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IBM Eats Its Own Social Dog Food

Big Blue's social business VP details how IBM Connections fuels the company's 500,000 users with social capabilities and a social media mindset.

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When it comes to enterprise social networking, IBM not only talks the talk, it walks the walk with its IBM Connections software.

Among business-oriented social platform software vendors, IBM has been ranked No. 1 in worldwide market share in 2009 and 2010 by IDC. According to IDC, worldwide revenue for social-platform software was more than $500 million in 2010, representing growth of almost 32%. IDC expects the market opportunity for social platforms to grow by a factor of nearly 2 billion worldwide by 2014.

I recently spoke with IBM's Jeff Schick, VP for social business, about the cultural shift these huge numbers represent, as well as about the company's own use of IBM Connections. The product includes profiles, communities, a blogging service, social bookmarking service, task management capabilities, a content library, and a wiki system. The latest edition of Connections, version 3, added moderation capabilities, an ideation blog, and a media gallery.

[ Connections is one of the top-ranked social platforms; learn more about it and its competitors. See Forrester Names 4 Leading Enterprise Social Platforms. ]

During a screensharing session, Schick showed me how Connections is being used internally at IBM. Each of the company's 410,000 employees and 80,000 contractors has a Connections profile. Profiles take a very extensive view of the employee, said Schick: "It's not just what your business card says you are, but what you've accomplished, what you do, what you share and who you work with." All of this information becomes searchable, he added, so finding who knows what within the organization (and how to contact them and what they are working on, among other things) is not only a simple task but one that is performed millions of times a day.

Anyone familiar with Facebook will find themselves right at home with the IBM Connections model. Users can post updates (Schick's for the day included his meeting with me), list experience and accomplishments, and post and comment on other profiles. Mobile users can access corporate Connections data from Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry devices.

One of the advantages of Connections over some of its competitors is the integration it affords with other IBM systems, including IBM Lotus Sametime, IBM Lotus Notes, and IBM enterprise content management systems.

However, when I asked Schick about the priority that companies are putting on integration in general--that is, integration with existing enterprise applications--he said that it's certainly important, but not for every organization, at least not right away. Indeed, Schick added, the technology aspect of getting enterprise social networking up and running is relatively easy. What's more challenging is building a culture that supports a social mindset.

"How you build a culture that supports connecting people and sharing and really widening the aperture of where innovation can come from--by plugging people that need to know in with people that do know--represents a fundamental culture change for some organizations," said Schick. "This is not genetic; this is learned. How do you build vibrant communities? How do you support people viewing their role as providing their experience and helping other people, even outside of their immediate day-to-day responsibility?"

Schick said that IBM's success comes in part from the fact that social is nothing new for the company, having evolved with the model over time, and because the call for a social culture comes from both the top down and from social advocates across the company. "We created ambassadors who are goaled and measured to carry forward this idea of you can better connect with each other and better share with each other and make for a smarter IBM," said Schick. "So there are people, for example, in the microelectronics division who have nothing to do with social software, but they are leveraging social software to make chip manufacturing processes, and the work that they do together, better."

Schick added that IBM approaches the way it pays and measures employees, as well as the way it vets objectives, based in part of social attributes. The company is also "helping other organizations down the path" with service offerings. "Today is really an opportunity for us to partner with organizations that want to be social businesses," he said. "We have offerings that help companies build community managers and that help apply social capabilities to their processes in order to transform their organization. By doing so, you're setting the stage for a cultural shift that inevitably must happen."

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