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Social Networks and the Enterprise: Why IBM Wants to Show You the Way

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IBM's betting big on social technologies and showing the world the benefits of becoming a "social" business.

 

Technology is continually evolving, which is why business operations must evolve along with technologies. Not only is IBM trying to be at the leading edge of business technology evolutions, but especially with this current wave of social media and social business technologies, Big Blue intends to be a leading example of how to use these technologies to create new, more efficient, and more transparent ways of doing business. The implications of this current technology and business evolution for every organization could be huge.

 

During the '80s and into the '90s, the business world experienced a similar revolutionary transition from traditional business models to an Internet business model where almost every business came to understand that having a Web site was as important as having a telephone number. The businesses that were the leaders of their industries moved further into what IBM then promoted as the "e-business" model, which further integrated the Internet into their business infrastructures to create innovative products and services, which in turn created entirely new industries.

 

More recently, IBM has followed the advent of social networks and social media and is endeavoring to take the vision further by challenging us to progress into what IBM calls the "social business" paradigm. When witnessing the hype surrounding the hot business opportunities of the late '90s and then seeing that bubble burst in 2000, one has to ask: How much of this Internet business was hype, and what was of real value? Let's answer this with another question. Could we possibly go back to the pre-Internet days of no email communications, no Google search, no online shopping, nor data transmissions via FTP? I don't think so. The Internet and the whole infrastructure that business has built around this phenomenon has become so embedded into our lives and into business that it's hard to imagine functioning without it. We have embraced the Internet and now are looking hard at the next game-changer: social media. The technologies and methodologies around all things social are rapidly changing the business rules with the potential for an impact on business processes that rivals the impact of the Internet.

 

If you know a little about Facebook and LinkedIn, and perhaps even Twitter, you may be dubious about what they might have to do with business operations. Actually, by themselves, these social media options are just a few channels on a network that consists of thousands or even millions of channels. They just happen to be the most well-known, and for many businesses that are embracing social networks, they are far from the most important ones. For instance, think about an internal, proprietary "Facebook" type of social network that's deployed within an organization and allows staff to quickly share information about people or groups who are looking for resources or who are trying to solve problems. That's a far cry from sharing photos of kids and updates about holiday antics (typically not allowed on business social networks). Collaboration and information-seeking messages on a corporate social network can escalate the discovery and implementation of solutions, thereby creating unexpected synergies. Departments and employees can end up collaborating more efficiently than ever before, breaking down the naturally occurring barriers that form between disparate departments and divisions. Regular, real-time streams of departmental updates about challenges, needs, successes, and capabilities bring far-flung groups together and help individuals feel more included and therefore more positive about their company.

 

Taking this a step further, when social channels connect people inside the company with customers and suppliers through social channels, the same benefits arise: faster, more-open communications, and  more frequent and better collaborations. This kind of communication results in better relationships, increased loyalty, and thus a stronger bottom line because of add-on sales, increased referral sales, and reduced costs.

 

You may think otherwise, but like the Internet, it is nearly certain that social networks, social media, and social business practices are here to stay. In addition to the billions of dollars at stake and the constant buzz coming from publications and pundits about all things social, there is another factor about the future of social business trends that is hard to dispute: IBM's massive financial and organizational investments in this area.

Big Blue's Big Investments in Social Business

Of course, IBM has a great deal at stake given its social business-enabling collaboration and communication software offerings, primarily through its Lotus software division, so it makes sense that IBM would be a big proponent of social business, but you might be surprised as to how pervasively social networking and social business activities have permeated Big Blue. The company maintains it has made employees more efficient, more innovative, and more responsive to customer and market needs, which translates to higher employee satisfaction, expanded expertise, and new and better relationships. Naturally, these benefits create a lot of enthusiasm behind the marketing and selling of its social business software.

 

According to IBM's recent white paper on the topic, "Becoming a Social Business: The IBM Story," social networking is fast becoming the next wave that, like the Internet, stands to dramatically enhance productivity. But in order to realize the benefits, companies must execute the necessary process changes to transform into a social business. This paradigm change takes some investment in technology, but it is largely an investment of effort and time to reshape the corporate culture to one that is more transparent, efficient, and innovative. IBM maintains this is happening internally within IBM and the company cites an impact on nearly every department, including finance, product development, engineering, R&D, services, human resources, facilities, legal, and more. Again, the benefits are the result of deeper employee and customer relationships, quicker decision-making, and faster speed-to-market.

 

To give you some idea of the extent that IBM is involved with social networks, social media, and social business, look at these stats gleaned from a recent article in the publication Business Insider as well as a presentation by Phil Buckellew, Vice President of Social Business and Collaboration Solutions Evangelism:

 

  • 18,000 individual blogs consisting of 86,000 bloggers
  • 29,000 internal IBM communities and 2,500 public communities
  • 25,000 IBM employees actively tweeting on Twitter
  • 300,000 IBM employees connected on LinkedIn
  • 198,00 IBM employees on Facebook
  • 285,000 wiki pages with 1 million daily page views of internal wikis and internal information-storing Web sites
  • 400,000 employee profiles on IBM Connections, IBM's internal social networking initiative that allows employees to share status updates, collaborate on wikis and blogs, and share files.
  • 15,000,000 downloads of employee-generated videos/podcasts

 

IBM cites the following benefits among others:

  • $4.5 million per year in productivity-driven savings resulting from a 50 percent increase in information search satisfaction
  • $100 million per year in reduced support-center costs
  • Reduced time for product documentation updates as a result of using wikis
  • Reductions in voice mail and email server costs

 

Consider these examples of specific programs within IBM that are improving productivity, saving money, and increasing revenue:

 

  • IBM developerWorks—Dedicated to IBM's global developer community, IBM developerWorks was created to provide developers and IT professionals with knowledge, education, and skill development for IBM products and other key technologies. The developerWorks community touts 4 million unique visitors per month who have access to a library of 30,000 articles, podcasts, and tutorials. IBM's aforementioned dramatic reduction in support costs has a great deal to do with this program.
  • BlueIQ—Designed to help client-facing teams be more productive through the use of enterprise social software, the BlueIQ initiative started out as eight worldwide employees who were tasked with enablement, education, consulting, support, mentoring, and coaching of IBM employees on how they can use social tools in their daily work to help them improve collaboration and share knowledge across the company. This has now grown to a community of 1,600 people in 50 countries to help nurture various communities across the company and demonstrate the benefits of social software. BlueIQ also has the objective of helping IBM employees understand the greater impact their work could have on the broader company by making their ideas and work products available to be shared through social networks.

Bringing Social into Your Business

Becoming a social business means much more than deploying and using collaboration tools and encouraging employees to tweet. It is a long-term cultural transformation that requires executive leadership, consistency, training, and transparency. Getting people to productively participate in social networks is no small feat. Most people don't want to set aside time to learn about and use another tool.

 

Perhaps the most critical success factor of any social media, social networking, and social business endeavor is trust. Not only must an organization provide a certain level of trust to empower its employees to share their ideas and expertise, it also must demonstrate this trust by rewarding employees' social participation. Finally, an organization needs to extend an atmosphere of transparency and trust toward customers so that an open, two-way dialogue can be cultivated. It is the trust and open communication that gets built via the use of social media tools, and these tools must be a pervasive part of an organization's infrastructure.

 

Of course, there must be an agreed-upon set of rules that set the boundaries for what is appropriate behavior in social networks as it relates to security, privacy, and corporate governance. It can't be either too constrictive or too loose.

 

As IBM worked out its own rules, it endeavored to have common sense be the guiding principle. Because of this, IBM decided to make its "Social Computing Guidelines" open to the public. Many companies have used these guidelines as a template to form their own social media policies. IBM's current version of the Social Computing Guidelines can be found here.

IBM's Social Business Software

IBM's solutions for helping companies build a social business infrastructure are Lotus Notes, Lotus Connections, Lotus Sametime, and Lotus Quickr. To say that Lotus Notes is the equivalent to MS Outlook (providing email, calendaring, and contact management tools) would be a huge understatement. Notes has a whole development environment to provide very powerful workflow management, communications, and collaboration tools. IBM describes these social business tools as follows:

 

  • IBM Lotus Notes and Domino is a family of client- and server-based offerings for messaging and collaboration on a wide variety of operating environments. These products provide a platform for the rapid development and deployment of collaborative and workflow-driven business applications to bring people and ideas together.
  • IBM Connections lets employees access everyone in their professional network, including colleagues, customers, and partners. Features include forums where ideas can be exchanged (such as ideation blogs), as well as content moderation features. People and information can be accessed in existing IBM solutions, including IBM Sametime, IBM Lotus Notes, IBM Lotus Quickr, IBM Rational Team Concert, IBM FileNet Content Manager, and IBM Content Manager.
  • IBM Sametime is a unified, real-time communication and collaboration services platform that includes enterprise instant messaging, Web-based meetings, telephony, and video conferencing. These enabling technologies accelerate how work gets done in a social business and reduce travel and telephony expenses.
  • Lotus Quickr team collaboration software features content libraries and team places where content can be organized and shared for a project or team; connectors that allow employees to work and collaborate without having to switch applications; and RSS/ATOM content feeds to consolidate content and progress updates within Web pages so all constituents can be kept up to date.

 

Click here for more information about these and other Lotus collaboration and social business offerings.

The Take Away

The transition to social businesses portends a transformational shift away from the traditional, hierarchical organization that's built on a structure and a culture of departments and compartmentalization. Successfully incorporating social technologies and social networks, and the resulting interactions and interdependencies, means companies will be required to become more transparent and trust that positive synergies will result from breaking down hierarchical barriers and opening kimonos.

 

IBM is betting big that the path to becoming a social business is inevitable. But those companies that succeed will be those that most effectively embrace the necessary culture to deepen relationships and build trust among employees, management, customers, and suppliers.

 

To learn more about social networks and the IT professional, read my recent MC Press article, "The Online Social Network Revolution and Why You Should Care."

 

Bill Rice

Bill Rice is a technology marketer and founder of Humanized Communications, a digital marketing agency. He is a former editor of MC Showcase, is a former marketing communications director for Vision Solutions, and even did a stint as an IT manager for a shop that had an AS/400 model C10 (this just dated him). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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