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Catching the wave; IBM CIO talks about social media at Big Blue

With over 400,000 employees in around 170 countries, the future for IBM will depend on how well it can enable communication and collaboration within its own business units, says CIO Jeanette Horran.

"Technology that enables collaboration flattens the organisational structure. That might seem scary at first, but what it really means is an increased efficiency at which information travels from one end of the organisational chart to the other," says Horran.

"For a large company like us the only way to succeed is to collaborate quickly and smartly. It's just that simple. We've made the choice to do it through social media because it suits our size."

Speaking at this year's Lotusphere conference on 'the social enterprise', Horran says there is a widely placed misconception that social media is strictly for the marketing department, which has lead to some companies missing the opportunity to harness it internally.

She says enabling the social enterprise is the new frontline for the modern CIO, adding that IT should lead the charge.

Social media in business is far from new. From as early as the 1980s, email, message boards, and document sharing technologies were deployed in enterprises; all precursors to modern day social networks.

See related article 'The Facebook effect': Social technology has allowed enterprises to improve collaboration across business units. What is the role of the CIO when the company forays into this arena?

Fashion-forwardIBM's first attempt at social media was a little known instant messaging program developed in the mid-90s, which would go on to become IBM's collaboration software Sametime.

It did not take long for instant messaging to become business critical at IBM. Horran says the real-time aspect opened up a new level of communication within the business. She adds that much of its success stemmed from incorporating features found in consumer products that employees were already familiar with.

Now IBM has its own social network inside of the company's firewall, which has over 600,000 users contributing to over 20,000 blogs, 74,000 community groups, and over 50,000 wikis. At the same time, IBM has taken many of the ideas that are familiar to employees outside of the business, and applied them within.

Profiles are set up whenever a new employee is brought on board, which include their areas of expertise. Employees are encouraged to blog and take part in the community and currently there are over 20,000 individual blogs in the IBM network. Horran says a benefit which has organically come about from this is the ability for senior staff to search for subject matter experts.

An area that Horran and her team are looking towards next is gamification, which takes principles found in video games and applies it to business.

In particular for IBM is the idea of digital eminence, where people are rewarded for taking part in the community. Horran says this will go a long way towards putting a spotlight on up-and-coming leaders within the business.

Horran says IBM uses the lessons from these deployments, and applies these to products it sells to customers. She says IBM will continue to invest in social media as long as it benefits the business by encouraging collaboration. "There were a lot of people who said 'Yes, you can deploy it, but it will never take off'. Boy, were they wrong."

Three pillars of social success

Horran and her team maintain three pillars while working on delivering social business solutions within IBM:

1. PolicyThe starting point for any enterprise looking to deploy social tools within their business is to create a policy which sets out reasonable expectations around the use of those tools.

"Just as in the real world we have business conduct guidelines to deal with ethics and behaviour, we need social computing guidelines," says Horran.

"I think marrying your business conduct and social community conduct policies should be one of the first things a CIO looking to deploy social business tools needs to consider."

Horran says any social business policy would need to be a collaboration between IT, human resources, legal and other senior staff -- and incorporating the needs of each department.

"I don't think social business policy should be the CIO's decision alone, but the CIO needs to help the business understand what can be done and what can't."

2. TechnologyOnce the policies are in place, the tools should be set to reflect it. This could mean implementing restrictions on accounts or groups, or having specific types of workflows to suit your industry.

For instance some countries require financial companies to maintain a record of every conversation, including digital messages.

For these kinds of regulated industries, maintaining a document trail would be paramount -- and would need to be incorporated into the technology that is used.

"It's not just about the latest coolest toys, it has to be about business outcomes," says Horran.

3. EducationThe policy and technology alone are not enough, says Horran. There has to be an active education program to teach employees about both.

At IBM it quickly became apparent that once the policies were taught, some of the older works would have trouble using the social media tools.

The company developed a two-way mentoring program, where younger employees would show the senior leadership team how to use social media; and in return they would be mentored on business.

IBM's internal social media using IBM Connections:600,000 employees and contractors collaborating on 20,000 individual blogs; 105,000 bloggers; 74,000 user communities; 203,000 activities; 50,000 wikis; 31,000 experts in the expertise locator service.

IBM's external social media footprintFacebook: 198,000 current employeesLinkedIn: 281,000 current employeesTwitter: 20,000 current employeesBlogs: thousands of individual IBM employees blog externally.


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