This is my second interview this year on this blog with IBM, a company that continues to impress me with how the company uses social media. Much more than as a marketing conduit, IBM uses social media including Twitter as a communications tool that lets its 380,000 employees located in 150 countries to communicate with each other.
The huge and diverse workforce has a few characteristics that seem ideally suited for Twitter. First, just picture how many mobile workers there are, people away from their office who need to keep in touch at any time and from myriad locations. Whatever number you used, add to it the fact that the company has 120,000 telecommuters.
The company puts a lot of thinking and energy into into how to keep these mobile and telecommuting workers in touch, collaborating and productive. A couple of days ago they announced that in the middle of the worst recession in decades that it exceeded analyst projections for the fourth quarter of 2008. They must be doing something right.
In my last interview with the company, IBMer George Faulkner described some groundbreaking ways the company uses podcasting to keep the company team members in touch. This time around, I turned to Adam Christensen, who is manager of social media communications at the company's Armonk, NY world headquarters.
Here are my notes and quotes from our conversation:
IBM has approximately 1000 employees who identify themselves in Twitterville as IBMers. Mostly they talk to each other and to other members of the company ecosystem.
Twitter developed organically and runs across departments, locations and job functions. There was no topdown mandate. One employee started and influenced another and so on. There are, of course, evangelists who influence a lots of coworkers.
While the company never embarked on an official Twitter strategy, the result is consistent with IBM's long term strategy for social media: to take a smaller centralized corporate presence in lieu of enabling all employees to engage on their own as part of their jobs in the platforms of their choice.
"Our assumption," Christensen said, "is that the employee will be a much better representation of the company than a couple of guys sitting in corporate. Our business is vast, so to represent the diversity of topics we touch and subject experts we have, we are best served getting average employees to be active in public conversations."
"We aren't interested in creating a few rock stars to be the face of IBM. Our social computing guidelines are very specifically designed to encourage and enable everyone to be active and open. This is true on all platforms, and certainly so on Twitter."
Christensen pointed out that because IBM is not a consumer products enterprise, IBM doesn't even think about using Twitter for sales or customer support. For them, it has become "a very effective ad hoc communications platform. As employees have collected a network around them of fellow IBM colleagues they trust, they've built trust into a system that doesn't exist in traditional hierarchal communications systems."
IBM news spreads faster and more effectively within the company via Twitter than on the company's intranet or blogs. "Those traditional networks still encompass vastly more people, so I don't want to minimize the value of those platforms, but Twitter spreads the news faster, more credibly and more conversationally than other media. It's also created a greater sense of community among IBMers active publicly."
But a second, and in Christensen's view more important Twitter benefit for IBM is that the tool "gets employees smarter. At its core, IBM is comprised of people who are paid to be experts. The ability for them to learn from colleagues inside and outside the company has potentially massive positive implications."
Twitter, he told me, removes the boundaries that have traditionally inhibited knowledge transfer.
"Because of the inherent equality in Twitter's two-way relationship structure and its low threshold for participation, it is the best platform for developing relationships with smart people wherever they are, at whatever company and at whatever level they operate," he explained.
On Twitter, IBMers can build relationships with people from whom they want to learn. They can also contribute what they each know to the collective conversation and by so doing, demonstrate a little thought leadership.
Christensen added a touch of Thomas Friedman to our conversation, observing that Twitter helps the company feel smaller and flatter to the employees who have connected to each other via Twitter.
I also asked him about rumors I had heard about a behind-the-firewall Twitter clone--built by a couple of company hackers in their spare time. A mentioned that I had heard Twitter CEO Ev Williams say he didn't see much use for Twitter behind the firewall.
" I think twitter is mistaken. Our Twitter-like tool bolts on to our instant messaging client, and includes Firefox and LotusNotes plugins. With that, comes some security and the ability to verify that users are currently employed," allowing them to speak more candidly than they might in public."
In fact, it sounded like the private tool they had created made come closer to a tool called Yammer than Twitter.
I will be writing this up for Twitterville in the next day or two, so please tell me what parts of the IBM story most impress you. This one is going to be a little hard to compress, or so it seems to me.