Abstract: Dynamics of Innovation at IBM, 1945-1953

Lars Heide


The paper explores the use of sociotechnical network and sensemaking theory in early early innovation of computer technology at IBM to improve the understanding of the dynamics in innovation processes through the study of individuals’ contributions in a large company. It complements Actor Network Theory by Karl E. Weick’s sensemaking and studies innovation processes through narratives. This approach supplements the literature’s institutional focus and provides more focus on the technology’s use and limitations on innovations.

In the mid-1940s, IBM was reluctant to engage in computer innovation, because its sales organization and top-management saw little computer business. They subscribed to the established corporate innovation narrative of incremental improvements of the company’s many single punched-card machines, which contrasted the challenges of the revolutionary shift to computers. However, IBM did not have its blinds down and provided resources for several groups of engineers exploring substituting electromechanical elements by electronic elements. Simultaneously, IBM engineers and IBM customers challenged the company to engage in computer innovation and production and they used the competitors’ emerging computers as substantiation. IBM only engaged in production of computers after starting to exploit government sponsored innovation in 1948.