Interview with Ethan McCarty, Senior Manager, Digital and Social Strategy, IBM – Part 1

The emergence of Social Media has transformed how people, and brands, use the web. Crucially, it has also transformed how people and brands interact on the web.  Brands that were early adopters and first movers on platforms like Facebook and Twitter were able to stake out a position as thought-leaders and some were able to leverage that in order to drive business-building initiatives.

Even though Social Media is still in its relative infancy, it has matured. For many brands, that first-mover advantage has disappeared. For other brands misuse or mismanagement has led to a feeling of disillusionment.  We’ve reached an inflection point within the industry and several forward thinking agencies and brands are shaping the future of how brands and their various constituents will engage and interact in digital spaces.  People like Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute, Amber Naslund of Radian6, Azeem Azhar of PeerIndex and Kris Duggan of Badgeville are some of these leaders.

But on a more fundamental level is the notion of Social Business. First put forth by the Dachis Group, Social Business [in their words, is:] “the intentional creation of dynamic and socially calibrated systems, process, and culture. The goal: improving value exchange among constituents.”

Recently David Armano wrote about Social Business on the Harvard Business Review blog and the article generated a spirited debate in the comments section. I think Social Business is still such a new concept that definitions and meanings are malleable, thus leading to misunderstandings or just various interpretations.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ethan McCarty, Senior Manager, Digital and Social Strategy at IBM about Social Business and what the technology giant was doing in this area. The result was a wide-ranging and spirited conversation that gave me a new perspective and greater clarity on the notion of Social Business. Specifically we spoke about IBM’s Social Business @ IBM and Expertise Locator programs and how those programs are changing the way IBM thinks about Social Media both internally and externally.

NOTE: Below is an account of our conversation based on my handwritten notes. I’ve done my best to capture the tone, spirit and meaning of Ethan’s statements, but the following dialogue should not be construed as verbatim quotes.

Rick Liebling: First, what was the impetus for Social Business @ IBM?

Ethan McCarty: IBM has a long history of digital collaboration. In the 1960s and ‘70s the company built a nascent intranet system to share information amongst colleagues. In the 1990s, IBM gave employees unfettered access to the Internet at a time when many companies were putting up firewalls that restricted access all together.  Over the last decade IBM has been a leader in pioneering blogs and proto-wiki platforms on internal networks.

As IBM embarks on its second century, our focus, rather than looking back at the progress we made, is to look forward to the next 100 years.

Rick Liebling: For a company the size of IBM, this sort of initiative  (Social Business @IBM) must have been hard to get approval for. What was it like trying to get this off the ground?

Ethan McCarty: There was certainly spirited debate, but ultimately it was embraced because the opportunity is so vast. Obviously we also have to consider the global implications of what we do. Initiatives like Social Business @ IBM need to be fluid enough to allow for some degree of local variance.

Rick Liebling: So, what exactly is Social Business @ IBM?

Ethan McCarty: Simply put, it is an internal system to enable IBM to become a more social business. Increasingly, people are making decisions based on information they receive from “people like me.” These “social filters” are experienced digitally through things like Facebook, LinkedIn and Amazon. At IBM we are trying to create a new way of working that connects our people with our customers, prospective employees, communities in which we want to do business and other constituencies in a more direct manner and meaningful way. This sort of engagement leads to increased surface area between the brand and these various constituents. These touch points produce digital evidence of behaviors, and that can lead to improvements in business.

Rick Liebling: Some of the numbers Ethan shared with me in terms of participation were eye-opening.

Thousands of IBMers are taking part in the program and we’re registering tens of 1000s of visits to the internal site. We’ve got roughly 17,000 internal blogs; 1 million daily page views of internal wikis, internal information storing websites; 400,000 employee profiles on IBM Connections, IBM’s initial social networking initiative; 20 million minutes of LotusLive meetings every month with people both inside and outside the organization; More than 400k Sametime instant messaging users, resulting in 40-50 million instant messages per day.

Externally, more than 25,000 IBMers actively tweeting on Twitter and counting; More than 300,00 IBMers on Linkedin; Approximately 198,000 IBMers on Facebook.

Our goal is to get 50,000 people through the program this year, which is about 12%-15% of our employee population.

Rick Liebling: What area of the company has this had the greatest level of participation?

Ethan McCarty: We’re seeing strong engagement from our business consultants and IT architects, which is somewhat to be expected since these are senior level people, with a great deal of expertise in business and technology solutions as well as an inherent motivation to build their digital reputations.

Rick Liebling: What benefits have you seen as a result of the program?

Ethan McCarty: The program has resulted in an increased seriousness internally on working with our customers to create solutions for them and, importantly, an increased seriousness in the way regard participation in social media.   One main dimension of the program is to deepen IBMers’ understanding our Social Computing Guidelines.  For example, it provides our people with a clear curriculum via the education module, which powered by an IBM-designed recommendation engine.  Based on the activities already completed, it will suggest what you can, or should, do next. That also relates to our Expertise Locator which we’ll talk about shortly.

Crucially it has given our thousands of employees content for them to share externally. In this way you can see how it integrates with our current “I’m an IBMer” campaign.  If we’re doing our job right, you may never even see an IBM server or perhaps even our software.  The IBM brand experience is an IBMer experience.  The Social Business @ IBM program is beginning to allow us to have a different type of conversation with our customers, prospects, colleagues and the communities with which we do business.

We’ve also seen an uptick in IBMers willing to share different dimensions of their professional reputation. Historically, many of our people, especially in certain areas, were reluctant to proclaim themselves “experts.” Frankly, it is still a loaded term – I wrote a blog post about the inherent complications with the term “expert” — but we are beginning to see it as a way to demonstrate our usefulness, not as a boastful statement.

You can read the second half of the interview where we talk about how IBM is identifying, assisting and showcasing their internal experts here.