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IBM Staffers Will No Longer Send Top, Top, Top, Top-Secret Memos

April 4, 1995 GMT

``Busting Blue Bureaucracy,″ screams the headline in IBM’s internal magazine, Think. Has Chairman Louis V. Gerstner Jr. finally achieved a cultural breakthrough at stodgy old Big Blue?

Not quite. Change at the computer giant comes in tiny steps. One year ago, Big Blue’s chief financial officer, Jerome York, ordered a review of IBM’s four classifications of confidential envelopes, a system he found wasteful and annoying. One year later, IBM finally has a solution.


The envelope hierarchy went like this: IBM Internal Use Only, IBM Confidential, IBM Confidential Restricted and Registered IBM Confidential (the top top-secret category). There were two sizes for each level of security. IBM bought about four million envelopes every year.

A rule book spelled out which level of bureaucracy had access to each level of confidentiality. But IBMers ended up branding hundreds of mundane documents IBM Confidential, even though they weren’t. Mr. York demanded a change after reading a particularly tame memo that had been sealed in an IBM Confidential Restricted envelope.

From now on, IBMers will have only one category of confidentiality: IBM Confidential. And only one size of envelope.

Why did fixing the top-secret problem take a whole year? The old contract with the envelope vendor didn’t run out until last July. And Mr. York’s assistant had to sort through scores of proposals from vendors on how to solve the problem. A ``migration plan″ had to be set up to help employees declassify hundreds of electronic documents. Besides, ``we had other priorities,″ an IBM spokesman says.

In case IBMers lose their way, Think provides some simple guidelines: ``The traditional hierarchy of classifications has been reduced ... The new mandatory controls for confidential information are simple, such as only disclosing it to those who need to know.″

Confidential now means anything that gives IBM a competitive advantage in the marketplace, including technical data, marketing plans or customer lists. Beyond that, employees now must decide for themselves what qualifies. The rule book has been thrown out.

Even so, the IBM spokesman warns, it could take a while before employees use up all those old envelopes.