Six years ago, a combination of International Business Machines Corp. and Lotus Development Corp., would have been universally viewed as a clash of corporate cultures: the humorless, buttoned-down dweebs from Armonk, N.Y., vs. the bit-twiddling hippies of Cambridge, Mass.
Today, the gap between Lotus' casually-dressed software developers and IBM's white-shirt-and-tie hardware marketers may be a lot less than meets the eye. In fact, people familiar with both companies say the men and women working at IBM and Lotus have more similarities than differences.
"Lotus is faster-moving than IBM, but IBM is less hierarchical than Lotus for its size," said an IBM manager familiar with Lotus' managers and internal operations. "The companies start closer together than many people think. There have been a lot of ex-IBMers in the management ranks at Lotus. And both companies have worked together for years on various projects."
To be sure, he said, "IBM is not as quirky. . . . IBM thinks in three-year cycles, while Lotus, until recently, was short-term, worrying about stock price, what [Microsoft Corp. chairman] Bill Gates was doing and making strategic changes every other week."
There are apparent cultural differences. Lotus is one of the few companies in the country to offer spousal medical benefits to the partners of gay employees. It has an on-site day care center and has been cited for efforts to foster workplace diversity. IBM, on the other hand, is often viewed as the stereotypical U.S. big business, run by an army of white men in pinstripe uniforms.
But "Big Blue" has, in fact, moved well beyond that image. The company has an impressive track record for minority hiring at all levels, the dress code has been relaxed, and the top IBM executive in New England is a woman, Patricia Wolpers.
"IBM is not anathema to Lotus people," said David Marshak, vice president at the Patricia Seybold Group, a Boston consulting firm. If IBM succeeds in buying Lotus, "This may keep some people at Lotus. If I'm sitting at Lotus as an employee, and I've faced staff reductions and the possibility of being split up, . . . then this could be good."
Lotus and IBM have worked together for years, collaborating on software projects even before Microsoft's popular Windows products hit the market.
"Together, our skills match in a way that is breathtaking," IBM Chairman Louis V. Gerstner Jr. said yesterday.
IBM has promised that Lotus will remain in Massachusetts with semi-autonomous management. And Mr. Gerstner has made it clear he wants new voices in the company, particularly people with "skill sets" that are more attuned to current business needs.
Mr. Gerstner and Lotus Chairman Jim Manzi have known each other for more than 10 years, since both were consultants at McKinsey & Co. in New York. Since April, 1993, when Mr. Gerstner assumed his current post, he and Mr. Manzi have spoken regularly.
"These are very tough, very smart guys," said a former Lotus executive familiar with both men. He described them as having different, but complementary, personalities: Mr. Gerstner is "consumer savvy, able to understand the views of everyone in a situation, while Manzi is sharp, but with a quirky personality. . . . Gerstner is more even-tempered -- it's what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Jim is more mercurial -- he cares about the people and the Lotus culture."
Still, some longtime Lotus employees lament that the company had -- and lost -- two chances to be king of the software hill: In 1990, Manzi tried unsuccessfully to merge with Novell Inc., the leading computer networking software company. Last year, Lotus lost a bidding war for WordPerfect Corp.