Opinion

What the Catholic Church can learn from IBM

A prototype of IBM’s Watson computing system in 2011. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) What’s the difference between IBM and the Roman Catholic Church?

Well, one is led by a woman, Ginni Rometty, and the other by a man, Pope Francis. And one is more interested in prophets than profits. And one has Innovation Jam, and one doesn’t (more on that later).

But both institutions are alike insofar as they have ambitious goals to pursue in this world. And IBM seems to have grasped, better than my Catholic Church, one of the core truths about what it takes for any organization to attain an earthly mission.

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Here’s how one prophet enunciated that truth: “Transformation of an enterprise begins with a sense of crisis or urgency. No institution will go through fundamental change unless it believes it is in deep trouble and needs to do something different to survive.”

That was Lou Gerstner, the much-admired chief executive who joined IBM when the storied company was rapidly drifting toward corporate ruin. His first task: to convince hidebound executives that they were in crisis and needed to change. With the advent of ever-more-powerful desktop computers, mainframes were like those mandatory blue suits and red ties for which IBM salespeople had become famous. That is, they were not core to IBM’s nonnegotiable “set of beliefs.” Put simply: Only by changing dramatically would IBM thrive in the future.

Ginni Rometty of IBM in 2011. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Asa Mathat

Gerstner succeeded in transforming IBM through a new business model based largely on services. Now Rometty, the current CEO, is engineering yet another transformation as IBM focuses on Cloud computing and big data tools like Watson.

The Catholic Church can learn lots from IBM. The rapidly changing world challenges all organizations, churches included. The Catholic Church’s challenges are so profound that the word “crisis” is surely warranted in light of dropping Sunday Mass attendance, priest shortages and flagging interest among young adults, not to mention the headwinds of a broadly secular society.

The first step forward for Catholicism is the courage to name the predicament for what it is: a crisis. Now is not the time for cheerleading, but for a frank call to action to help reinvigorate the church. It will be well-received, I’m sure: There is a deep reservoir of goodwill among Catholics for the church that means a lot to them.

The second step forward is to foster a culture that is more open to fundamental change. That was hard for Gerstner to pull off at IBM but will be way harder for the church. That’s for all kinds of reasons, starting with a profound difference between IBM and the Catholic Church: God didn’t reveal the mainframe computer to IBM.

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Contrast the Catholic Church, which, like most religious traditions, believes that its core beliefs, from Ten Commandments to Jesus’ divinity to a whole lot more, are divinely revealed and immutable. That weighs heavily on every bishop and the pope. That burden alone makes the church change-wary. So does 2,000 years of history and tradition.

Faithful attend a Mass of Pentecost celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on June 4, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Tony Gentile

All understood. But that worthy instinct to preserve what’s inviolable has contributed to fostering a culture that is too resistant to change at precisely a moment where change is needed. Reversing the trends of the last half-century won’t happen by following exactly the same playbook that got the church to this point.

The third step forward is creating a new kind of culture that nurtures imaginative solutions. IBM’s example can help here too. Its top executives are well aware that the management culture of big, venerable organizations invariably becomes bureaucratic and change-resistant (even when God’s Word is not involved). Accordingly, IBM works hard to create programs, from Innovation Jam to Think Place, to foster imaginative new ideas; IBM conscientiously nurtures the most promising ideas with seed funding and mentorship support.

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Maybe Pope Francis needs to convene his own innovation jam, welcoming new ideas for how to interest young adults in the church, or to make worship services more stimulating, or to use social and mass media, or to better tap the talents of our women members. And maybe some bishops need to start channeling their inner Silicon Valley venture capitalist, seeking out and fostering the innovations that can help a church revitalize itself.

Today’s billion Catholics wield their imagination and entrepreneurial flair in every occupation and industry; I bet that a great number of them would gladly apply those talents to lend some help to their church. We just need to create the culture where that can happen.

(Chris Lowney chairs the board of Catholic Health Initiatives and is a former managing director at JP Morgan & Co. He is also author of “Everyone Leads: How to Revitalize the Catholic Church”)

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Chris Lowney

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