IBM must continue to innovate in Groningen
  • IT
  • Internationalizing

Carola Bos of IBM 'I don't often say 'no' to ideas'

Seven years ago there was nothing; now 285 people work there. IBM's Client Innovation Center is new and different in every way. It has to stay that way, and that is the big challenge.

A classic library, an escape room, the Alpine room, the huge tree house in the atrium. What IBM has put up in a few years on Zuiderdiep in Groningen, you won't find anywhere else. Nor could you. There were no examples; this is the first of its kind. Meanwhile, centers of this kind have sprung up in many more places around the world, following the example of "Groningen," but nowhere the same.

The appearance, hence all this attention to it, is essential to what IBM wants with the Client Innovation Centre Benelux. This is where new things need to emerge. Technology, ideas, ways to serve clients even better. Innovation, in short. And that requires a different way of working. That is something Carola Bos is constantly concerned about.

"Our people are always working on new solutions. They succeed when they feel free to experiment, to make mistakes. I don't often say 'no' to ideas. That's one thing. And the environment here helps bring out that sense that things are possible and allowed. It's open, yet different everywhere. You can look for the environment that suits you at that moment.''


Serving customers is, of course, goal one. But more is happening. Employees in Groningen are grabbing space to develop new things themselves. "Sometimes a project is over for a while and the next one hasn't started yet. Those are moments when our people grab the folder of ideas and start thinking and developing.'' As a direct result, Groningen has been designated as IBM's European blockchain expertise center. ''A group here dove into that technology that was just emerging at the time out of interest. We haven't given that lead away since.''

Large banks seeking solutions to better serve their customers, corporates, retailers, energy companies. IBM's customer base in Groningen is substantial. "A lot of them are in the Benelux, some of them outside. What seems nice to me? If we can also serve some local parties. The UMCG or something like that. Of course we will do our best for that.''

From the premises on the Zuiderdiep, all those people are mainly busy helping customers with their IT solutions. "We think with them, regularly form teams with them that get to work. This is very different from when we started here in 2013. Then we mainly offered our solutions . What we do now goes much further. Software, hardware, a combination, consulting. The whole package.''

34 nationalities

Surely this is a development you see in the market. Competition is fierce. Companies on average no longer want a software package, but a solution that goes far beyond the software alone. "We are asking a lot more through, helping our customers to help their customers. The fact that we are big and can offer a lot helps, of course.''

To keep up with that development, a diverse workplace is essential. It is increasingly about skills like being able to listen and spar with clients, to be able to think strategically, with all kinds of parties. In Groningen, people of 34 different nationalities now work together. The average age is 29, the proportion of women about a quarter. "That diversity is something we have to keep a constant eye on. It's really hard to always find the right people. If you're talking about challenges, that's definitely one.''

The Client Innovation Centre has long since moved away from old-fashioned recruitment of IT personnel. "We do that too, but you can't make it with that. We have developed a comprehensive test for new people. This is mainly about cognitive ability, not background. The question is: Can you and do you want to learn? If so, we train people ourselves. That is also good for diversity. There are people walking around here who have studied biology, psychology, mathematics, you name it.''


Therein also lies a minor annoyance of Carola Bos, something she talks about regularly with university and college students. "IT is so woven into our lives that it should essentially no longer be a separate profession. Whatever profession you go into, you always have to deal with IT. So it should be covered in every study, I think. ''

That would already increase the pool of talent a bit. The hardest thing to do, however, is to retain experienced workers. In the North, IT companies are fishing from the same pool of professionals. "I would like to do something about that, but I don't really get it off the ground yet. I think we should work together, we should be able to let talent flow. It sometimes seems like we forget that all these good people also easily go to work in other parts of the country. We should do everything we can to keep them right here. That means working together. Right now as far as I'm concerned.''

Groningen won over Eindhoven

That IBM established the first Client Innovation Centre in Groningen in 2013 has to do with the open arms the company found in Groningen. Carola Bos: "We felt welcome. The government thought along, the NOM immediately offered us a network of discussion partners. The lines of communication are short, so we were able to succeed quickly. Apart from that, we concluded that the pressure on the market for IT technicians in Eindhoven was very strong.''