Q&A With Former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano

In a conversation with Emily McEvilly, Workday’s chief customer officer, Sam Palmisano discusses the latest work coming out of his think tank, the importance of the data-focused enterprise, and his predictions for the future of technology and collaboration.

As the business world finds itself on a new frontier and without a proven playbook, we’ve brought together a community of change-makers in a series of five conversations. Called CHRO Connect, these conversations explore five business and people imperatives we’ve identified as changing the world of work: inclusion, digitalization, employee experiences, agile organizations, and the skills imperative (forming the acronym IDEAS). To help HR leaders address these pressing imperatives, we’ll be sharing some insights and actions from these events. 

For our conversation on digitalization, Sam Palmisano, the former CEO of IBM, was our featured guest. A college football star, Palmisano had an invitation to try out for the (then) Oakland Raiders. But much to his father’s dismay, he pursued a path as a salesman at IBM instead, paving the way for a highly successful career as an innovative technology leader; he was also the vice chair of the presidential commission focused on enhancing national cybersecurity under President Barack Obama.

We were honored to have him as our guest, speaking with Emily McEvilly, Workday’s chief customer officer, about the good work his think tank, The Center for Global Enterprise, is doing, the importance of the data-focused enterprise, and his predictions for the future of technology and collaboration. Highlights from the conversation are below, edited for clarity (watch the recording of the discussion here).

On His Think Tank’s Progress:

“I created a nonprofit think tank about 12 years ago. It was on globalization and technology implications for the future, and since then, it’s evolved. One initiative is helping to develop African women entrepreneurs—I spoke at the graduation last week for the most recent cohort, which included a couple hundred women. It’s a very effective program. We help these women start businesses and move from a nonprofit, or co-op, to a for-profit world of entrepreneurship. 

“The other one we just launched is called the Data & Trust Alliance. Ken Chenault, previously CEO and chairman of American Express, and I got together and [discussed how] data—as companies drive toward a data enterprise—is becoming more and more relevant, especially the responsible use of data.”

“The thing I'm most hopeful about is in this data world, we come up with responsible principles and best practices that take advantage of the benefits to society.”

On His Advice for HR Leaders as They Look Around the Corner:

“What’s required as we go to this next phase—the data enterprise phase—is doing it intelligently and smartly, versus just chasing rapid growth. HR leaders need to think about the knowledge level of their enterprise in this area—the responsible use of data, the ethical use of data, and best practices around the use of this data. Do you have a literate organization when it comes to this? When you have a meeting in your organization and you have your chief revenue officer, your top lawyer, and the HR leader saying, ‘Give us a definition for bias in data,’ do you have agreement on that definition? So it’s this shared understanding.

“The next point is whether or not you have the key leadership skills. What are the right leadership skills, strategy skills, management talent, and management systems? And what is the culture? People say, ‘We’re just going to hire all these data scientists.’ Well, what are you going to do about displacement in your workforce, and how do you deal with that cultural transformation? We use the term augmented intelligence. Give them more tools to work with versus saying, ‘I’ll hire these people, and I’ll get rid of others who can’t make that transition.’ Established companies have to work through those transitions: leadership skills, the culture of the company, education, raising data literacy. And if these tools and techniques, which are wonderful to help us solve massive problems for society, are not implemented appropriately, then we’re going to have ethical issues, regulation issues, and those kinds of challenges that companies would really rather avoid.”

On His Hopes for Technology Collaboration in the Future:

“The thing I’m most hopeful about is in this data world, we come up with responsible principles and best practices that take advantage of the benefits to society. Right now, there are 300 pending regulations around the world around the responsible, ethical use of data and privacy protection and the individual rights of data. They are very, very key. 

“However, think about problems that have been solved with collaboration and the sharing of information. Take the pandemic and vaccines. It can take four to five years to get this kind of vaccine out into the market at scale. [Pharmaceutical companies] did it in less than a year, right? So all those friction points were knocked down. They shared all that information, all the learnings, all the research.

“Climate change is the same sort of thing. There are all these scientific models on climate change. They’re not all in agreement, but it doesn’t matter. The macro trends are there. But if we got true collaboration around the world that built models that were credible, that people could buy into, we could begin this transition.

“There’s tremendous opportunity for the responsible use of this data, and we ought to address it and solve some of the world’s biggest challenges.”

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