How IBM Uses Social Media to Spur Employee Innovation

Now here’s a great case-study…

The Social Media Examiner takes an in-depth and very appealing look at IBM’s social media strategy, and is surprised at what it finds:

“Be yourself.”  It’s one of the rules of social media. If you’re blogging, tweeting or Facebooking for business, be real—or you won’t be followed.

Yet, how do you pull off “authentic” while maintaining the company brand message?

It’s tough enough for a small business. What if you’re #2 on Business Week’s best global brands list, with nearly 400,000 employees across 170 countries?

At IBM, it’s about losing control.

As a ‘semi-insider’ (a business partner that works with IBM on a daily basis) it’s easy to lose site at just how innovative IBM is at times.  The article takes a fresh look from the outside at IBM’s take on social media, and it brought it back to me how ‘out there’ IBM’s approach really is:

No Policing

IBM does have social media guidelines. The employee-created guidelines basically state that IBMers are individually responsible for what they create and prohibit releasing proprietary information.

But the document lacks any mention of brand messages or values.

Nor does IBM corporate regulate employee social media activity. Only three people hold social media roles at the corporate level, and oversight isn’t part of their jobs.

We don’t police. The community’s largely self-regulating, and so there hasn’t really been a need to have someone go about and circuit these boards and blogs,” Christensen said. “Employees sort of do that themselves… And that’s worked wonderfully well.”

But it seems to work:

The Payoff

IBM invests in creating its own social media tools. But it’s earning that back by monetizing some of those as part of the IBM product portfolio. The other part of the investment equation—employees’ time—doesn’t seem to be a concern, according to Christensen.

That’s because collaboration and knowledge make IBM what it is. And that’s a company with $12.3 billion in earnings on more than $100 billion in revenue with a 44.1% gross profit margin in 2008.

Christensen says to date there’s not an effort to tag a return on investment to its social media efforts.

“I think if you’d ask any senior executive at IBM, ‘How important is it for our employees to be smarter?‘, inherently they understand that these tools can play in helping with that,” Christensen said. “I don’t see myself rarely or ever having that hard conversation on the value of engaging employees in these spaces.”

A super article and one well worth passing around to others in your organisation, particularly if you’re still at the stage of formulating a social media strategy or social computing policy.

Stuart McIntyre is a Senior Strategist at Fostering Community Limited. He curates a number of product-focused news sites, is a lapsed podcaster, founded the Social Connections user group and regularly speaks at conferences and events. This blog represents his own slightly-eccentric and usually-controversial opinions!