2006 Investiture Address by Nicholas M. Donofrio
Executive Vice President, Innovation and Technology, IBM Corporation
June 10, 2006
Dean Helble ... faculty and staff ... family, friends, loved ones ... and, of course, our very special guests of honor – the 2006 graduates of the Thayer School of Engineering.
I am deeply honored to be joining you on this special day and to have received such prestigious recognition from this exemplary institution. I am really not sure what makes me worthy of such distinction. But I humbly accept the Robert Fletcher Award with tremendous gratitude. I will strive each day to uphold its ideals and make you proud of your choice.
My thanks and congratulations to you all.
At the outset, I would be remiss if I did not remind our graduates that immediately following Investiture, you will begin a new life with a fresh set of challenges.
You will all go your separate ways. Some of you will continue here with your studies. Others will make the transition to a lifetime of working hard ... raising a family ... serving the community. But if Dartmouth has its way, you all will be doing something together. You guessed it – writing big checks each year to the Thayer Alumni Campaign.
There's no escaping it, really. There isn't a more relentless mechanism on earth than the fund-raising engine of an American University. Count on it!
Other than that, there are really no "knowable" things out there, except for one. Constant change. Constant, rapidly-accelerating change. And nowhere is change happening faster than in the field I represent – information technology.
It will continue – just as it always has – to transform every aspect of business, education, government and society. Information technology is re-defining even the most entrenched career fields, and creating new ones. Some we don't even know about yet.
So ... how do you prepare for that kind of future? The answer is ... you really cannot. Yet, I doubt that any group of graduates is better equipped than you are. Sounds a little odd, I know.
But I say that because of what I learned from one of your fellow graduates – a man who earned his bachelor's degree from the Thayer School some 43 years ago. A man who was my boss for 10 years at IBM. I am talking about IBM's former chairman and CEO, Lou Gerstner.
I used to kid Lou about his "Engineering" degree ... about how it couldn't be a real engineering degree because it came from Dartmouth – a school I thought just sprinkled a little engineering on top of its liberal arts curriculum.
But I learned over time that I was dead wrong. I see now that the Thayer School was smarter than maybe it thought when it chose the cross-disciplinary academic approach so many years ago. Allow me to explain.
I have been immersed in the IT industry, and as an IBMer, for 42 years. And, for the past year, I have been serving as a member of the U. S. Commission on the Future of Higher Education, a group of just 20 people – chartered by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings – to study what's right and what's wrong with higher education in this country and then recommend how we, as a nation, should proceed.
Working in both roles has enabled me to see just what's really happening here. College graduates – and especially engineers, scientists and technical professionals – need to be vastly different in the 21st century than they were in the 20th century. But it seems clear the Thayer School already knew that.
The information technology industry is much different now – whether it's the industry itself, or whether it's the people who leverage the assets of the industry. But it seems clear the Thayer School already knew that.
The installed base of all information technology in the world is measured in hundreds of trillions of dollars. That simply has to be dealt with, and it has to be managed as we move forward.
The innovation opportunities you will be faced with are far different than the ones I was faced with when I started with IBM. Back then, the necessary and sufficient condition was to be a very good engineer ... a very good scientist. Back then, the necessary and sufficient condition was to invent, create and discover.
That is no longer the necessary and sufficient condition for success. Innovation in the 21st century requires all of that, for sure, but it requires so much more.
It requires people with deep insight into the issues and challenges faced by business, government, academia, for-profit & not-for-profit institutions, and for society. We need all of that knowledge before we begin to apply our inventions and discoveries – before we apply technology to a problem.
Technology for technology's sake was an approach that worked just fine in the 20th century. It won't work now. I travel the world many times over and I talk with hundreds upon hundreds of CEOs, government leaders, academic leaders, and they all tell me the same thing:
To be a winner, we must be an innovator. We need to get off the predictable line – we need to find a way to jump to someplace else. We need partners who can help us understand what makes us special and then help us leverage our uniqueness for competitive advantage.
That's the kind of value they are seeking. That's what people will expect you to provide. The new value of innovation everyone is looking for can and will happen in many ways.
Some of it will come from goods and services. Some will come through new processes. And some will come from new business-management models. But in all cases you will be looking for value at the places where marketplace, societal, business, government and academic insights intersect with technology. And that, my friends, is Innovation with a big "I."
The most important innovations will be those that transcend any particular business or technology; they will be those that have a broad societal impact and improve the lives of real people. In fact, the most important innovation occurring today could be the changing nature of innovation itself.
Innovation with a big "I" happens much faster today and it diffuses more rapidly into our everyday lives; it is far more open; it spans virtually all disciplines, and it is increasingly global. Innovation rarely arises in the isolated laboratory anymore – it arises in the marketplace, the workplace, the community, the classroom. It flourishes in a collaborative environment.
Innovation with a big "I" is a two-way interplay of creation and its uses. Understanding that is the first step in marshalling our energies and resources to prosper.
The world is ripe with opportunity for people just like you – people who have benefited from the approach of the Thayer School. People who – because of their exposure to such a unique, forward-thinking program – are almost correct by construction for what lies ahead in the 21st century. You are better equipped than most to chart the new era – the new global economy we find ourselves in.
Think about it.
In less than a decade, the Internet has connected a million businesses and a billion people – making it, in essence, the world's operational infrastructure. And it's still only in its infancy. Soon, trillions upon trillions of things will be ubiquitously connected to it.
The whole open movement is taking off in a big way. Not just open computing or industry standards, but the actual state of openness – the sharing of ideas and intellectual assets, building off them and making them better, in an open fashion.
And finally, both the Internet and a pervasive state of openness are breaking down traditional silos and enabling horizontally-integrated institutions and enterprises. The "horizontalness" that is now possible is making those institutions incredibly facile in responding to business needs, marketplace needs, global needs ... and doing it all while creating value on the fly.
So, there is huge opportunity out there upon which to innovate. For sure, technology will never let you down. Its accessibility and availability will not be an issue. Coupling it with insight to create new value is what will separate the winners from the losers – the unique and special from the ordinary.
Clearly, the Thayer School knows that. You know that. And now, I know that!
And ... I am helping the Commission on the Future of Higher Education to know that – to know and to recognize that America needs more and more graduates like those assembled here today ...
... that the knowledge workers of the 21st Century will need cross-disciplinary programs and degrees in order to compete – people equipped with the skills that are developed, nurtured and celebrated here at the Thayer School.
As you move forward, the demands placed on you will require you to think in an open ... collaborative ... multidisciplinary ... global environment. The demands placed on you will require you to have a thirst for life-long learning.
As you prepare to leave here you already know that today marks the end of nothing.
Your future is secure in your ability and your passion to learn, always. You are letting go – but you are letting go to grow!!
As you do, I urge you to consider this friendly advice:
First ... always, always, always ... work to make a difference. End each day having no regrets.
Second ... take the Hippocratic Oath every morning. "Do No Harm." I want you to do much more than that, of course, but if that's all you did – if that's all everyone did every day – just getting the base right – what a great world it would be.
Third ... learn to love change. If you simply tolerate it, you will get nowhere. As engineers, you know that your chosen field changes constantly. Learn to embrace change, to shape it, to create new change on your own. As my father taught me at a very early age – If nothing changes, nothing changes.
And finally ... keep your senses. And I urge you to do that in three ways.
First ... keep your sense of history. Yes, while there are times when you must let go to grow ... you must never let go of who you are, where you came from ... what you believe in. That is so vitally important.
Second ... keep your sense of balance. The roles you play in life are certain to conflict at times. Son-Father, Daughter-Mother, Work-Leisure, Employee-Spouse. Only you can strike the proper balance between them, and among them. No one can do it for you.
Finally, by all means, keep your sense of humor. In the whole scheme of things, it is our only tie-breaker ... our ultimate sanity check ... the only thing separating us from other mammals roaming the earth. Keep it – always.
And remember ... it's a rare individual who knows where things are going. It's an even rarer individual who knows what must be done to control the course of her or his life.
After all, it is tough to justify the return-on-investment for a journey into the unknown.
But as you move deeper into the 21st century, it's a sure bet that you will be measured less on what you know and more on how you deal with what you DON'T know.
I know you are prepared. I know it because you are armed with a solid education ... a sense of identity ... hope ... ideas and ideals you deeply believe in. That, at its heart, is all about courage and optimism.
I applaud your courage. And I share your optimism about what the future will hold.
Thank you for welcoming me to the Thayer family today.
And I wish you the very best life has to offer.