Internal blogs are 'permanent jam' for IBM

While external blogs get all the hype, internal blogs quietly hum away – yet can change an enterprise.

While external blogs get all the hype, internal blogs quietly hum away – yet can change an enterprise.

IBM is no stranger to using technology to foster internal communications. Its much-heralded "jam" sessions, which began in 2001, are online events where employees meet to discuss policies, trends, and concepts that have been much lauded in the internal communications space. The company even made one of its jams, the "Habitat Jam," available for public consumption.

So when IBM first set up a beta internal blogging structure in November 2003, the culture was ready for it.

We knew this would work and that employees would respond to it," says Christopher Barger, IBM's so-called chief blogging officer. "We realize we could have an effective, permanent jam."

The company has an in-house group whose sole duty is to invent products for the company to use internally. Blogs were one such thing. Upon completion of the internal beta blog client, as was the case elsewhere, tech staff and global consultants served as early adopters.

"It started catching on with the lab guys and consultants, who used it for knowledge sharing," Barger says. "It started growing little by little, by word of mouth."

After a year and half in beta mode, there were 1,250 internal blogs and 8,900 registered users. But, sensing a burgeoning trend in the corporate world where companies like Sun had executives like COO Jonathan Schwartz and empowered employees blogging, the company decided to formalize the process in May 2005 by creating a detailed internal blogging policy and encouraging employees to establish their own public-facing blogs.

Twenty employee bloggers created the guidelines in 10 days, using a collaborative software tool called a wiki. The guidelines were made public on the external blog of James Snell, a member of IBM's software standards strategy group

While IBM's external blogging policy has received rave reviews, it is arguably the internal processes like jams and blogs that are more dramatically altering the company's way of interacting, understanding their global operations, and doing business in this climate.

Today, the company has 2,500 internal blogs and 18,000 registered users. While Barger stresses how blogs decentralize communications and level the intelligence playing field, his evidence of the policy's success has stemmed from how senior leadership has responded to the initiative.

He says when Jon Iwata, SVP of communications, started a blog on the inside where he introduced issues and solicited feedback from the community; he knew IBM had succeeded because employees began responding candidly.

"And, as far as recent developments, members of senior leadership are coming to us when there are issues of importance, and saying, 'I want to be the one who takes this to the community; can you help me do this?'" Barger says.

Far from encountering the skepticism that the media attribute to general corporate attitudes towards blogging, Barger says IBM executives are pumped about the opportunities.

"Senior leadership is volunteering to do this; they want to take issues to the community via blogs," Barger says. "They're saying [to employees], 'Here are some issues that are occurring in the market, what do you think?'"

The great and unprecedented development, Barger says, is that blogs place the opinion of a first-year employee on the same weight and in front of the same audience on the site as a senior executive.

"[When] everyone has the same opportunity to speak their minds, the best ideas float to the top no matter where they come from," Barger says, while adding that senior-level executives will, of course, be the ones making the final decisions. "It helps the advancement of the community. When a senior executive comes in, rather than it being a chill effect, it makes everyone's voices heard. No one is intimidated."

When asked if he felt an internal blog environment – where everyone has a voice in the company – helps employee morale, Barger says it's hard to definitively measure, but each time a question is raised and a response is given, it further reinforces to the rank-and-file that executives are listening.

"Even on a personal level, it helps me to realize my bosses will come in and say they saw what I blogged on [a particular subject]," Barger says. "And my bosses are initiating conversations based on what I'm writing and rewarding what I have to say."

Barger points out that internal blogs go beyond just goodwill conversations; they provide invaluable efficiency and cost savings. He discusses how employees in London and Silicon Valley realized that they were working simultaneously on a similar project. Barger says they've now pooled resources, and, essentially, work as one team around the clock.

Barger also points out the social networking process ultimately translates back to work-related conversations.

"It's difficult to get to know [IBM's] 300,000 employees, but now, people in New York, England, Switzerland, and Rochester know each other [despite having never met]," Barger says. "At some point, you're going to say, 'I know that guy in Mexico City who does this"; that makes it easier for people to get their jobs done. And it's happening on its own without senior management."

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