How and why people send me e-mails about breast enlargement is mystifying. Thankfully, I am not alone. Spam — unsolicited e-mails — is ubiquitous. As you read this, someone, somewhere is sending you a message detailing a once-in-a-lifetime special offer or offering to share a portion of their inheritance if you would kindly send them some money. John Patrick, one of the pioneers of the internet and a key figure behind IBM’s warm embrace of it, also receives offers of breast enlargement. He is annoyed rather than mystified and, unlike me, is in a position to do something about it.
“It is now encroaching on our personal lives in an offensive way. People are stealing our time and I’m concerned about this,” he laments. “The solution, I think, is authentication, having a digital ID. Authentication is the empowerment which will enable e-commerce to go on to the next step and help eliminate spam.” Mr Patrick joined IBM in 1967 as a marketing trainee, progressed up the corporate ranks and then led IBM’s charge into the new world of e-business as the company’s chief internet technology officer before retiring at the beginning of the year. He has been hailed as a revolutionary by the strategy guru Gary Hamel. He shrugs his shoulders. A lifelong company man is an unlikely revolutionary. “Some people have a passion for golf. I don’t. I would just as soon be doing something with my computer,” Mr Patrick explains. Everywhere he goes he takes a Garmin GPS III receiver, which enables him to identify precisely his latitude and longitude. As we speak, we are at 51.34 degrees north, 1.24 degrees west.
Revolutionary or not, the story of how IBM discovered the world of the internet and embraced it with something approaching abandon is one of the classic business cases of our times. While the high-tech world pondered, IBM got the internet instantly and has used it as a springboard for recovery and renewal. “When the CEO, Lou Gerstner, came along and saw the internet he realised its potential. He is a great communicator and he saw its power. At that time, e-business hadn’t been invented so he didn’t know where the business opportunity lay but knew that it was a powerful communication mechanism,” he says. Mr Gerstner then sent out a booklet to the homes of everyone in the company. It said that the internet was the company’s future and encouraged people to try it out as much as possible. “Our worry was that people weren’t using the internet enough. We weren’t bothered about people looking at unsuitable sites, our bigger concern was getting people oriented around the internet,” Mr Patrick says.
“The internet galvanised the company. There had been a time when IBM had no strategy, then e-business became the strategy. Everyone suddenly knew that that was our business.” IBM launched various “skunk works”, small interdisciplinary teams, and encouraged people to try things out. To ensure that older managers got the message, it also used reverse mentoring with bright young managers mentoring their executive elders on the intricacies of life on the web. While such things proved useful, Mr Patrick suggests that e-business success is largely a matter of attitude (his book on the subject is appropriately entitled Net Attitude).
“All the technology and money on the planet won’t enable you to meet people’s expectations if you don’t have the right attitude,” he says. “This attitude comes from the grassroots thinking that was part of the evolution of the internet. Young people tend to have it but it’s not really an age thing. The masses of people in the middle layers of large organisations often don’t have it. The bureaucracies of large organisations have shielded them from the new way of thinking.” Mr Patrick is enthusiastic about the mysterious, democratic and innovative powers of the grassroots. “Lots of smart people throughout the world have a passion for technology and solving problems,” he says.
He detects new grassroots forces at work. “One thing which is emerging is WiFi, wireless fidelity, which will become a huge thing. It reminds me of the internet ten years ago,” he says. “I can feel the grassroots nature of what’s taking off. People are making antennae from a Pringles can and then putting it on the roof of their building. These things have a range of a few miles and mean that people can use the broadband technology used by their employers when they’re at home.” The world of possibilities is set to expand still further. “Soon people are going to expect to be able to be connected. Think of all the places where people wait — at the doctors, the dentists, coffee shops. All the issues are soluble,” says Mr Patrick, still excited by the potential at our fingertips.
“We are on the verge of a new era for the internet that’s as big and exciting as the first. It will have seven characteristics: fast, always on, everywhere, natural, intelligent, easy and trusted. The pace is accelerating, with more competition, fewer barriers to entry and high expectations. At the moment we are only 5 per cent into the internet’s ability.”