by Brian Truskowski

User Input Spurs Innovation

May 22, 20076 mins

Employees are CIOs' secret weapons when expectations are high but resources for IT are limited.

As a CIO, I know instinctively that technologies, such as instant messaging, e-mail, mobile phones and handheld computers, create a dynamic, interactive work environment that lets employees work anywhere while staying in touch with colleagues. But when IBM employees expressed frustrations with their ability to collaborate during phone and Web conferences I knew I needed to help improve the effectiveness of remote meetings.

Productivity during remote meetings is of strategic importance to most companies as work becomes increasingly global. To get work done, employees need to exchange ideas and information with their colleagues in different cities and continents.

IBM has workers in 75 countries. Nearly 50 percent of all employees are mobile, working at home or on the road. Employees spend half their workdays in meetings that use technologies to link the participants. Annually they participate in 6 million conference calls.

First Steps

My first step was to learn what improvements IBM employees felt were important. A survey found they wanted more IT choices to accommodate their work styles, and more flexibility in moving between technologies. For example, employees using instant messaging wanted to be able to switch to the phone without wasting time.

Through testing and feedback from 2,500 employees, we added voice capabilities to instant messaging, so that colleagues can click on a phone icon and be connected by telephone. The feature works between computers and can link up to five people in a conference call. By tapping into the experience of early adopters, the plug-in was developed in a few months. It proved so popular it is being deployed to 100,000 employees this year.

Employees are CIOs’ secret weapons when expectations are high but resources for IT are limited. Employees are vast sources of knowledge and fresh ideas, helping CIOs harness the power of IT to create new value. At the same time, without grass roots acceptance among employees, technology developed in-house may sit on a desktop, without getting used. I listen to what employees tell me, check metrics daily and watch for emerging trends in this era of high-impact consumer technology.

Today employees decide for themselves what technology they use at home and take those preferences into the work place. Many shop online, use MP3 players and play video games. They approach technology as consumers, not as programmers. Their choices determine whether a new technology gains broad traction. Employees understand what help they need to perform their jobs, whether in sales, marketing or R&D, so they look for the technology they want within the company and in the wider world of the Web.

Latch on to Powerful Tools

Soon after becoming CIO I took a closer look at the technologies employees at IBM used the most and liked the best. I wanted to learn more about what made the most popular technology tools successful and apply those lessons to evaluate new technologies in the pipeline.

The IT tool with the most use and highest satisfaction among IBM employees is the company’s electronic directory. The directory is a quick, easy tool that employees use to find any of more than 300,000 colleagues by name, location, telephone, e-mail or instant messaging address. It is searched 1.5 million times each day, and is an integral part of an employees workday. Employee feedback on how to make the directory more useful helped it evolve into an indispensable tool for collaboration. Employees suggested the inclusion of job responsibilities, specific areas of skills, hobbies and interests.

Take Chris Perrien, a manager in Raleigh, N.C. He was on the phone with a client who needed help with computer modeling, not Chriss expertise. As soon as he finished the call, he searched the directory for a colleagues skilled in computing modeling using Eclipse tools, the specific help his client wanted. Within minutes he found Dave Steinberg in Toronto, Ont., who agreed to meet with the client. In an instant, the directory helped link the employees who could solve a clients business problem.

Taking User Feedback Further

How could we apply the lessons learned from the directory to the development of other technology tools? How could we make certain employee feedback is acted on?

In the past, IBM employee feedback came through suggestion programs, informal e-mail exchanges and formal beta tests. None of these encouraged ongoing exchanges of ideas, but tended to be project specific.

Could we model the highly successful Web communities, such as those among and e-Bay buyers, to create a forum for IBM employees to discuss new technologies? Could we create an ongoing dialogue with our employees and consistently put their feedback to use? The answers to both questions are yes, and you can too.

By taking advantage of Web 2.0 technology, we created a loose structure for employees to exchange ideas, interact within an online community and build on each others knowledge.

We established an internal, interactive website that brings together a community of 80,000 employees, who evaluate technologies coming out of our research laboratories, development teams and third parties. This community of early adopters includes technologists and employees in marketing, sales, customer service, finance and every area of the company. They select the technologies they want to evaluate from more than 80 offerings. Together as a community, they are helping to shape and refine the technology infrastructure that IBM employees use.

Since most innovation emerges as an idea that needs to be nurtured, we also have a Web-based idea forum, in which more than 60,000 employees participate. Nearly 6,000 ideas were generated in its first year. Employees discuss and rate each idea on feasibility, business value and technical merit. The 500 ideas to date that the community rated the best have received funding from a special research pool to begin the path toward development.

Just as successful technology adoption depends on active employee involvement, we also found that a key technical component is necessary: a single Intranet backbone across the company. As I meet and talk with my CIO colleagues in other companies, I hear frustrations over the proliferation of separate Intranet portals, which raise costs and complicate access to the information employees need to do their jobs.

A common Intranet infrastructure, instead, creates the same user experience for all employees, improves productivity and fosters a sense of community. It gives employees easy access to whatever they need in IT tools no matter where they are in the organization. It creates a foundation on which new tools can be introduced across the entire employee base. Just as important it lowers costs, freeing up funds to spend more strategically.

In a world of limited resources, CIOs must compete for budgets with every area within a company. However, the richest resources CIOs have in the quest for innovations are employees. The real challenge is finding new ways to tap into the talent, imagination and skills of employees to create the innovations that matter to employees, CIOs and their company.

Brian Truskowski is CIO of IBM Corp., which makes its headquarters in Armonk, N.Y.