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IBM: How Big Blue became a social business - how you can too

25th Oct 2012
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IBM’s social computing evangelist Luis Suarez tells about the models and challenges associated with social business transformation.

IBM may be a vendor, in the business of selling enterprise social software, but it also views itself as a living breathing case study of how organisations can transform the way they operate both internally and externally. Believing that the only way to provoke a change in how organisations do business is to start within itself, the tech giant has been forging ahead with its own transformation for several years. 
As such, IBM is very much eating its own dog food – or, as its social computing evangelist Luis Suarez says: “We are a bit more glamorous, so we say we’re drinking our own champagne.”
And as Suarez explains, this has given his business the opportunity to witness the benefits of such a project first hand, and give it invaluable experience of the opportunities and challenges of rolling out social business projects.
“For a good number of years, IBM was seen as very proactive in collaboration, with Lotus Notes and all that stuff,” he says. “One of the things we noticed is that with the emergence of social software inside the company, we have moved on from collaboration that is private and in silos – which is very powerful inside that team but outside of that nothing else happens – and we’re breaking down those silos and actually fostering an enterprise-wide collaboration on a wider scale.”
And this has also delivered an epiphany. “The use of these social tools has helped people understand that work no longer happens through the traditional corporate driven top-down approach, but that work actually organises itself around networks and communities informally,” emphasises Suarez.
Learning from IBM
With the world of social business still sufficiently immature that case studies are few and far between, the jury is still out regarding whether the transformation must start from the top, or whether it begins at grassroots level. Suarez believes that IBM’s experience demonstrates that neither could work in isolation.
“Some companies will tell you that they want to have a bottom-up approach so they foster social networking happily from the bottom-up,” he explains. “There are a number of providers and vendors who have that kind of mentality and actually inspire that kind of mentality.
“Then you have those who think it should be the other way around, saying that if they don’t get the executives to push top-down then it won’t go anywhere, because the structures are very strict and corporate-driven.”
However, IBM’s experience points to successful practice requiring a hybrid approach combining grassroots bottom-up with leadership from the top down – suggesting that if a business has a group at the coal-face championing social practices that has the support of a small group of executives that have bought into this idea, it can become disruptive enough to kick-start the transformation.
Suarez elaborates on how IBM executed this in practice.
“For two or three years we had a number of different executives at the VP level who had been using social networking tools to cooperate with their teams and extended teams, and then we also had a group of social media champions. I now lead that community of champions – we have about 1,700 people leading the company - and we have kept the conversation going with that hybrid approach.”
But it was the appointment of new IBM CEO Virginia Rometty in January, that heralded the “liberating moment” for the project, adds Suarez, as the organisation finally bore witness to the power of social business.
“Every year we would have a corporate message via email outlining the priorities for the year for the company from the CEO. But this year she started a community and inside that she created a blog and put together a three minute video about her priorities,” he explains. “How many times do you read corporate emails? None. But within two weeks she counted around 200,000 page views and over 800 comments. We said ‘this is it – this is breaking up the model, this is a hybrid of the bottom-up/top-down, with a number of executives and it has hit right at the top’.”
As it transpires, one of Rometty’s priorities was to better leverage social tools to improve collaboration. And noting the success, other members of the IBM executive board followed suit, building communities and uploading blogs and videos.
“The ball was rolling,” says Suarez. “All of a sudden we saw what we had been bringing for 10/11 years – that bottom-up and top down approach – and that approach is now a successful hybrid. All the way from the top they’re saying ‘We need to start doing this to be out there for our customers, to help direct business revenue, to be confident with what we do’. So that hybrid approach combines customers all over the world.”
A long journey
Not that the hard work is done, however. There still remain some parts of the business that are proving stubbornly resistant to change, admits Suarez.
“We still have pockets of people who haven’t bought into the idea and that’s my role as an evangelist to open up the door and try to get people thinking about social,” he explains. “One of the groups that we’re trying to move into that is HR, for instance. We’re trying to get HR to understand that it isn’t about ‘human resources’ it’s about ‘human relationships’ and how you manage those relationships in the workforce that you have.
“We have still got a lot of work in that area. There are various HR groups that haven't understood that this is about encouraging a much more transparent, agile, nimble public transparency, happening on a wider scale where you're no longer in control of the conversation you are part of the conversation. You no longer control the brand, you are the brand.”
So is there an end-point in site for IBM’s social business transformation? Does such a point even exist, or does the social business require a process of constant evolution? Suarez insists that IBM is far from done, and probably needs another “three to five years” for the project. However, he adds that it is certainly generating buzz to “get the conversations going” – something that is invaluable to the company.
“We cannot go and talk the talk with customers, vendors, competitors and everything else and then do something else inside,” he says. “That’s just an oxymoron. So if we're going to be talking the talk, we better be walking the walk.”
And, ever the evangelist, he insists that other businesses will ultimately have no choice but to follow IBM’s transformation to the social business in time.
“Even for us, we didn’t have a choice,” he concludes. “This is not a fad. This is not going to disappear in two years’ time. This is transforming the way we do business. And whether you like it or not, you can no longer stop it. So you have two choices – you either dive in and join us or be prepared, because it is going to get very rough.
“It’s a long journey – but it’s worth it.”

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