IBM’s new CEO Virginia Rometty and I attended a Harvard Business School Summit on U.S. Competitiveness last week along with dozens of CEOs and influencers from companies such as Amazon, Amgen, Citicorp, Cummins Engine, Duke Energy, Hess, Kraft Foods, and JPMorgan Chase. IBM North America General Manager Bridget Van Kralingen will deliver the keynote address at today’s “U.S. Competitiveness: The Next 100 Years Forum with IBM” conference at Roosevelt House, co-sponsored by IBM and the Roosevelt Institute of Hunter College. The common theme of both of these conferences is the complex interrelationship between the public and private sectors and some of the components of competitiveness – including entrepreneurship, innovation, and human capital.
At the Harvard Business School summit, Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration and SuperCorp author Rosabeth Moss Kanter presented a working paper on “Enriching the Business Ecosystem”. In her new paper, Professor Kanter advances compelling arguments for increased public-private partnerships as a key component of an integrated strategy to make the U.S. more competitive in the global economy. The challenges of forging meaningful partnerships in a difficult economic environment can be severe. But one can also argue – as Professor Kanter does – that tough times require integrated and comprehensive innovations that only public-private partnerships can bring about.
When the U.S. government came together to pass the Social Security Act during the dark days of the 1930s depression, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins – the first woman appointed to a cabinet post in the history of the United States – reached out to private industry for help. Secretary Perkins and IBM CEO Thomas Watson, Sr. worked together to construct the groundbreaking and innovative management and operating system that served to undergird Social Security. The program was a new and essential safety net that helped the nation to recover and enabled its most vulnerable citizens to survive. Without a public-private partnership, it is unlikely that Social Security ever would have gotten off the ground.
A similar public-private partnership was initiated in the 1960s. That partnership helped the United States put a man on the moon, and created a panoply of scientific advances that survive to this day. NASA and IBM collaborated on the integrated effort that helped to create the U.S. space program and enabled our nation meet the challenge that President Kennedy had outlined in his historic address.
Today, it is both ironic and sad that finger pointing at government, at business, and at a variety of geographic, economic and social interests comes just when innovative public-private collaborations are more essential than ever before. Public-private partnerships are desperately needed to address our critical 21st century challenges – whether they involve improving education and driving economic growth; creating smarter systems for transportation, health care, and environmental sustainability; or knitting together a new social safety net. It is naïve to believe that any single sector of the economy can help us overcome the interconnected challenges of the 21st Century. And as the latest research from our best business minds indicates, we ignore these truths at our peril.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter will publish an expanded version of “Enriching the Business Ecosystem” in Harvard Business Review in early 2012.