eye laser invented through sustained innovation

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When sponsorship drives sustained innovation – the IBM example

June 6, 2018


As a Chief Innovation Officer that works closely with some of IBM’s biggest clients, there are three questions that often keep me and many of my clients up at night:

What is innovation?
Why is innovation so important?
How can we drive sustained innovation?

It is a common misconception that innovation only means “the latest and greatest technology.” The definition of innovation is “to do something in a new way.” It is vital to note that innovation, by its very definition, generates value and delivers profound impact. Though there are many ways of driving innovation, the two critical elements are: an organizational culture that encourages innovation and employees who consistently exhibit questing curiosity. These two elements play a key role in driving profound, sustained innovation.

How has IBM been so consistently successful, for over a century, in driving innovation that matters to the world? As noted, company culture and employees with genuine curiosity play a great role in driving sustained innovation. For example, IBM’s R&D has been a tremendous incubation engine for innovation since IBM Research was formally established in 1945. One of IBM’s core values – ‘Innovation that matters to the world and to our clients’ – exemplifies how IBM has worked to foster a lasting culture of innovation through its core company values.

Rewarding innovative thinking

As a recent example of how IBM continues to ensure a thriving innovation culture that is an integral part of the organization’s core, the company now sponsors a bi-annual initiative called BlueHack, created by one of my peers. IBM Services employees worldwide are invited to submit their ideas for ongoing innovation, constantly pushing the envelope and seeking creative ways of doing business. BlueHack challenges its participants to come up with concepts that can help IBM and its clients disrupt their business environments and push innovation even further.

In the first iteration of BlueHack, more than 800 ideas were submitted; of those, 125 were selected to be judged by an executive “shark panel,” which then winnowed the field down to the top 3. Each of these top 3 innovations was then awarded $50,000 (USD) to create prototypes. This sort of creative event, directly sponsored by the highest level of management, helps to foster and inspire an ongoing culture of innovation. IBM prides itself on championing diversity, which is why BlueHack is a worldwide initiative and not geographically limited. This high-level global focus on rewarding innovative thinking helps IBM attract and retain the top minds across many fields.

The power of curiosity

IBM is well-known for supporting seekers of innovation; for example, one of my great colleagues, Dr. James Wynne, along with his team, was responsible for the invention of the Excimer laser. Thanks to their unflagging curiosity, they discovered this laser spectrum while experimenting with various types of lasers in the early 1980s. The Excimer laser is now used for the LASIK surgery, which has given better eyesight to 50 million people worldwide in the last 30 years. Dr. Wynne continues to seek out new laser discoveries; some recent laser discoveries are now used to perform surgeries on burn victims. Thanks to people like Dr. Wynne and his team, innovation is burning brightly in the field of lasers.

Profound innovation is created through curiosity and through the culture of innovation and has a very important role to play in human advancement. Are you ready to drive innovation that has a profound impact on humanity? If this excites you, and you want to know more, I encourage you to read more about innovation on the post I published a few months ago.


Hemang Dave is Chief Innovation Officer of IBM Services, North America. An IT Architect at IBM since 2000, Hemang was Team Lead and Manager before becoming CIO of the company’s American headquarters in 2013. He is responsible for spearheading innovation and strategy for all base-growth SO accounts of North America. 

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