Originally Published by MIT Sloan Management Review on June 13, 2012
WHEN COMPANIES USE THE TOOLS that they sell to the outside world, the common expression is that it “eats its own dog food.”
And why not? IBM’s products are more akin to a fine wine than to a canine commodity. “IBM itself deploys our technologies for our own business purpose,” says Schick. “We’re a user of Sametime, we’re a user of Lotus Notes, we’re a user of IBM Connections. We use all of our collaboration technology across the 430,000 employees and another 75,000 contractors that are inside of IBM at any given moment.”
Schick has been pivotal to IBM’s work in social technology for decades. He’s been a developer, he’s been in the field working with clients, he has run lines of business like enterprise content management, he’s the creator of IBM Connections, and now he’s in charge of the company’s entire collaboration space, including messaging, unified communication and office productivity technologies overall.
In a conversation with David Kiron, executive editor of Innovation Hubs at MIT Sloan Management Review, Schick, who tweets at @jeffschick, talks about how, as part of the big picture of creating collaboration capabilities, IBM thinks about what kinds of things companies can do to create go-to forums, the incentives that make people participate and the value — both financial and creative — that social tools bring to a workplace.
How important are collaboration tools within IBM?
I see IBM as a social business, because of the way we’ve broken down the barriers of reaching out to the people within the organization, but also how we’re leveraging these same tools externally facing, to interact with our partners and clients.
When I joined IBM 25 years ago, there weren’t any personal computers. My dad also worked at IBM, and I could log in with a big terminal into the mainframe and basically look up my dad’s name and find his phone number. But that was it for collaboration tools.
Almost a decade and a half ago, with a mandate from our senior executive team, we began pursuing this idea that we needed to get the right person with the right opportunity at the right time to yield the right result.
We operate in 170 countries around the planet, and as we staff development teams that will build a product and locate it in different countries around the world, we need to bring the right folks to bear. We need to bring the right skills and the right intellectual property together to support how we work with our clients.
How did that get started?
So about fifteen years ago we built our first Web-based employee profile that, for the most part, merged all of our basic business card-type data with all of the skills- and experience-based information. Over time, that manifested itself as something that feels very close to a complete view of the employee, because it has expanded beyond their basic information and skills and certifications and projects that they worked on to include what they’re micro-blogging about, what they’re sharing on their wall, the communities that they participate in and the colleagues that they’re connected with.
This opportunity to really leverage our most important asset in IBM, and that’s its people, is critical to our business. We could not do what we do today if we didn’t have these sorts of capabilities to share and connect our people.
Right inside IBM, we have almost 70,000 communities that represent every science that we do, every industry that we serve, every product that we build, every standard that we observe. Some are made up of a narrow access-controlled list of people, maybe focused on an acquisition, and some are communities with tens of thousands or even a hundred thousand people, sharing information about a particular focus area.
Even with this long history of social business activity, have you witnessed a step change in the last few years in terms of the things that you can do?
Yes. I mean, I think about this all the time, both internally at IBM for how we operate, and in terms of the products we create for our customers, like IBM Connections.
Can you quickly describe what IBM Connections is?
Connections is an integrated social software platform for business, with profiles, blogs, Wikis, discussion forums, communities, ideation, rich media, micro-blogging, a wall-type feature. It’s positioned so that it’s meant for the enterprise. You leverage it in your intranet or your extranet or Internet, so it can run in your intranet or on your dot.com or dot.org or dot.edu or whatnot.
That’s a change in mindset along with an expansion of technology.
You’re absolutely right. It’s not all about the technology. I think culture plays a huge dimension in how successful organizations are in transforming themselves into a social business. This stuff is so easy to use that it’s not about what button to click to post a blog, but how do you create a vibrant community? How do you create a community that’s the place to go, where you have community ownership, executive sponsorship, visionaries, communicators, all of the right content that people are looking for and a healthy set of readers and lurkers that are genuinely benefiting from that.
Do you have any specific examples that illustrate how IBM builds communities to get the right information to the right people at the right time for the right task?
Sure. To single out a specific area, we have over 80,000 consultants in IBM, as Global Consulting Services. That consulting organization thrives on having specific domain experts that they can bring to bear on business problems that our clients have.
We have a community that we call their Practitioner Portal. Its goal is to stop reinventing the wheel when we build deliverables. If we’ve built a proposal or a body of work for one airline in North America and we have a similar proposal in Asia Pacific, is there intellectual property or knowledge that we can leverage there, in order to build a better solution or deliver it in a more timely basis? They use that portal to leverage content more quickly, to locate relevant people faster, to discover people that they don’t know that can help them on the project and to grow their own capabilities by leveraging the tacit knowledge and wealth of information that’s out there.
When we look at the productivity savings, it’s tremendous and we’ve been able to quantify that into real cost savings at IBM.
Okay. And that’s just among IBM’s consulting community.
That’s right. Here’s another example. We use developerWorks as a large community on IBM.com, and in fact, it’s a community that has over a million people from both inside and outside the company participating. That community has sub-communities on all manner of topics, such as people focused on doing development using various IBM technologies.
When we built developerWorks a decade ago, it really was a place where people would go to download a manual or some sort of how-to guide or some frequently asked question. It was a place where you could find published content. But with the advent of social capability, it’s become a place for people to generate content and share it very easily. So we’re connecting IBM’ers with clients, client to client, client to partner, in ways that are very satisfying to the people participating. And that tacit knowledge that they’re sharing then becomes the tacit knowledge or domain knowledge of developerWorks overall, searchable and discoverable.
As a result, we’ve moved from a company that was very heavily leveraging phone support to leveraging communities with discussion forums, with people manning that and participating in the discussion. Again, overall cost savings for IBM is significant.
And how do you calculate that?
Just based upon what it took to pick up the phone and answer the call and resolve any questions that people had, versus moving our support people to discussion forums and creating answers that are searchable and discoverable. Now people aren’t picking up the phone or even posting a question in a discussion forum; they’re able to just find the answer.
How do you get people to participate? You said earlier that one of the big issues is how you create a community that’s not a dud — something vibrant, with content people look for and with a healthy set of readers and lurkers. Does IBM provide incentives to participate? Are people motivated simply by the value of authorship?
I think that across IBM, we’ve created a culture of sharing. So while the example I used was consultants, the same is true within the sales organization, the development and engineering teams, the marketing teams.
I think what ends up happening is that someone who is a reader or a lurker, one day they’re downloading a piece of content, and the next day they’re saying, “this helped me,” and the day after that they’re saying, “I modified it and I uploaded it here, and here’s the improvements that I made or here are the subtle changes I’ve made.”
But we’re being proscriptive as well. We have people that are missioned and goaled on this, based on their personal business commitments. So the end objective is a prize or money.
We’re also using other interesting incentives, like gamification. We have a language translation service inside of IBM where literally I could take a document, a highly technical document, and submit it, and through machine language translation, augmented by crowd-sourcing in terms of bettering the dictionary and improving the translation, I can almost with complete reliability convert a document into almost every language that we do business in. That was developed by people inside of IBM who helped build the dictionary in the machine language technology, and those folks, for those efforts, are ascribed points, and the top folks in the leader board are awarded funds which they can in turn donate to their favorite charities.
So, we’re not only making this part of people’s jobs, but for those people that have some time and want to help, and where it’s not conflicting with their day-to-day responsibilities, we’ve thought of new ways to incent them to participate and better what we do.
Can you talk about what kind of burdens come in a sharing culture? Once people become recognized as stars and very knowledgeable about one thing or another, are they always in demand?
I do think that the lens on those people can be really highlighted. You’re right: the guy who used to be, say, the local expert on a technology in Europe, who worked in Germany and only had e-mail in the world of collaboration, now that he can start to describe best practices, things that he’s thinking about, and he’s opened up the aperture of people that know him, think of him and turn to him. Does that create some greater burden or pressure in terms of helping folks? I think it does.
But with that said, I think we are in recognition of that, and we are starting to think about what should be an expert’s role in terms of the role they play more broadly in IBM versus their specific country-based focus. The creation of these new pressure points allows us to rethink our organization and what people do. The idea that people are after you all day and you’re having a hard time doing your day job, that seems like not a sustainable position. That’s something we have to make adjustments to.
That makes me wonder if you see any change in the role of the human resource function within the organization — either at IBM or in other firms as they adopt IBM’s social business tools.
I do. As I travel around the planet, the role of human resources and what you can ask an employee to do or not do is subtly different. For instance, I spent time recently in Germany, and more than a healthy amount of discussion with clients was about, “Gee, there’s a workmen’s council in your organization, made up of different workers from different areas of the company. And as you make policy on employees and what they can do or cannot do, or tools that they can use and cannot use, the workmen’s council plays an instrumental role in whether or not they’ll permit that.” A group like that works hand in hand with human resources on changes that would take place in the organization.
An example is that we’re rolling out social software at Bosch in Germany; and working with HR and workmen’s council. So we ask, what should be our policy in asking an employee to fill out their profile? Can the company mandate it? Or is that not permissible? Have you established a set of business conduct guidelines that talk about the ethical aspects of being an employee, the way you need to behave, the way you would conduct yourself in terms of business, including blogging and responding to questions in Facebook?
So human resources does take an active role in describing and creating policy around leveraging social, both inside an organization as well as outside the organization. And this has become such a popular discussion with us that we actually publish our Social Computing Guidelines right on IBM.com, so people can understand the policy that we hold our employees accountable to.
Can you describe the Blue IQ team and what they do, and IBM’s social business center of excellence and what it tries to do?
Like we talked about before, it’s important to any organization that aspires to be a social business that it thinks about adoption. How do I promote these technologies inside of the organization? There’s always a set of people that will like these sorts of technologies, who maybe are already leveraging social things in their personal life. But how do you take a part of an organization and really get them to use these technologies to better connect people with people and people with information?
We created an ambassador program inside of IBM that we call the Blue IQ team. It’s an idea to have knowledgeable, skilled, passionate people play the role in transforming the part of the organization they work in by leveraging social. So, for instance, we have several people that work in our microelectronics division. Their day-to-day responsibilities are focused on semiconductor manufacturing. But they’re also using micro-blogging to let their colleagues in the semiconductor manufacturing leadership team know that, say, in the 300-millimeter fab facility, they had a 96% yield on the substrate for the weekend process. They’re reporting on the chip fabrication process that occurred when they were on site and their colleagues weren’t. And that’s also the way that these sorts of events and notifications are getting to the leadership team.
How did the leadership team find these things out before? Maybe they got a phone call, maybe they got an e-mail, maybe they had an operations meeting. Now, they can get this through the notification service of their social software.
And the center of excellence?
The center of excellence is another instrumental structural configure inside of IBM. It’s not dissimilar from what many other companies have that we’ve worked with, like TD Bank. It’s really a steering organization. The center of excellence is a set of thought leaders who think about the areas of social business within the organization, and handle any of the challenges, issues, obstacles that present themselves.
Given that that’s a new initiative on the part of IBM, the center of excellence brings best practices to bear in that area.
I was struck by your comment that you have an executive steering committee on social business?
Who is on that committee?
The vast majority are executive-level, but it’s a wide spectrum of folks that represent legal, compliance, HR, sales, marketing, product creation folks and represent a snapshot of the people that would be affected by these decisions.
So it’s primarily a policy-making group—
Call it a governing board. It’s policy, it’s decision, it’s strategy. It’s what IBM should be doing, and how should we be doing it. It’s getting that whole thing plumbed.
David Kiron is executive editor of MIT Sloan Management Review's Innovation Hubs.