How IBM Uses Social Media to Spur Employee Innovation

social media case studies“Be yourself.”  It’s one of the rules of social media. If you’re blogging, tweeting or Facebooking for business, be real—or you won’t be followed.

Yet, how do you pull off “authentic” while maintaining the company brand message?

It’s tough enough for a small business. What if you’re #2 on Business Week‘s best global brands list, with nearly 400,000 employees across 170 countries?

At IBM, it’s about losing control.

“We don’t have a corporate blog or a corporate Twitter ID because we want the ‘IBMers’ in aggregate to be the corporate blog and the corporate Twitter ID,” says Adam Christensen, social media communications at IBM Corporation.

“We represent our brand online the way it always has been, which is employees first. Our brand is largely shaped by the interactions that they have with customers.”

Thousands of IBMers are the voice of the company. Such an approach might be surprising for #14 on the Fortune 500.

Organization:   IBM

Social Media Stats:

  • No IBM corporate blog or Twitter account
  • 17,000 internal blogs
  • 100,000 employees using internal blogs
  • 53,000 members on SocialBlue (like Facebook for employees)
  • A few thousand “IBMers” on Twitter
  • Thousands of external bloggers,
  • Almost 200,000 on LinkedIn
  • As many as 500,000 participants in company crowd-sourcing “jams”
  • 50,000 in alum networks on Facebook and LinkedIn

Results:

  • Crowd-sourcing identified 10 best incubator businesses, which IBM funded with $100 million
  • $100 billion in total revenue with a 44.1% gross profit margin in 2008

Edgy at 114

At 114 years old, IBM seems to be the Madonna of the corporate world, staying relevant from decade to decade. The first company to build a mainframe computer and help NASA land a man on the moon still holds more patents than any other U.S.-based technology company.

As it turns out, its decentralized social media approach is another milestone in the company’s history—driving unprecedented collaboration and innovation.

IBM lets employees talk—to each other and the public—without intervention. With a culture as diverse and distributed as IBM’s, getting employees to collaborate and share makes good business sense.

“We’re very much a knowledge-based company. It’s really the expertise of the employee that we’re hitting on,” Christensen says.

No Policing

IBM does have social media guidelines. The employee-created guidelines basically state that IBMers are individually responsible for what they create and prohibit releasing proprietary information.

But the document lacks any mention of brand messages or values.

Nor does IBM corporate regulate employee social media activity. Only three people hold social media roles at the corporate level, and oversight isn’t part of their jobs.

“We don’t police. The community’s largely self-regulating, and so there hasn’t really been a need to have someone go about and circuit these boards and blogs,” Christensen said. “Employees sort of do that themselves… And that’s worked wonderfully well.”

17,000 Inside Blogs

IBMers use tools such as Twitter and LinkedIn for external activity, but take advantage of mostly IBM tools inside the company. Internally, 100,000 employees have registered on the blogging platform to rate and comment on posts across 17,000 blogs.

What Works: IBM’s Culture for Social Media Innovation

  1. Stand back
    Have guidelines, but don’t police from above. Employees tend to self-regulate.
  2. Involve employees in SM planning
    Let employees write the guidelines and they’ll feel empowered.
  3. Give them the tools—and a green light
  4. Not every company can create their own tools. Look for powerful social media tools and encourage employees to use them to do their jobs better.

  5. Use crowd-sourcing
  6. Bring together employees, clients, partners and friends for powerful idea-sharing.

In this vibrant forum, employees exchange ideas, advance conversations and do a little self-promotion of their projects.

An internal wiki serves as a hub of information, drawing well over a million page views every day. Additionally, downloads in the company’s user-generated media library now total 11 million.

An IBM tool called Dogear functions like Delicious, a social bookmarking site. Blue Twit mimics Twitter. A tool called SocialBlue acts like Facebook, helping employees stay connected with former colleagues and get to know new ones.

Like Facebook, the 53,000 or so SocialBlue members share photos and status updates. In IBM’s widely dispersed environment, family photos mimic cubicle-decor and dialogue mimics water-cooler interaction.

Thousands of Voices

Run an online search for “IBM blog” and you’ll find countless IBMers posting publicly on everything from service-oriented architecture to sales to parenthood. If you want to blog at IBM, you simply start.


IBM lists all of its blogs in a simple directory sorted by the name of the blogger.

They share thoughts, ideas, presentations, photos, videos, you name it. In 2006, the IBM mainframe blog hit the big time for posting a series of videos on YouTube that linked back to the blog. The Art of the Sale mockumentaries, in The Office style, lightheartedly poke fun at IBM and corporate sales in general.


Part I of The Art of the Sale racked up 250,000 views on YouTube.

Additionally, an estimated 200,000 employees are on LinkedIn, with another 50,000 former employees in alum networks on LinkedIn and Facebook.

The Wisdom of Crowds

Christensen ties IBM’s social media explosion to company “jams.” In 2003, IBM conducted its first jam, not unlike a band jam, bringing employees together in an online forum for three straight days.

“It was a big, online collaborative experiment,” Christensen said. “The first 8 to 10 hours, it was very negative. Over the next 12 hours, the conversation completely changed to being very constructive. By the way, there was no intervention by corporate to say, ‘Hey guys, let’s be more constructive.’ It was completely employee-led.”

“We realized we could trust employees to engage. Employees realized, ‘if we’re within reason, we’re going to be trusted’.”

A couple of months later, IBM opened blogging platforms inside the company.

IBM now includes much bigger and more diverse crowds—as many as 500,000 people in some cases. An innovation jam in 2006 brought together employees—and friends, family and clients—to discuss more than 50 research projects within the company.

From there, they voted on the 10 best, which became incubator businesses that IBM funded with $100 million, all based on “crowd” discussion.

Smarter Planet

A few incubator businesses—intelligent utility systems, smarter transportation systems and electronic health records—were the start of what is now a major IBM movement, Smarter Planet. The initiative puts IBM computing power and problem-solving toward issues like rush-hour traffic or natural disaster response.

It really began as a grassroots movement among employees.

“There are communities that, long before IBM started talking about it, had already congregated online and were talking about these areas. We are very focused on understanding where those communities are and how we can appropriately play with them.”

Christensen himself is one of several authors on the public “Building a Smarter Planet” blog, which highlights ideas and initiatives on the topic, not just within IBM.


Here is a screen shot of the Building a Smarter Planet Blog.

But all the public IBM Smarter Planet discourse is not just about amassing IBMers. Sometimes Smarter Planet projects—which can impact millions—need public support.

“There are communities that are passionate about this, and maybe we can help to amplify some of their voices and really make some of this just happen,” Christensen says. “So social media plays a big role in it.”

The Payoff

IBM invests in creating its own social media tools. But it’s earning that back by monetizing some of those as part of the IBM product portfolio. The other part of the investment equation—employees’ time—doesn’t seem to be a concern, according to Christensen.

That’s because collaboration and knowledge make IBM what it is. And that’s a company with $12.3 billion in earnings on more than $100 billion in revenue with a 44.1% gross profit margin in 2008.

Christensen says to date there’s not an effort to tag a return on investment to its social media efforts.

“I think if you’d ask any senior executive at IBM, ‘How important is it for our employees to be smarter?‘, inherently they understand that these tools can play in helping with that,” Christensen said. “I don’t see myself rarely or ever having that hard conversation on the value of engaging employees in these spaces.”

What do you think about IBM’s social media program? What level of control have you found most effective for your company’s social media efforts? What are your favorite crowd-sourcing tools?  Leave a comment below.

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About the Author, Casey Hibbard

Casey Hibbard is Social Media Examiner's case study writer. She is also president of Compelling Cases Inc. and author of Stories That Sell: Turn Satisfied Customers into Your Most Powerful Sales & Marketing Asset. Other posts by »




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  • http://www.MichelleZavala.com/ Michelle I. Zavala

    Great article, Casey. Interesting approach to social media, esp. the “no policing” part of it. Thanks for the update, appreciate it!

  • caseyhibbard

    Thanks Michelle! How’s San Antone? I found the no-policing part really fascinating as well. Takes David Meerman Scott’s “lose control” mantra to heart.

  • http://www.johnpaulaguiar.com/ John Paul

    Million and ONE ways to use Social Media to benefit your business. Nice to see it is being used to better a business from within

  • kimgusta

    Great profile on how a globally recognized company put social media to use for its customers, prospects, and employees. I love the collaboration that was realized internally through “jams” and other SM tools.

  • http://marismith.com/ Mari Smith

    Awesome case study, Casey!! Really nicely done. Great illustration of “you CAN teach old dogs new tricks” right?! hehee

  • http://www.riseabovethestatic.com/web-presence-development-blog Steve Birkett

    This is a particularly interesting study given the sheer size of IBM. Attempts to regulate their SM presence would likely have been Orwellian if they were to succeed, so it’s great to see the ‘lose control’ ethic applied and achieving results.

    I also like the insight into not focusing on ROI, in the knowledge that the benefits that come from sharing, collaborating, and using that as a base for innovation are intangible yet critical returns. Although I don’t believe measuring the performance of online media should be discarded completely, it should be approached with an understanding of the spin off benefits and how they slot into the overall strategy.

    Thought-provoking and intriguing, thank you Casey!

  • http://ebizQ.net/ Peter Schooff

    I agree with the comments…great article, and it would make a great podcast. If interested, please email me at peter@ebizq.net

  • caseyhibbard

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments about the role of ROI. As you said, at a company that big, it would be nearly impossible to measure anything on a granular level. They are looking for the big splashes – specific innovations that become new monetized products or initiatives. If someone in NYC more easily exchanges ideas with like-minded folks in India or Germany, then there’s possibly fruitful collaboration there.

    Thanks for the feedback!

  • caseyhibbard

    Right Mari! So true. I was very impressed with their approach. Appreciate your comment!

  • Marc Laurin

    Wow. How this approach got approved at a senior level is beyond me. Very impressive.

  • Amanda Bauman

    Great article. As an IBMer, I can honestly say that using social media, like Facebook and Twitter, helps me stay in touch with what’s going on in our community, what our customers are saying about our products, what they’re struggling with, and interacting with them on a daily basis builds a rapport that would be unattainable otherwise. It not only makes my job easier, but also more fun.

  • http://twitter.com/level09 level09

    Creative approach ! but I still think a Corporate ID should be there, in some cases .. people will like to get an “official” response from the brand ..

  • http://www.henrysblog.co.uk/ Henry Elliss

    I really like the IBM approach as a whole – and their guidelines are worth reading too. The only thing that worries me slightly is how many of the 17,000 blogs are actually getting read – and by who? Seems like a lot of content being put out in micro-streams that could be centralised in a smaller number of more-frequently updated blogs which stand a chance of having better readerships…? But maybe IBM can prove me wrong!

  • http://twitter.com/jhamel Jonathan Hamel

    Great article. Thanks for sharing.

  • caseyhibbard

    Amanda,

    Thanks for weighing in as an IBMer! Sounds like the benefits go well beyond collaboration and relationship-building to actually enhance job satisfaction. Another hard-to-measure but huge benefit. For any big company that thinks FB and Twitter are just time sucks in the workplace, the IBM story says otherwise.

  • caseyhibbard

    Henry,

    Good question. The 17K number is internal blogs, and I imagine there are very tight audiences of like-minded engineers, etc. on a lot of them. I get the sense that it’s the freedom for employees to blog in any way and frequency that they choose that’s the key here. If employees organized themselves to collaborate on fewer blogs that’s one thing, but for IBM to encourage that would go against the open culture they’ve established so far.

  • Jennifer Manuel

    Fantastic article, Casey!

    I was just having a conversation with some fellow IBMers about how engrained some aspects of social media use is in our day-to-day work, and that at this point I think it would be very difficult to ever join another organization that doesn’t have such robust capabilities. I post my status internally before joining a call that informs/encourages others to join, I use sametime announcements to ask for help for quick Excel tricks or citations needed for PPT decks, and I use/post/tag intellectual capital posted to internal knowledge management repositories to help me draw upon the collective experience of the group when doing my job.

    Steve Burkett’s point about measuring ROI is a good one – you could probably do an ROI analysis at some level, but it would be hard to capture (in a coherent manner) all the activities that would contribute to an ROI analysis…

  • http://skil222.ning.com/ liz

    very interesting article. The ‘trust the crowd’ approach is very heartening. I believe in having some key principles of good practice online … and then trust the group to keep it clean. Trying to control social media is an exercise in self delusion … it’s not gonna happen. I’m working with a national Irish charity to develop an online learning space using social media … I think I’ll find some nice IBMers to chat with and see what cna be built. Excellent writing and you covered very key points that the managers I’m workng with often raise.

  • funplayonline

    Sounds like a good strategy, unfortunately, I don’t think many other companies will actually follow this cool approach.

  • caseyhibbard

    Jennifer,

    I’m excited to see the IBM community reinforcing the value of SM anecdotally on these postings. It adds more credibility than IBM saying it’s valuable. It looks like it brings many dimensions of satisfaction and loyalty by making it easier for you to do your job well.

  • caseyhibbard

    Hi Liz,

    Thanks! I’m glad the story gave you some good insight for your own projects. The learning space sounds interesting. When it’s a success, maybe we’ll feature you here!

  • dallaslawrence

    Fantastic insight, Casey. In this digital age, it is so important for all members of an organization to contribute to its online reputation. IBM has consistently done a great job of turning its employees into online brand ambassadors. I just wrote a post yesterday on 6 ways companies can empower their employees to do just that. I would love your thoughts and suggestions http://www.bulletproofblog.com/2010/02/02/six-six-6-ways-to-empower-employees-as-brand-advocates-online/.

    Dallas Lawrence
    @dallaslawrence

  • http://skil222.ning.com/ liz

    Hi Casey
    When SKIL2 is built I may just lie down for a while after drinking some great champagne. My learning curve is pretty much vertical! But then … innovation can’t happen in a comfort zone. Look at how senior execs of IBM are letting go of the illusion of control … and on such a huge and public scale. The fact that IBMers themselves have responded here is a real indicator [and a quality ROI] of the success of the process. And I think there’s a whole post that could be written on the development of ROI’s that aren’t just about money but can also encompass the qualitative benefits of a process. This was my first visit to your site and I’ve subscribed as a result of this excellent article. Thanks again.

  • dooleymr

    Great post! I spent a few months researching tools that would provide an enterprise-wide innovation platform for my company. I’d have to say that Spigit was my favorite.

  • http://wavemakerconsulting.com/ Jim Francis

    Rely Great Article! If we could only find a way to get it into the C Suite of all the old school players, like the banks.

  • johnitodorphd

    Casey,
    Your blog lays out what it takes for large organizations to thrive in today’s fast-changing and increasing complex world. Kudos!

    I have recently posted comments on a couple of other sites and, of course, directed them to your post. More people need to see it.

    http://www.thewhetstoneedge.com/category/tweblogs/
    http://www.socialbusinessone.com

    John

  • Patty Van Leer

    Great post; agree whole heartedly with the no policing but I do encourage that social networking committees monitor for branding opportunities. Look at posts to help bloggers, tweeters and other communications in the SN spaces are living up to the brand promise and most importantly engaging with potential candidates to promote the value propoistions that make your organization unique.

  • http://aaronhoos.com/ Aaron Hoos

    Wow! Very interesting to read. And I’m surprised that IBM is not going to measure ROI, although measuring social media ROI is very difficult (especially at IBM’s size).

  • caseyhibbard

    John,

    Thanks for sharing the links with others! This site is the brain-child of Mike Stelzner, who has brought together some amazing SM experts. I’m learning a lot myself by being a contributor.

  • jenniferokimoto

    Henry – I think you ask a really interesting question and I cannot give you a comprehensive answer, but I can give you my perspective as an IBM blogger. I’ve been blogging on the outside for 5+ years and within IBM for 4 years. I blog for many different reasons. Mostly I blog to learn…and to remember. I blog ideas. I blog responses that I make to questions within email. I blog an irregular “week in review” or the new meme within IBM “share my week.” AND, I microblog. Here’s what I’ve learned about blogging. I blog and people find me. People who I know and people who I’ve never met and would under normal circumstances have no reason to meet. But they find my blog (due to a tag, search, reference, or scan) and they find something we have in common. I may never know this connection has been made. But, I find that people then reach out…and comment, connect with me, ask me questions, and share what they’re up to. I cannot tell you how incredibly powerful it is!

    Casey – Thanks for an awesome post!

  • LynnFree

    I am particularly interested in their “jamming” methods. They seem to have found the right mix to engage large numbers of people and yet use a “light hand” in facilitation to help develop common themes and key ideas

  • http://twitter.com/sean_house Sean House

    LynnFree, Casey’s excellent article doesn’t say it but you can imagine that IBM’s Jams are very carefully planned events. A typical jam would have three months preparation before an ‘event’ lasting 72 consecutive hours (to cover every timezone) and have 20 or so separate discussion threads grouped under some higher-level themes. Each discussion thread would have a facilitator on-duty throughout those 72 hours who’s job it was to encourage and guide the conversation. This is not an editor role but one which encourages practical ideas or helps the thread to stay on track; as you say “light hand”. We’ve run several for clients now and they are great fun to work on.

  • http://www.esocialmedia.co.uk/ Colm Hannon

    This is a really interesting article and is indicative of what we are seeing with FTSE 250 companies in London. The companies are so big it is almost impossible for them to granularly manage communication or to even try and control the conversation. What IBM is doing is giving them guidelines driven by the employees and then providing the tools to use social media to the benefit of everyone. They are educating their staff and empowering them to be innovative. I was interested in the comment above about there being an official channel of communication but in most situations if the statement is that important then the leadership will make it and I’d imagine that they have the right people listening.
    It isn’t what a lot of corporate communications people want to see and there is always fear of a lack of control of the process, especially in the UK but education and self governance are definitely the way forward. There will be a hell of a lot of change management consultancy work to be done for any companies in that space.

    Thanks for sharing

    Colm

  • http://getglobalassist.com/ Claudia Guzman

    Another approach to social media that would revolutionize its groundbreaking influence. Thanks for the great article.

  • http://www.bartvandekooij.com/ Bart

    great article about IBM and defining their social media guidelines. Very helpfully

  • http://www.m65jacket.com m65

    This is a really interesting article and is indicative of what we are seeing with FTSE 250 companies in London. The companies are so big it is almost impossible for them to granularly manage communication or to even try and control the conversation. What IBM is doing is giving them guidelines driven by the employees and then providing the tools to use social media to the benefit of everyone. They are educating their staff and empowering them to be innovative. I was interested in the comment above about there being an official channel of communication but in most situations if the statement is that important then the leadership will make it and I’d imagine that they have the right people listening.
    It isn’t what a lot of corporate communications people want to see and there is always fear of a lack of control of the process, especially in the UK but education and self governance are definitely the way forward. There will be a hell of a lot of change management consultancy work to be done for any companies in that space.

    Edwin
    kamagra l acne

  • Bob McGrath

    Check out the new web site “ibmalumni.com”. It has over 9,000 former IBMer listed.

  • Bob McGrath

    Check out the new web site “ibmalumni.com”. It lists current information on almost 10,000 IBM alumni.

  • Anne

    Social media apps can be utilized to further inovation and productivity.
    Palo Alto Networks came out with an interesting whitepaper on the subject of blocking social networking apps that you may have to worry about, “To Block or Not. Is that the question?” here: http://bit.ly/d2NZRp. It has lots of insightful and useful information about identifying and controlling Enterprise 2.0 apps (Facebook, Twitter, Skype, etc.) Let me know what you think… kelly@briefworld.com

  • Avani

    very informative and interesting.. i would never have known about this IBM culture component but through this article. Most of the times i had found distressing remarks from IBMers and others about IBM’s compensation structure, Senior management’s non-co-operative attitude there, etc. Nice to know..

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  • http://www.postcardmania.com Ferris Stith

    Great info, thanks for sharing!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RQHLPZ5XROA462IC65GBFOUR5A Battery Camera

    Great post; agree whole heartedly with the no policing but I do encourage that social networking committees monitor for branding opportunities. Look at posts to help bloggers,digital camera battery http://www.newbatterystore.com/ digital camera battery tweeters and other communications in the SN spaces are living up to the brand promise and most importantly engaging with potential candidates to promote the value propoistions that make your organization unique.

  • http://www.madperspectives.com Peggy Dau

    Love this article as it really highlights the benefit of social media within the enterprise. do we know HOW IBM fostered such openness? How long did it take for them to have 17,000 internal blogs? And such high participation rate in crowd sourcing jams? Understanding the evolution of change within a company such as IBM could help other companies understand the benefits even better!

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  • Dr Vikram Venkateswaran

    I think the principle is correct, If just guidance is given and there is minimal policing, people tend to regulate themselves. Also I have always beleived that social media is a great vehicle for co-creation and for innovation. This IBM case study is a great example of how employees can be enpowered to create ideas and ideas that work. The cherry on the cake was that The Smarter World message came out through these innovation jams.

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  • jmatteu

    Comcast is attempting to change their image through the use of social media (Twitter). In my opinion too little too late. Some companies don’t want to know how bad they are doing as long as they’re making a buck. IBM is on track with what the Global market has been doing for the past 10 years. Social Media Marketing is the only way to remain competive. Great article

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  • http://mathildedavid5.wordpress.com/ Mathilde David

    Hi, I am an international student in an Entreprise 2.0 course in Australia.
    I found your article very interesting and close to my class subject : what are the risks and benefits of using social media tools for a company.
    I have summed up your article in my blog if you want to take a look! I have added my analysis.http://mathildedavid5.wordpress.com/2012/08/21/how-ibm-successes-to-enhance-its-employees-enthusiasm/
    I would love to have your feedback!  

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  • http://www.facebook.com/DavidZaki1 David Zaki

    Take away from the case-study:

    1- Understanding the new reality: Power to people 
    2- Acting upon the new understanding: Major changes in the corporate’s vision and strategies, even it’s investments
    3- Use the right tools with the right rules: Social Meda with no Rules

    Then you end up with a success story 

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