How IBM Uses Social Media to Spur Employee Innovation
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 Casey Hibbard »