Developing a Social Business Program

an interview with
Ethan McCarthy Senior Manager of Digital and Social Strategy, IBM

I realize this was a long interview and you may be ready for me to move on BUT this last part contains some really smart advice for other companies looking to develop their own Social Business programs.  Also, this interview produced my latest post on entitled Move Over Social Media; Here Comes Social Business.

Drew: What advice would you give to a B2B company interested in pursing a similar program?  What three things would you say to them?

Ethan: Probably, don’t use the word, “expert.” There are some cultures that are completely allergic to using that word in reference to themselves.

Drew: Makes sense. How did you get this thing up and running?

Ethan: One of the things we’ve done that’s been really helpful is we made sure that we had people from all around the world working on the project. I’m a member of a team we call the Expertise and Eminence Round Table.  It started with six of us just meeting on Friday morning and talking about the work we were doing.  The group represents some people from our hardware group, some from software and others from Services and the CIO office.  They heard about the work that my team and I were doing and they wanted to be apart of the project. We realized we were all managing lists of experts, so we got our lists together. We started with a base population in the Expertise Locator System that’s very diverse so we can learn a lot from that. From there we hit the ground running.

Drew: What else would you advise?

Ethan: We are trying to apply what’s called “agile development” to this system so we put out a new version or update it just about every two weeks. The idea is we try to learn quickly, and if we need to fail quickly, we’re failing quickly.  When stuff doesn’t work, two weeks later we’re changing it.  With Digital systems like the Expertise Locator,  you can’t spend 10 months planning it and then launch it.  From the point when we wanted to get this on to the point we had it on was four weeks.  It wasn’t a service at that point; it was this manually coded thing. In the next version we had the database set up, and in the next version we had the API described.

It was very iterative; my advice – you really want to get something up that you can start to have people experience quickly.  It’s complicated because people expect [that because] it’s from IBM, surely it’s done when it’s out the door. It would be quite different if this were a product that we’re putting into market, but this is a cultural program, a communications and marketing program.  In that way we have a bit more flexibility to iterate and learn as we go— that would be a very key lesson for anybody who’s going to try to get into this.  You’re talking about working with lots of people, and you can’t predict how people behave. It would be tremendous hubris to say that you could predict how people are going to behave.

Drew: Is there a component of this where the accessibility of these experts is giving away the very expertise that you sell?

Ethan: The interaction that experts have or that people have with IBMers right now through this is pretty light.  It’s not like a free six-month consulting engagement with a team of our principle consultants. I think it’s more of a means to get to know us, and we can help you build your business through that.

Drew:  What’s in it for the expert?  I mean they’ve got their own job.

Ethan: That’s a great question. First of all, there are some IBMers for whom interaction with the public, clients in particular, or prospective employees or whomever, is a facet of their job.  If you’re going to be one of our most eminent technologists, you’d be called a distinguished engineer or maybe you’d be a member of our academy of technology or a master inventor. These people already have it in their job description to interact with clients and prospects, and they’re supposed to be mentoring people. There are all kinds of things that they’re already supposed to be doing and quite directly participating as someone in our Expertise Locator System or participating in social business at IBM would allow them to do that more effectively.  Soon, they will actually be able to track it. You could say, “Look, I showed up on web pages 350,000 times.”

Secondly, these days employees are sort of global capitalists in a way. You’re a citizen of a digitally interconnected globe at this point, and your reputation is everything.  If you cannot manage your reputation— your digital professional reputation— you’re in real trouble. One of the things that we’re building out in social business at IBM is a personal dashboard that starts to show things like how many times you were surfaced and how many times people connect with you. We’re helping to establish each IBMers digital reputation with these tool, and a digital reputation is becoming vital in today’s business world.

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