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Big Blue Embraces Social Media


IBM has been encouraging social networking among its employees with in-house versions of Web 2.0 hits such as Facebook and Twitter

Let's say you're a big Facebook user. One day you get an e-mail from your company. It invites you to an in-house social network, a Facebook for just you and your colleagues. Do you sign up? What about if you learn your boss is on the site? Do you "friend" her? Will you let her see those vacation pictures from Club Med?

Social networks in the corporate world involve very different dynamics, and scientists at IBM (IBM) Research's Collaborative User Div. in Cambridge, Mass., are learning all about them. Over the past two years, IBM has been busily launching in-house versions of Web 2.0 hits. "We're trying to see how things that are hot elsewhere can be fit for business," says Irene Greif, an IBM Fellow who heads up Collaborative User Experience.

So far, IBM has Dogear, a community-tagging system based on Del.icio.us, Blue Twit, and a rendition of the microblogging sensation, Twitter. It also has a Web page called Many Eyes that permits anyone (including outsiders, at many-eyes.com) to upload any kind of data, visualize it, and then launch discussions about it on blogs and social networks. The biggest success is the nine-month-old social network, Beehive, which is based on the premise of Facebook. It has already attracted 30,000 users, including top executives.

A Substitute for Face-to-Face Chat

This all might sound frivolous. Millions of workers, after all, wasting precious hours in cubicles around the world comparing favorite flicks on Facebook or Twittering about what they had for lunch. Why would Big Blue want to promote such behavior inside the company?

A couple of reasons. First, in a global company with nearly 400,000 employees, most people are too far away to plop down in a teammate's cubicle or grab a cup of coffee. These social tools, IBM hopes, will provide a substitute for personal connections that flew away with globalization—and help to build and strengthen far-flung teams. "People are putting up pictures of their family, the same way they'd put them up in the cubicle," says Joan DiMicco, one of the research scientists.

Adapting these tools, according to IBM, is also important for recruiting. Hotshots coming out of universities are accustomed to working across these new networks—and are likely to look at a company that still relies on the standard '90s fare of e-mail and the phone as slow and backward.

Making Atlas Connections

And it's possible—though still open to debate—that these new networks will provide a boost in the sharing of knowledge and expertise, and ultimately, innovation. That possibility—or perhaps the fear that competitors will figure out social networks first—is leading IBM's customers to clamor for social software including blogs, Wikis, and a program called Atlas Connections. Atlas culls information from e-mail and instant chat, and helps people map and visualize their networks of contacts. It highlights links between people, helping managers locate experts on certain topics or salespeople who know a certain customer. Launched five months ago, Atlas is already running in 200 companies. Heidi Votaw, who heads up sales for IBM's Lotus Connections, says that it's "the fastest-growing software product in IBM history."

The key laboratory for these tools, of course, is IBM itself. The team in Cambridge includes a host of social scientists who figure out how to guide people toward new social tools, and to get them to put more of their life and ideas onto the network. One feature they deployed on Beehive when it launched last September is called the Top Five list. People can make lists of the Top Five anything, such as the five projects they're proudest of, five technologies they can't live without, or the five best meals they've had in Paris. People come up with new lists, and others follow. Like much of social media, it mixes personal and professional—and each person has to figure out for him- or herself where to draw the line.

The Buzz on Beehive

Already, social scientists are studying the benefits IBMers are getting from the network. They see that it strengthens what are called "weak ties." These are the people employees might know only casually, some in a different division or down a distant corridor. Getting to know these people, even if it starts out with a Top Five list, widens employees' range of contacts and knowledge within the company.

Employees also use Beehive for self-branding. It's a way to strut their stuff for colleagues and managers at the company—whether it's for a promotion or funding for a pet project.

When do IBMers decide to take the plunge into social networking? Often when their boss takes the lead. Greif says that in recent months a host of top executives at Big Blue have jumped into Beehive, leading many others to do the same. And the No. 1 executive at Big Blue, Chairman Sam Palmisano? He has an avatar that rumbles around the virtual world of Second Life. But he has yet to dive into Beehive. "People have started a campaign to get him on there," says Greif. "A lot of people have been friending him, hoping to see when he shows up. "I might ask him next time I see him."

Back to the Future of Tech / IT 100 Table of Contents

Baker is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York.

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