Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Corporate Connectivity – A Social Networking Revolution

“Mention the word ‘networking’ to CEOs and other business leaders in large organisations and they will turn their back on you. They just won’t be interested.”

A leading CEO said this to me no more than three months ago. For many large organisations networking is perceived as an activity for small businesses. It’s just not something that corporates are interested in.

Is it possible though, that times are changing?

Every week I hear that this attitude is not as prevalent as before. ‘Networking’ may still be a dirty word in some spheres but an increasing number of large organisations are embracing its techniques to help them work more effectively.

Following strong recent activity by Cisco systems, who have made a number of social networking acquisitions, and the launch of BT’s own small business network ‘BT Tradespace’, I was very interested to hear that IBM are the latest giant to enter into the Social Networking arena. Later this year, they are launching ‘Lotus Connections’, software based on their own internal systems.

I spoke with Jeff Schick, the vice president of social computing software for IBM Corporation in New York, to find out more about how IBM sees the relevance of networking to larger companies.

While the BT site is very much ‘external’, linking different businesses together online, as are some of Cisco’s acquisitions, one thing that was very clear from the conversation with Jeff was the importance of networking technology for internal efficiency.

Jeff’s primary focus is very much on being able to ensure that IBM employees worldwide have easy access to a range of expertise across their organisation, and they primarily use social networking to achieve this. There are over 400,000 IBM employees and business partners worldwide who use their ‘Blue Pages’ internal network, where they can post a personal profile that anyone within the organisation can access and blog about their area of expertise.

I believe that networking is the sharing of resources to help individuals to achieve a greater potential than we could do on our own. The approach that Jeff Schick and IBM take reflects this philosophy.

Jeff described the management of IBM’s human capital as one of their greatest challenges today. Networking technology enables the organisation to facilitate consultation and idea sharing and is a key tool in overcoming that challenge.

One of the biggest problems businesses suffer as they grow is competition rather than cooperation between different parts of the organisation and a lack of knowledge of how other departments operate. This leads to complaints that ‘the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing’.

For multinationals, the problem becomes even more pronounced, with people spread across the world often facing the same challenges. Social Networking systems are key to managing these issues efficiently, although they shouldn’t be seen as a complete replacement for bringing employees together where they possibly can.

“We maintain a culture that is both capable of working in a distributed, highly decentralised fashion” said Jeff, “but at the same time take advantage of the opportunity to come together and make useful interactions when we see each other in person”.

Recently IBM recognised the problem of organisational silos within their own organisation. The company saw that sales groups within its $15 billion dollar software group were only focusing on their own brand or location rather than customers’ needs. To overcome this, they reorganised the structure of the organisation, changing their focus to finding the right solution from across the broad range of products on offer.

According to Jeff, “it’s getting the right people over the right business problem. Breaking down those barriers of communication and knowledge is an important objective of the way we approach going to market.”

Additionally, there is a focus on solving issues and making the most of new ideas by stimulating a wide debate by all of the people involved in the process. In order to bring together as many ideas and experiences as possible to business problems, IBM use ‘Jams’, where they employ collaborative technology to encourage people both within and outside of the organisation to work together to find solutions to those problems.

Through Blue Pages and elsewhere, IBM encourages people with similar interests to work closely together, through community interest groups or “birds of a feather type activities”. In the UK, BT operates similar forums, with a number of internal networks to promote people working together and supporting each other. Such networks are becoming more commonplace in business.

According to the US industry analyst firm Forrester, social networking tools will become “so much a part of the fabric of an enterprise’s collaborative environment that it will be like air – enterprises won’t be able to manage life without it.”

Indications are that we are going to see a shift in how companies encourage their staff to interact. It may surprise you to hear that most of the senior leadership of IBM are frequent users of Social Networking software. Perhaps IBM are embracing such technology because of the nature of the business and their understanding of the technology involved. Surely this won’t be as easy a transition for less IT-based organisations? Not according to Jeff.

“I see it in other organisations as well. I look every place and see organisations that have adopted blogging, whether it be internal or external. I look everywhere and see people utilising Wiki technology to do dynamic self publishing. No matter where I look, I see companies deploying technology that support communities and the interests that community serves, and the goals that community has.”

Perhaps ‘networking’ is not such a dirty word after all.

Further articles based on my interview with Jeff Schick will follow.


  1. Hi Andy,

    I've recently been to speaking to a 'Head of Sales' at BT, and a 'Sales VP' at Oracle and both have said that establishing and maintaining an internal network was key to sales success - Otherwise you couldn't provide solutions that worked within time and cost frames.

    I'm interested in the similarity and difference between this and what goes on 'collaborative networking sites'


  2. Hi Michael

    For me, what your contacts have been talking about is reflected in IBM's problem with organisational silos in their software division. Previously, sales reps were providing solutions to customers based on their own product range or location, rather than looking for answers from across the organisation.

    By having a strong internal network, a sales rep is not confined to his or her own knowledge and experience but can call in expertise from across the organisation.

    An individual or team in one area might be able to create a strong network locally and with a few people overseas. For organisations like IBM, BT and Oracle, that is not enough. And that is where collaborative networking sites come in, providing the technology to help them find people working in that area of expertise, wherever they may be based.