the future. And our research geniuses tell me they are always thinking about the future, I tell them they need to be correct, not just thinking all the time and getting their patents and Nobel prizes."

Sure sounds like Big Sam is looking for a cabinet position, despite his lack of temperament. Perhaps Secretary of Commerce? ®

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