IBM Rebuilds Europe: The Curious Case of the Transnational Typewriter
By Petri Paju (Turku) and Thomas Haigh (Wisconsin, Milwaukee).
Abstract: In the decade after the Second World War IBM rebuilt its European operations as integrated, wholly owned subsidiaries of its World Trade Corporation, chartered in 1949. Long before the European common market eliminated trade barriers, IBM created its own internal networks of trade, allocating the production of different components and products between its new subsidiaries. Their exchange relationships were managed centrally to ensure that no European subsidiary was a consistent net importer. At the heart of this system were eight national electric typewriter plants, each assembling parts produced by other European countries. IBM promoted these transnational typewriters as symbols of a new and peaceful Europe and its leader, Thomas J. Watson, Sr., was an enthusiastic supporter of early European moves toward economic integration. We argue that IBM’s humble typewriter and its innovative system of distributed manufacturing laid the groundwork for its later domination of the European computer business and provided a model for the development of transnational European institutions.
Enterprise & Society 17(2, June 2016): 265-300
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Review by James W. Cortada (Charles Babbage Institute, Minnesota)
Prizes are awarded all the time for “best article” in a particular field, calling our attention to a well-executed, thoughtful one. But, occasionally, a prize winning article signals bigger shifts in a discipline than might otherwise be noticed. With this year’s award of the Business History Conference’s “Mira Wilkins Prize,” for the best article published in Enterprise & Society, we have such a signal.
Petri Paju and Thomas Haigh wrote “IBM Rebuilds Europe: The Curious Case of the Transnational Typewriter,” published in June 2016. They were recognized for “the best article on international business history,” the objective of this prize, but it is far more than good international business history.
The article chronicles how IBM created an internal network across eight national electric typewriter plants in post-World War II Europe to manufacture parts and to assembly these products. While electric typewriters were in great demand and IBM made what many considered to be the best one, the company created an internal network for their manufacture and distribution that transcended international borders in the decade after the war, presaging what would happen for some European products after the establishment of the European Union. But that was never solely the point—to create a European-wide market by governments—rather, it was to drive down production costs, increase demand for and the ability to deliver enough machines, while promoting IBM management’s belief that “World Peace through World Trade” could be a global objective for nations and companies. The authors trace how parts were made in one country, shipped to another, put together then sold, called the “Interchange Plan.” This experience taught IBM management how to create a more formal pan-European wide, later worldwide organization in 1949 that could manufacture, sell, and support its products called IBM World Trade. Within a half generation, World Trade did as much business as the American side of IBM.
Lessons learned in forming a pan-European typewriter business made it possible for IBM to develop a pan-European computer business that quickly dominated the mainframe business in Western Europe and in other parts of the world. Just as important, when IBM moved into the computer business, it already had factories, sales offices, and experienced employees in those countries that would become its best customers. These include Great Britain, France, West Germany, the Nordics, Italy, Spain, and a sprinkling presence in every country that eventually became part of the EU. The authors explain how the company created and learned from its “Interchange Plan,” operationally and strategically. They explored the accounting level to explain how money and budgets were exchanged across borders when governments had yet to sort out those issues, let alone even allow such exchanges.
The benefits to IBM were both obvious and extraordinary. Obvious ones included reduced operating costs for the manufacture and increased sale of typewriters. Less obvious, but ultimately more important, “this system would also foster interdependence among the various national [IBM] firms,” while spreading capabilities across multiple countries so that if one nation were to nationalize or block local IBM production, as occurred during World War II, another plant could pick up the slack. The company used its system in its public relations campaign to promote international trade through American managerial leadership and “to meet the challenges of communism” in the Cold War. Other American corporations—all of them with close ties to IBM’s management—took note of what IBM was learning and applied those lessons as well. IBM’s country organizations could also claim to be local, since each employed nationals, Fins in Finland, French in France, and so forth.
The lesson urged by these two young historians is an appropriate one at the moment: “think more carefully about the assumption that postwar globalization of European trade can be reduced to ‘Americanization’,” because IBM’s experience reflected a “hybridization of U.S. technology and management in postwar Europe.” Apply their suggestion worldwide. IBM was also prepared to experiment and operate in ways that valued expansion into new markets even at the costs of profits. That is one reason why it came to dominate the mainframe market so fast and for so many decades. The wisdom of today’s corporate fixation on shareholder value is challenged by this study of how IBM ran its typewriter business.
Perhaps the greater lesson, the more significant observation for why this prize this year is so important, lies elsewhere. For the past two decades, a month has barely gone by without an historian or economist publishing on the interactions of computing technology and business management. E&S is not alone in doing so; Technology & Culture has published some two-dozen similar articles in the new century, and Information & Culture is rapidly becoming another journal with a mix of business/information technology conversations. Petri Paju and Thomas Haigh are more than two gifted prolific article writers, they are teaching a new generation of scholars how to understand the role of information technologies and of management, business operations, and corporate strategy in a world filled with computers. Simply put, this article is seminal, worthy of being studied across multiple disciplines. The Mira Wilkes Prize Committee is to be congratulated for not letting this paper slip through the cracks.