“Either Write Things Worth Reading or Do Things Worth the Writing”

an interview with
Michael Riegel Vice President of Academics & Startups, IBM

One of my favorite bits of wisdom from my favorite founding father, Ben Franklin, is:

If you wou’d not be forgotten
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worth reading,
or do things worth the writing.

I believe the folks at IBM are doing a lot of things “worth the writing,” which is why I seem to be writing about them all the time.  That and the fact that they treat me like a journalist by providing access to interesting people within their organization.  One such person is Michael Riegel, VP of Academics & Startups, who provided his insights on a just announced “social business” curriculum they are coordinating with San Jose State University.  As part of something IBM calls The Great Mind Challenge, I believe this is an enlightened example of how companies can do well by doing good.

DN: Please give me a brief description of The Great Mind Challenge?
In 2012’s The Great Mind Challenge, students investigate the emerging sphere of social business using the real-world example of an IBM Business Partner. Working in teams over a period of two months, students conduct a social business assessment of the partner organization, and then build a prototype social business solution based on their recommendations. Students receive education, tuition and mentoring from social business thought leaders, authors, top executives in the social business and of course IBM social business experts. Top-performing teams during the Challenge receive prizes and the potential for internships. The social business skills program with San Jose State University was the first time this challenge was offered in the US. However, globally, over the past several years, The Great Mind Challenge has attracted over 100,000 students and hasn’t only focused on social business skills, IBM is also mentoring students in key areas of technology and engineering including analytics, programming and software development.

DN: What is the primary goal of the collaboration between IBM and SJSU?
IBM and SJSU are collaborating to help students develop market-ready, social business skills. To be successful in today’s business environment, students need to be able to demonstrate that they can turn their personal, social networking savvy skills along with the things they have learned in the classroom, into real-world business solutions. The Great Mind Challenge presents students with an opportunity to develop their collaboration and problem-solving skills while working on exciting, real-world business projects. Students who participate in the Challenge have the opportunity to be recognized for their ideas and talents, while also working to make our planet smarter through the use of social business technology.

DN: Why San Jose State? Does its location in Silicon Valley play some role?
There is a long-standing relationship between IBM and SJSU. Beyond this exceptional relationship, there is so much innovation around social business taking place in the Silicon Valley area. For example, IBM Almaden Research Center, where many of IBM’s social business researchers and consultants are pushing the envelope and helping organizations develop the necessary skills for social business adoption, while breaking down the traditional barriers that might stunt adoption success. With this in mind, SJSU was seen as a logical fit for the pilot of this social business skills challenge.

DN: What was the planning cycle for the collaboration between IBM and SJSU? When did the initial planning start and how has it evolved over time?
Planning for the project with SJSU started in Spring 2011. IBM worked through the summer recess with faculty at SJSU to develop various parts of the social business skills program, including the education (curriculum) and measurement. During the course of the program we fine-tuned the delivery of educational webinars and online feedback sessions with students. As we move into 2012, and expand the social business skills program to include universities across the country, we will continue to modify various aspects of the program to ensure students get as much from this program as they possibly can.

DN: What are the metrics for success for the new IBM/SJSU program from IBM’s perspective?
First and foremost is the delivery of market-facing social business skills. When a student tells us they were able to progress through the interview stages and finally get a job in part because of the social business skills they learnt through The Great Mind Challenge, we take this as validation for this program and IBM’s vision of a Smarter Planet engendered by social business. We also look at the number of students who successfully complete the program and were happy to see that 100% of the SJSU students made it through to the finish line.

DN: The SJSU program involves a number of participants including SJSU faculty/students, IBM employee experts as mentors and business partners as real-life test cases. Can you speak to the challenges of coordinating all these players as well as the benefits of having so many different levels of participation?
We knew at the outset that we wanted the focus for this social business skills challenge to be as rich as possible. Bringing in IBM business partners helps tell a broader story and provides students with the opportunity to explore social business from different angles, different organizations and different business needs. IBM worked closely with SJSU faculty and students to ensure that the training was appropriate and not too “vendor-centric” as to strip it of its application throughout the market. Somewhat fittingly, we don’t feel a program of this scope would have been possible without having social networking tools available, whether it was collaborating on the design of educational materials, or handling project management across businesses and faculty. That’s where IBM’s market leading social business technology created real value for the students.

DN: Since the program includes training on IBM software and promulgates a major IBM initiative (i.e. social business), is there a risk that it might be perceived as one big marketing campaign? Or asked differently, is there a fine line between doing good for the community and doing too much good for the brand?
IBM’s social business vision has a broad scope that goes beyond pure technical adoption. This is one of the messages we are trying to get across with this challenge – social networking can fundamentally change the way businesses operate and create value, but it’s not just about adopting the technology. An organization must create a business culture that fosters transparency, sharing, and trust from its leadership down to those employees out in the field. Throughout the challenge with SJSU, we also encouraged students to explore and consider a variety of social networks inside and outside the firewall. They learned that a social business isn’t just a company with a Facebook page or Twitter presence, it’s about taking advantage of social internally, melding these social networking concepts into traditional business processes to fundamentally change how we do work and create business value. Yes, we did show the students how tools like IBM Connections can be used for social networking within the firewall, but for the continued success of the program, IBM was and is focused on developing and building social business skills that are not exclusive to any one product or technology.

Final note: stay tuned for my related article about “doing well by doing good” and interview with Larry Gee, the professor at San Jose State University who is responsible for teaching the “social business” curriculum discussed above.  And as always, if you found this post of interest, feel free to subscribe to this blog.

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