IBM: Instant messaging has replaced voicemail

May 31, 2011, 6:55 PM UTC

IBM CIO Jeanette Horan

FORTUNE –Business software makers — from SAP (SAP) to Microsoft (MSFT) — are in a race to make their products more “social.” IBM (IBM) is no exception. The New York-based company says its social media roots date back to the 1970s, when its mainframe programmers started discussion forums (on System/370 consoles). Today, IBM sells social software like IBM Connections, which lets workers collaborate by sharing files and forming groups.

It’s too early to tell whether Facebook-like features in the workplace will be a passing fad or a lasting trend, but IBM says it’s eating its own dog food. The company uses its 400,000 worldwide employees as a testing ground for upcoming social products and features. IBM employees have launched 17,000 blogs to date. They also generate 1 million page views of internal wikis and 40-50 million instant messages per day. I recently caught up with IBM’s new CIO, Jeannette Horan, to find out more about how employees use social networking features in and out of the office.

Fortune: What are your priorities as CIO?
Horan:The whole area of social media and the enablement of it in our very large diverse workforce is a key innovation area for us. Many of our [social software] ideas get tested within the IBM sandbox before they make their way into products that we deliver to the market. We partner heavily with the software development teams to make this happen.What kind of social tools do you use internally?

We had internal implementations of a lot of the social media technologies like wikis and blogs when they were first emerging in the marketplace. We have over 400,000 employees and had a very active set of internal bloggers. All employees have an IBM Connections page. When you join IBM you have an entry in the HR system and that populates an entry into the employee directory. Initially it just has your name, phone number, work address, etc. Then you can add information about your skills, your resume and projects you’re working on. This becomes your public persona on Connections. We encourage people to do this, and a significant percentage of the IBM population do. With 400,000 people, you want an easy way to find people that are experts in specific areas. Beyond that the second most prolific use of social networking within IBM is this notion around self-identifying communities. You can establish a community with different rule sets. And increasingly, people are also using microblogging, or Twitter-like, features. But people here don’t tend to do the “I’m going for lunch” kind of posts. It’s more like “I’m going to give a seminar.”

What kind of online communities have employees started?
We have a Women in Europe community with 23,000 members. This is a way for them to come together and share information that’s pertinent to them. As a new employee, you can imagine that coming into an organization with 400,000 people, it’s hard to feel connected, especially when your team is probably spread across several different countries. So these communities help them to get up to speed more quickly. And it also helps with the time zone problem.

Which other IBM social tools do you use internally?
We use Sametime, our instant messaging product. It’s used tremendously within IBM. The use of voice mail is all but gone at this point in time, at least internally — the days of playing phone tag is a thing of the past. The nice thing about instant messaging is you get to see people’s status.

With so many bloggers and social media users, how do you make sure they follow corporate guidelines?
Employees want to know what the guidelines are, and we were one of the first companies to publish guidelines on this. IBM’s core values are trust and personal responsibility. We publish guidelines about when to say you’re an IBM employee, what kind of material is appropriate and inappropriate to share, etc. And we have an education module that’s updated online, and it covers everything on typical business guidelines, like what are appropriate and inappropriate uses of IBM resources. We have to respect individuals’ rights and make sure that [they’re] not harassing people online.