The “Watson Way” at IBM in Endicott, NY

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A review of Factory Town in Transition: A Community’s Reaction to Change, by Kristina Wilcox.

In 2011, the undisputed winner in a three-night Jeopardy standoff was not human, but a machine—a machine with super-human intelligence named Watson. IBM’s tinny-voiced supercomputer has become a celebrity in its own right, the face (or interface) of the company’s service-oriented business. New York magazine published a long piece on Watson as a harbinger of the future of artificial intelligence in May 2015 and a Pulitzer-finalist play, The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence, features a sleuthing, male-bodied Watson. Amid Siri-like phrases, the Watson of the stage poignantly declares, “we all suffer from moments of insufficiency, in which we must look to others to supplement our strength” (Madeleine George, The (Curious Case of The) Watson Intelligence. New York: Samuel French, Inc., 2013, p. 35). In this statement of solidarity and community, the fictional Watson evokes the “Watson Way,” an ethos of management and employment that reigned for nearly a century at IBM, the supercomputer’s own birthplace and home.

Through over forty oral history interviews and surveys, Kristina Wilcox, PhD and vice president of Capitol Hill Consulting Group, corroborates Watson’s testimony to mutuality at IBM. Her dissertation, A Factory Town in Transition, details the strength and resilience of the social contract between employees and management, even amid the effects of globalization and rise of a service-oriented economy at IBM in Endicott, New York. Wilcox, herself a native of Endicott and self-described “‘junior’ IBMer” (87), has written a compelling history of Endicott and its residents’ relationship with the two major employers that have made the town their home: the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company and International Business Machines (IBM). She finds that current and former IBM employees have found comfort and strength in their relationship with the company, which emphasized a corporate culture of “loyalty, stability, and … family feeling” (42). Instead of disillusionment in the wake of IBM’s sale of its original headquarters in 2002, Wilcox finds that IBM employees and Endicott residents narrate their relationship with the company in familial terms, in large part from the “Watson Way,” so named for IBM’s founder, Thomas J. Watson, Sr. Current and former IBM employees in the Endicott and Binghamton, New York area are, she writes, “understanding” and have handled transitions and change with a resilience born of self-interest (193).

Wilcox begins her study by highlighting, as with many towns and regions impacted by deindustrialization, the discrepancy between the optimism of the “Watson Way” of the past and the realities of the present. Part of the task she takes on is to make sense of Endicott’s designation as the least optimistic city in the United States in a 2014 survey—and how Endicott got there (4). Wilcox’s interviews indicate otherwise, however, and many IBM veterans do not fit the bill of dissolution and pessimism.

The Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company preceded IBM in Endicott, laying the foundation for a town and company ethos of community and loyalty, as Wilcox details in chapter 2. George F. Johnson’s shoe company was the largest employer in the Endicott area from the 1890s to the 1920s and built its success on welfare capitalism. Johnson expected gratitude and loyalty from workers in return for good wages and benefits, ranging from a “fantasyland” park and pool to sports teams, parades, and a homebuilding program (21). Wilcox notes that Johnson’s paternalism was, of course, not unique to Endicott-Johnson, and meant to stave off unionization. As Johnson and employees boasted, Endicott was the home of the “square deal” (29): a mutually beneficial relationship between employer and employee negated any need for outside representation and fostered community-wide loyalty to Endicott-Johnson. Later, IBM would take up this mantle.

Chapter 3 details the rise of Thomas J. Watson, Sr.’s Computing-Tabulating-Record Co. (CRT), which he renamed International Business Machines (IBM) in 1924. Wilcox focuses here on the early “cycles” of the company’s growth, rooted in tabulators and punch cards, government contracts through the 1930s and 1940s, and mainframe computing innovations (38). Throughout the company’s early development, Watson, Sr., cultivated the “Watson Way” on mutual obligations of job security and employee loyalty. Watson, for example, kept IBM running during the Depression and made few layoffs. He and IBM promoted the culture of the “Watson Way” in company songs, ephemera, and benefits, from a country club for employees to the ubiquity of the word “THINK” etched across IBM’s operations and throughout Endicott (56-57). In this culture, every employee and resident was important to IBM and, in turn, IBM was central to Endicott’s well-being and community. The “Watson Way” was a new iteration of the “square deal,” and both fostered what Wilcox terms the “Endicott Way” (72).

In chapter 4, Wilcox draws largely from her oral history interviews and surveys to give depth, life, and emotion to the “Endicott Way.” Here she adds employee experiences and voices to literature on IBM and Endicott that have either focused exclusively on work under Endicott-Johnson, such as Gerald Zahavi’s Workers, Managers, and Welfare Capitalism (Gerald Zahavi, Workers, Managers, and Welfare Capitalism: The Shoeworkers and Tanners of Endicott Johnson, 1890-1950. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1988), or on top-down histories of the company, such as Thomas Watson, Jr.’s Father, Son & Co. (Thomas Watson, Jr., Father, Son & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond. New York: Bantam Books, 1990), and Emerson Pugh’s Building IBM (Emerson W. Pugh, Building IBM: Shaping an Industry and Its Technology. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1995). In this chapter, Wilcox focuses on IBM’s postwar business and successes, from mainframe operating systems to early personal computers. From the mid-1950s to the 1980s, the company employed between 10 and 18 thousand employees, many of whom lived in Endicott (and have remained in the community). The company boomed in the 1960s and 1970s, bringing in new talent and providing many opportunities to celebrate employee achievements and IBM’s commitment to Endicott. IBM offered a dizzying array of awards, dinners, stock options, and generous benefits, as well as admission to the IBM country club, holiday parties, and “junior IBMer” summer youth programs (87). Overwhelmingly, Wilcox’s respondents remember these initiatives fondly and, of the twelve women she interviewed, all remarked that IBM provided opportunities for advancement. In all, the company’s supplementary benefits—which came in many forms—influenced and mitigated the relationship between workers, the community, and IBM. Former workers felt lasting commitments to and fondness for the company because of the loyalty and programs IBM offered in return. In Wilcox’s telling, the social contract between employer and employee was strongest because of IBM’s programs outside of the hours of operation.

What is most surprising about Wilcox’s study and her respondents is that their recollections remain so positive in spite of the company’s financial woes from the 1980s to the first decade of the 2000s, which she details in chapter 5. In these years, IBM faced steep competition in PC markets, began outsourcing its labor, brought in outsiders to manage the company, and shifted from selling technology to selling services (such as IT help and, later, the Watson supercomputer). These changes led to thousands of layoffs in Endicott in the 1990s. And as Wilcox details in her sixth and final chapter, after IBM closed its original Endicott facility in 2002, the “Watson Way” was in its twilight. Respondents felt frustration at layoffs, pension cuts, and the company’s departure yet most held on to a deep and emotional nostalgia for IBM’s past.

Wilcox closes her dissertation with ruminations on the lessons “IBM & Endicott teach us about capitalism, corporations, and culture” (190). Through her interviews, those lessons prove to be important insights into the lived experiences of welfare capitalism and corporate change—and the adaptability and positivity of many workers. For her—and for other residents of Endicott—the enduring legacy of the “Endicott Way” casts IBM’s more recent downturn in rosy light and provides hope and optimism even amid the community’s recent economic misfortunes. Many still live in Endicott, hopeful for a future that might replicate the vibrancy of the region’s IBM past. Wilcox’s study—and strong interview base—prompt us to rethink welfare capitalism and the experience of deindustrialization in the late twentieth century United States, offering insights into positive and nostalgic narratives of work and community.

And so, when the supercomputer of The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence notes that solidarity is “no weakness, [but] the first condition of human life,” perhaps he too is entangled in the lingering influence of his namesake’s “Watson Way.” Yet in the eyes of the Watsons and Endicott, that solidarity has long been rooted in a familial and loyal relationship between employer, employee, and town.

Allyson P. Brantley
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of History
Yale University
allyson.brantley@yale.edu

Primary Sources
Endicott-Johnson Workers Magazine
IBM Archives
Oral history interviews and surveys
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

Dissertation Information
Georgetown University. 2015. 210pp. Primary Advisor: Kazuko Uchimura, Ph.D.

Image: Endicott-Johnson Workers Arch, Endicott, NY.  Wikimedia Commons.

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