Onboarding Margin Discussion A Review of IBM’s Updated Onboarding Program

A Review of IBM’s Updated Onboarding Program

Posted on Monday, December 13th, 2010 | No Comments

We are continually on the lookout for new hire onboarding best practices and examples of world-class onboarding programs to share with you.

Human Resources Executive Online (HREO) profiled IBM’s refreshed, 24-month new hire onboarding program, Succeeding@IBM, in a recent article: http://www.hreonline.com/HRE/story.jsp?storyId=533098421&sub=false.    The HREO article shares some of the highlights of IBM’s updated onboarding program, which incorporates many of the recommended practices and program elements discussed in our book, Successful Onboarding (McGraw Hill, July 2010).

Content with Context

First of all, we commend IBM for recognizing that the company’s legacy program “Your IBM”, a 30-day orientation experience, delivered too much content too soon (e.g., content delivery when new hires did not have sufficient context to fully appreciate and absorb the material, as illustrated in the far left column of the graphic below).

Understanding the value of delivering content to new hires once they have ample context, IBM re-designed its onboarding program to span 24 months, embracing a deferred content delivery model (see far right column of the graphic above).   While not all companies have the resources or business model needed to support a 24-month onboarding program, we fully agree with IBM’s decision to lengthen the onboarding experience so that it extends throughout a new hire’s first year.

Improved Employer-Employee Compact

By lengthening its onboarding program, IBM also improved the employer-employee compact.   As described in Successful Onboarding and on our Onboarding Margin website, the employer-employee compact is the relationship that you, as the employer, maintain with your new hires.   An improved employer-employee compact is what ultimately drives greater personal and enterprise performance.  Dave Ulrich, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business quoted in HREO’s article, agrees that the enhancements made to IBM’s onboarding program demonstrate the company’s commitment to its employees:  “The fact that they [IBM] spend two years on this, and offer all these great technology tools in the effort to orient their employees, says that they are committed to employee longevity and commitment.”

The Four Pillars

IBM’s new onboarding program brings to life many of the core concepts discussed in detail in Successful Onboarding, including representative program elements for each of the four pillars within the Kaiser Associates Onboarding Margin Activity Matrix (http://onboardingmargin.com/resources/).

In terms of Cultural Mastery, Succeeding@IBM incorporates learning simulation activities for new hires “intended to reinforce IBM’s philosophy regarding diversity; specifically, that [IBM] creates an innovative, globally integrated enterprise while encouraging diversity of thought.”   In addition to including activities that convey the diversity of thought aspect of the IBM culture, the refreshed onboarding program introduces new hires to the company’s networking and collaboration tools.   Given that technology is an integral part of the company culture (“technology at IBM is like breathing,” according to Michael Cannon, IBM’s manager of new employee experience), onboarding activities that reinforce IBM’s technology-focused culture help new hires to navigate the organization more easily.

Regarding the Interpersonal Network Development pillar, IBM’s onboarding program introduces and provides new hires with total access to the IBM global employee network via internal social-networking applications.    According to the HREO article, the technology enables new employees to “collaborate with each other and with experienced IBMers to build support networks and find career and technical guidance and expertise”.   Succeeding@IBM also offers a virtual cohort opportunity to new hires that provides them with a structured way to build a network of friends within the organization beyond a classroom setting.    Since IBM is an organization where a significant number of employees work remotely, we think that an onboarding program activity like this that sets a precedent with new hires  for establishing interpersonal relationships in virtual settings is a great idea.

Meanwhile, we believe that IBM deserves credit for recognizing that its legacy orientation program lacked career development elements that we bucket under the Early Career Support power pillar within the Kaiser Associates Onboarding Margin Activity Matrix.   In the “Grow My Career” module of the IBM onboarding program, new hires receive a dynamic roadmap that illustrates the different learning and career paths available to them from the moment they join the organization.    New hires at IBM are also encouraged to take advantage of their access to the company’s employee network to seek career development advice and mentoring.

For Strategy Immersion & Direction, the fourth pillar of Kaiser’s Onboarding Margin Activity Matrix, IBM offers work-based learning simulation activities designed to help new hires understand how their workgroup supports IBM’s business strategies at both the business-unit and enterprise-wide levels.    While this type of activity is a starting point for providing new hires with strategy immersion and direction, we would recommend that IBM incorporate additional strategy immersion program elements and best practices into the new hire onboarding experience.


We do give kudos to IBM for customizing its onboarding program to address the needs of different segments of its new hire population, including campus hires, experienced hires, hires with technical backgrounds vs. business consultants, etc.    The HREO article mention an alternative onboarding track created by IBM for its executive and senior management hires, indicating that IBM recognizes the distinct development needs of that particular segment of new employees.

Business Case for Onboarding

One additional point raised in the HREO article that attracted our attention included an anecdote about how IBM once claimed that each new hire was a “$9-million investment because – over the lifetime of the employee’s tenure – that was what the firm would spend on him or her, including salary, benefits, development facilities and other support services”.   While this particular employee investment estimate is no longer used at IBM, the sentiment persists that new employees are a significant long-term investment for the organization.   Furthermore, it is clear that IBM understands that an effective onboarding program is critical for increasing new hire productivity and improving the organization’s employer-employee compact.

We wholeheartedly agree with the notion that an effective onboarding program can help you increase new hire productivity as well as unlock hidden value from your talent base.   As such, we endorse many of the structural and programming changes that IBM has made to its new hire onboarding experience and hope that you found our review of these practices helpful as you consider enhancements to your organization’s onboarding program.

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