Friday, 6 June 2008

The mother of all intranets: IBM’s w3

A couple of days ago I was listening to an interesting Business Week podcast featuring the journalists who recently updated the magazine’s article Blogs / Social Media will change your Business.

Talking about IBM, the journalists explain that the firm is developing their own versions of social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, Delicious and Wikipedia to develop not so much an intranet, but an intra social net. They see the key to getting their 400,000 people on this as making the tools corporate without loosing the magic and appeal that comes with using them when they’re outside and free.

The tools are giving IBM employees new ways to communicate with others, to engage with others and to build new types of team. And they’re seen as the key to innovation.

In addition, it helps IBM to appeal to the best and brightest of the 23-27 year old graduates they want to recruit, who would otherwise see IBM as a bit clueless.

And they help the company to look at its workforce – to study peoples’ behaviour, to see who is networking with who, who is communicating with who, what knowledge and areas of expertise they have. All of this will help them optimize their workfoce.

All interesting stuff. So I was very pleased yesterday to hear from Ethan McCarthy at IBM describing the development of the firm’s intranet.

Firstly, this was a direct response to the company’s workforce transformation strategy which included the goals to:

· Move from organisation centric to employee centric model
· Bring the marketplace inside
· Drive flexibility and productivity through new tools
· Collective knowledge
· Dynamic manager / employee relationship

Given these objectives, the intranet was built around the employee, and is based on their user profile, populated from the HR system and the individual themselves.

71% of employees say that the intranet is their preferred sources of information (above co-workers, their manager, senior exec letters, and external media). See also this article from Ragan and IBM's blogging guidelines.

We also talked about IBM’s corporate directory, ‘Bluepages’. This includes much more than just someone’s phone number – it includes a lot of personal stuff – about what someone has been doing and which is vital to help people to connect in a knowledge based business.

There is also a social network, ‘Beehive’which enables people to connect through shared content. This includes both personal and professional information and IBM is fine that some of the information is personal because “this is business as well – it’s sociological and therefore important”.

In fact the personal stuff gets more interest than editorial so there is a need to use this strategically.

IBM also have an internal wikipedia (‘Bluepedia’) and enables people to set up their own wikis.

They have also socialised search: by using tagging so that people can see how other people have tagged information, and who these people are.

Ethan emphasized that given the size of the business, all these tools are essential to connect people who would have otherwise never had met and to build on the ‘weak ties’.

We also talked about three further areas that were particularly interesting to me:

1. Using communication to provide meaning

As IBM continues its move from products to services and consultancy, there is an increasing need for people to understand not just what IBM does, but the impact of these activities. They are therefore publishing a series of articles under the title “What does IBM make?” (for example, greener hospitals) and is seen to support peoples’ for self actualization.

2. Selling the benefits

Ethan still faces some challenges about whether people are wasting their time blogging, but he hears this a lot less now than he did a few years ago.

This is partly due to the way the intranet supports IBM’s strategy and values. One of these values is that ‘innovation is inherently collaborative’. Sometimes it may happen through people working in ivory towers but this is the exception not the norm.

These values were developed in IBM’s online innovation jam held in July 2006 and in which over 100,000 employees plus customers, contractors and the employees’ family members brainstormed ideas around the future of business and the world supported by videos and background information on some of its most intriguing technologies. So the values are deeply embedded in the organisation.

Ethan explained that he can’t measure the success of blogging but he does track anecdotes and there are examples of where blog posts led to adding value to customers.