IBM Builds Critical Mass at “Mass Lab”; Aims to Mix Acquired Subsidiaries Without Dissolving Them

2/25/09Follow @wroush

IBM’s sweeping project to consolidate its local software divisions at renovated campuses in Littleton and Westford, MA, is more than just a physical reorganization: it’s a chance for the company to craft a new identity for itself in Massachusetts, according to one of Big Blue’s top executives in the state.

“I think we are one of the best kept secrets in Massachusetts,” Mohamad Ali, an IBM vice president for business development and strategy, told me last week during a meeting at the new Littleton campus. “We have 5,000 people here and we are the state’s 24th largest employer. Our payroll alone brings half a billion dollars a year to the state. Yet people don’t know we’re here.”

That’s in part because the company’s rash of local software acquisitions over the last six years has created an organization with employees scattered across nearly a dozen locations ringing Boston. But by the time the reorganization is complete sometime in 2010, only four of those offices will remain, and some 3,400 employees will have been brought together at the Littleton and Westford locations (which are a short, 3-mile shuttle ride apart).

IBM hopes to carry out the consolidation in a way that respects each acquired company’s culture, while at the same time creating a new, integrated identity for the company in Massachusetts. To that end, it’s begun branding the Littleton-Westford axis as the “IBM Mass Lab,” a moniker executives hope will attain the same status as other famous IBM locations such as its world headquarters in Armonk, NY, its Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, and its Almaden Research Center outside San Jose, CA.

The Lobby of IBM's Westford FacilityWhile not a laboratory in the strict sense—IBM’s local research operations will still be concentrated in the Rogers Street building in Cambridge once primarily occupied by Lotus Development Corporation—the Mass Lab’s twin campuses will house thousands of software developers working on next-generation applications in areas like business intelligence, workplace collaboration, Web services, software development tools, and security.

“I think part of what we are trying to solve for here on this campus is really establishing our identity,” says Ali. “Even within IBM, people view us as Rational, as Lotus, but they don’t think about the IBM Mass Lab doing all this stuff. That’s how we want to be thought about within IBM…as well as the general population.”

Ali says the lab, which welcomed its first employees in November, will eventually be home to North America’s largest concentration of IBM software talent. He also points out that software generates 40 to 45 percent of the company’s profits. “So, we are a huge driver, and this is the center of it, right here.”

Last Wednesday, IBM officials gave me a tour of the Mass Lab’s Littleton facility, a sprawling 494,000-square foot complex just off I-495. The space is owned by Chicago-based commercial real-estate giant Jones Lang Lasalle and was left vacant after its previous tenant, the global services division of Hewlett-Packard subsidiary Compaq Computer, suffered a wave of layoffs in 2005.

IBM is about a third of the way through an overhaul of the space, which is being orchestrated by Boston-based architecture firm ADD Inc. Beth Friday, vice president of customer support at IBM’s Rational division, told me the interior redesign is intended to help employees feel secure within their home organizations, while finding plenty of places to cross paths with people from others groups.

The melting-pot theme starts in the front lobby, where a multi-colored glass sculpture features one hue for each major IBM software family. (There’s a green glass slab for IBM’s Information Management products, yellow for Lotus, sky blue for Rational, red for Tivoli, purple for WebSphere, and dark blue for IBM itself.) The colors are repeated around the building, on conference-room walls and on removable glass panes identifying each group’s field of cubicles.

Friday says ADD conceived the building’s various sectors as “neighborhoods,” connected by a few long “main street” corridors, which are in turn punctuated by “town centers” that function as impromptu meeting places and mini-food courts. (Given the building’s size, the urban metaphor works better than you might think.)

The overall design strives for a balance between cohesiveness and porousness. “We don’t want to strip the acquisitions of their identities—you really want to preserve that, because it’s very powerful,” Friday says. “So we wanted to give them a space where they can have their feeling of community and individuality, but also not be isolated.”

When it’s finished, the Littleton facility will have space for 2,200 employees. Another 1,200 will gather at the Westford facility, where construction crews are putting the finishing touches on a new 16,000-square-foot executive briefing center set to open next week. It’s a place for IBMers to meet with the hundreds of companies each year who send people to Massachusetts for product demonstrations and workshops. Twice the size of IBM’s existing briefing center in Cambridge, the new facility can host up to four customer meetings simultaneously, according to IBM spokesperson Karen Lilla.

A 'Town Center' space at IBM's Littleton FacilityAs it renovates in Westford and Littleon, IBM is also working to minimize the Mass Lab’s overall environmental impact. There will be bike storage for people who bike to work, priority parking for hybrid and car-pool vehicles, low-flow plumbing fixtures, high-efficiency lighting, EnergyStar appliances, zoned heating and air conditioning that work in harmony with the heat from sunlight, and a storm-water capture system to relieve the burden on local storm sewers. The company is also looking into buying electricity for the campuses from suppliers who use solar, wind, or geothermal sources.

One thing that won’t change is workers’ commutes. Ali says IBM did demographic studies before the consolidation began and determined that the overall number of commuter miles driven by IBM employees—who live predominantly in the suburbs along the 495 corridor—probably won’t rise or fall as a result of the consolidation. But to make life easier for the scores of employees who live in Boston proper, Ali says, the company is working with other local technology employers to lobby the MBTA to arrange for more “reverse commute” trains on the Fitchburg-South Acton line, which has a stop at I-495 in Littleton. (Right now the first morning outbound train from North Station doesn’t arrive in Littleton until 9:42 a.m., and there are no evening inbound trains between 3:43 p.m. and 7:05 p.m.)

Friday, who joined IBM in 2003 as part of its acquisition of Rational Software, believes the work IBM is doing to prepare the Mass Lab location won’t just help the company build better software—it will help keep employees happier. “Development is a team sport,” she says. “When you have all of the different functions that come together to get software into the marketplace in the same place, from market research to development to testing, it means a lot more opportunities are available to people, and it makes IBM a much more attractive choice as an employer.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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