IBM brings Social Networking to the Workplace – will it fly?

History shows us that IBM is not a sleeping giant, its eyes are open wide.  From the mis-step on copiers (in the 50s IBM chose not to invest in copiers, Xerox became huge), to recognizing and jumping in on Linux, IBM attempts to not be passed by.

This doesn’t mean they are pioneers, quite the contrary.  Instead, IBM represents a good example of an entrenched corporate giant waiting for innovation to gain traction and validation, and only then investing in the new technology.  This time it’s Social Networking.

No, you won’t be seeing a MyIBMSpace.com anytime soon.  Instead, it’s what IBM is calling social software for business.  Through the new software called Lotus Connections, the company brings the all the common web 2.0 social network features such as profiles, blogs, comments, etc. to the corporate world. The aim is to connect like minded individuals inside a company and allow them to share ideas and collaborate.IBM’s VP for social software, Jeff Schick, says the idea is not only to improve productivity but also to “unlock the latent expertise in an organization.”

Lotus Connections has five components — activities, communities, dogear (a bookmarking system), profiles and blogs –aimed at helping experts within a company connect and build new relationships based on their individual needs.

The profiles component, for example, lets users search for people by name, expertise or keyword. The program then not only provides contact information and reporting structure details, but also lists blogs, communities, activities and bookmarks associated with the person.

Inside IBM, employees have been using a prototype of the profiles feature for the last few years, and today 450,000 profiles of IBM employees are stored there. 

When IBM makes a move, the industry takes notice and this move is powerful in two ways.  First, it provides, needed it or not, corporate validation of social networks. MySpace and Facebook are insanely popular…with 12-21 year olds…everyone other than those in the corporate world.  It has been long overdue for companies to realize the benefit of harnessing the power of collaboration and open exchanges of ideas inside the company.

Second, if employed correctly, it gives the employees the ability to discuss and develop ideas. IBM has a lot of smart people.  I venture to say some have great ideas swimming in their heads and all they do is think, “I wish I could quit and develop my idea. It would change the world!”

Well, social networking in the workplace lets people connect to those that share or see potential in their ideas. The guy in the middle cubicle on the 5th floor might have an idea for the next killer app for which the girl in the office might see the value proposition to make it a monster hit. Whether they approach the CEO with the idea or quit and create the next great start-up we can’t know, but fostering connections enables ideas to get developed and will create some great things in the future.

But corporate social networking could go wrong fast.  Social Networking is about meeting those that have like interests and being free to express yourself. It is based on openness. If a company deploys an in-house social network without respecting this fundamental aspect than the experiment will be short lived.  Here are a couple of corporate control type disclaimers that will spell doom…

“solutions or services resulting from ideas or communication facilitated through this social network is the property of Big Corp. and Big Corp. retains sole rights to…blah blah blah”

Or

“communication on this social network is the property of Big Corp. and any information exchanged is the property of Big Corp. and can be used…blah blah blah”

My hope is that a social network inside a company will not be compromised by a company’s needs for corporate control, privacy invasion, etc.  Of course, their should be safeguards for non-appropriate behavior, but not at the expense of giving the little guy in the cubicle a voice.

It’s usually the people on the ground floor not those in the penthouse that have the ideas that change the world.  Done right, corporate social networks could allow the ground floor to be groundbreaking.

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