by Jeff Sandgren
Prior to attending the Web 2.0 conference in New York last month, I could count on one hand the times I’d heard the phrase “we eat our own dog food”. That day I heard about “dogfooding” at least four times. One vendor (Tableau Software) even named their server “Alpo”. It turns out that there’s quite a history for dogfooding (see Wikipedia), given which it makes perfect sense that this would be the unofficial mantra for a conference of developers collaborating on the advancement of the Web. If you’re hawking a collaboration solution, it’s de rigueur that you choose to use it internally.
So I was intrigued by the slang outlier who began his speech by explaining that he didn’t really like that phrase, and that in his circle at his company, they preferred “we drink our own champagne”. Now doesn’t that have a much more blue chip sound? Small wonder, as the speaker was the VP of Social Software for the bluest of the blue, IBM.
We caught globe-trotting Jeff Schick at the conference, en route to the Royal Bank of Scotland and other luminary locations, for a discussion of how one of the most successful technology companies of all times eats – pardon me, drinks – their own, and seems to finds continued success doing so.
Jeff’s a blue-blood Big Blue; literally, his father and grandfather were both Blue, and Dad even got a free set of luggage (color unknown) when Jeff first signed on board. When Jeff signs on these days, he does so at the portal that over 400,000 other IBMers and 75,000 contractors use, a social structure designed to ensure that “people who need to know information connect with the people who do know”.
Each IBM user ‘surfaces’ a portal of their own personal network, an aggregation of information from multiple sources, but with a friendly social look and feel. The addition of face photos to the user’s page was itself a feature that surfaced from a collaborative innovation project. Rather surprisingly, the IBMers aren’t all showing profile pics in their formal attire. Some wear baseball caps, some show off pets and babies, some hug SpongeBob.
“When I started out,” Jeff explained, “you went to the same office most days, where you actually saw people, and got to know people. In the distributed mobile workforce today, it’s harder to build those relationships. But it’s terribly important – it’s foundational to trust-building.”
That’s right; this is IBM – just not Jeff’s grandfather’s IBM. To illustrate, Schick tells the story of a time his son (not and IBMer … yet) needed help with missed homework, and he suggested that his son email a friend for a copy of the assignment. The junior Schick didn’t email; he took a more proactive approach and posted a request to his friend’s Facebook page, with immediate results. “Email is for Granddad,” he explained.
But it could work for Granddad, too, and that’s an important distinction. “The old test of ease-of-use was that something was so simple, a child could use it,” explained Schick, “but now we make sure it’s so simple a senior could use it.”
One of the keys to an effective interface regardless of age, Schick maintains, is the ability to pivot between people, information, and destinations. Micro-blogging (Blue Twit), for example, was a recent addition to the Technology Adoption program, where many of the social software apps the IBMers use start out. A big hit, the Twitter-like application had over 275,000 users within the first few months.
The IBM Pérignon bubbles with tagging, or “human-centric indexing”, as Schick likes to call it. The secret is a carefully crafted blend of a pre-loaded taxonomy, or library of terms, that also allows for “folks-onomy” and integrates internal search result with web-crawled results for superior information discovery. Other ingredients in the Big Blue Bubbly include practitioner profiles for the thousands of consultants in the IBM ecosystem, and n.Fluent, a translation utility added back in 2008 which helps the linguistically diverse global associates communicate, collaborate, and innovate directly with world-wide colleagues – Schick describes it as “transformational”.
A majority of the solutions Schick shared with us are commercially available as part of the Lotus Connections suite, the fastest growing organic software product in IBM’s history. There are, of course, several players in this growing field. A new Gartner ‘Magic Quadrant’ for Social Software in the Workplace should be out soon. Last year’s version put IBM’s Lotus Connections in the Leader/Visionary quadrant along with Microsoft’s SharePoint (which recently released a major upgrade) and Jive’s Social Business Software (an early entrant with a ‘mature solution’).
But it’s not all about software. Rather, it’s about utilizing software tools to enable better collaboration. IBM puts “real money” behind focus areas, says Schick, through events like their IBM Jams, ideation affairs that bring together collaborators on focused agendas. In fact, the seemingly omnipresent “Smarter Planet” campaign came from just such a Jam.
As for Jeff, he seems the perfect guy for this dynamic role. He spent the first chunk of his career as an engineer, contributing to many IBM breakthrough solutions. Then he moved to a purely Sales role for ten years. (“Why?” we asked. He confided, “Because I saw all the money those guys were making.”) But the time in both trenches gave him a unique perspective. “When you’ve been in both,” he says, “neither side can easily fool you.”
Spoken like a veteran collaborator. Garçon, another bottle of Blue, please. And a fresh bowl for Rover.
- Why IBM Could Be Bigger Than Facebook in Social Media | Fast Company (fastcompany.com)
- 2010 Update on IBM Social Software Efforts: Part One (billives.typepad.com)
- Building The Enterprise Social Graph (forbes.com)