Driving a Cultural Transformation: IBM’s Performance Development Journey

“We aim to be essential to our clients and to the world. And by doing so, we have to reinvent all the time,” said Ramses Ghani, global performance talent leader at IBM, at the start of the recent SHRM webinar hosted by Workhuman®.

As one of the most influential global technology leaders, IBM is constantly driving innovation and action to make the world a better, more connected place. And the only way to do that is by making sure the company’s greatest assets, their humans – or IBMers – can grow, develop, and reach their full potential.

Ramses was joined by Kelli Jordan, IBM’s director of career, skill, and performance, and Rosette Cataldo, VP of performance and talent strategy at Workhuman, to discuss how IBM built a culture of innovation and connection rooted in feedback.

Here, we’ll go over some of the key takeaways from the event. 

Reimaging performance

The performance management revolution has moved slowly. It’s clear the traditional ways of measuring performance – a yearly rating on an arbitrary scale of 1 to 10 that differs from person to person – isn’t working in anyone’s favor, yet many organizations are hesitant to leave it behind.

During the presentation Rosette cited a telling survey: “Forbes did a survey of about 50,000 workers, managers, and CEOs. And to no surprise, only 6% of CEOs believe their performance appraisal system is useful … The data also show that only 13% of employees and managers believe it's useful,” meaning 94% of CEOs and 87% of employees do not.

So when IBM underwent a massive business transformation five years ago, they knew the old ways of measuring performance wouldn’t make the cut. “As we were shifting our business model,” Kelli explained, “we knew all of our HR systems and practices had to shift along with it.”

The IBM leadership team knew what wouldn’t work, so they set out to figure out what would. Ramses knew “we needed a performance management system that allows people to bring their whole selves to work, that drives innovation, and drives connection.” To make that happen, the team looked to those who benefit from performance development – their employees. One aspect of the old system that was widely unpopular among employees was – you guessed it – year-end assessments. But what else?

“We knew we didn’t have all of the answers,” said Ramses. “In order to find those answers we gathered input from employees and came back for validation.” This collective approach not only allowed employees to influence IBM’s new performance development tool, but it also created a sense of ownership. Employees were so involved with the new performance development solution, Checkpoint, that it was actually named by them!

“This was something that all IBMers truly felt invested in and had a voice in because it was about helping to improve their growth and performance in the long run,” Kelli reflected.

Performance development equals growth

With Checkpoint, IBM went from yearly, absolute ratings to a model where feedback was self-driven and centered around providing a more holistic evaluation of employees. To ensure IBM’s performance strategy was aligned across departments, offices, and countries, five key dimensions – or core values – were created: Business results, Client success, Innovation, Skills, and Responsibility to others.

According to Kelli, “Feedback at its core is about caring about people’s growth.” With this as IBM’s foundation, Checkpoint has become more than just a performance management solution; it has become an opportunity to empower employees to take their development into their own hands, strengthening their skills and driving their career progression.

From an outsider’s perspective, IBM is truly living their values through their performance development strategy. “What I see IBM doing brilliantly,” Rosette said, “is they are using a culture of feedback to support the behaviors they want to see from every IBMer around the world. And we’re talking hundreds of thousands of people.”

By grounding feedback in dimensions, employees from all around the world create objectives and priorities that work toward a common goal. And while business objectives and personal growth goals may change, feedback and development are a constant. “Talking is important, connection is important – it drives trust. And trust drives caring, caring drives psychological safety, and that’s the foundation of our performance model.” All of those things together, Ramses explained, is what truly drives growth, no matter what challenges arise.

Building culture through human connection

Since partnering with Workhuman, IBM has been able to bring Checkpoint to the next level of feedback and development. By having one platform for check-ins, feedback requests, and goal setting, IBMers have been able to move past the traditional questions like “Did you accomplish your yearly objectives?” to questions like, “How are we performing? What are the skills needed? How does this impact my career?”

Reflecting on IBM’s partnership with Workhuman, Ramses said, “We wanted to integrate a model that allows for human connection to happen, support IBMers in all aspects of their growth, and in turn, drive business results for the company.”

And by the looks of it, that’s exactly what’s happening. Since launch, Ramses and Kelli have watched feedback requests and responses increase 5x what they were before. What’s driving such a drastic surge in usage? According to IBMers themselves, “When you’re asking for feedback, you can be specific, you can put yourself in a vulnerable position, and you can look for criticism” from those working alongside you to strengthen relationships, skills, and productivity.

As a continuous performance development expert, Rosette recognizes the benefits of being proactive. “Employee feels as though they have the ability to proactively participate, proactively create a goal, proactively reach out and have a check-in, and proactively ask for feedback.” This proactiveness allows employees to take their development into their own hands, solidifying human connection and growth into the fabric of the organization’s culture.

For leaders who want their organizations to follow IBM’s lead, Kelli offered a place to start: “Get clear on your objectives. Think through what you’re trying to accomplish. Then think about how you can co-create it.” Together, any organization can transform their performance development strategy, and Workhuman is ready to help guide the journey.

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About the Author

Sarah Bloznalis

Sarah Bloznalis is a content marketing coordinator at Workhuman from Upton, Mass. Besides writing about humanity in the workplace, she enjoys reading, the beach, and going on hikes with her dog.

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