Innovation Flourishes When You Give Up Control

I recently attended a fascinating presentation by George Faulkner, Advanced Communications Professional at IBM and de facto leader of the company’s internal podcasting initiative. George Faulkner, IBMPodcasting has succeeded within IBM largely because the workforce is so distributed; some 40% of IBM’s 400,000 employees work primarily outside of an office. The initiative was launched much more recently than the company’s blogging campaign, but it has raced ahead of blogs in popularity. Podcasts are now second only to wikis as a tool for internal communications.

IBM’s internal podcast program has more than 100,000 unique members and 12,000 files. The medium’s popularity has grown despite some rather onerous regulatory requirements. For example, IBM must transcribe the contents of any executive interview. No matter: Thanks to individual initiative and a corporate hands-off policy, it’s the employees who are spreading the good word.

One of the first successful podcasts at IBM had no ROI at all. It was a battle of the bands, featuring groups composed of IBM employees. The show ran for 35 weeks and IBMers lobbied for an opportunity to be featured. “That was the moment I realized this wasn’t about knowledge-sharing; it was about community-building,” said Faulkner, who produced the program.

IBM’s story has some important insights about how new technology can be effectively spread throughout an organization. In this case, the company never demanded that its employees use podcasting. Instead, officials sanctioned the project and simply allowed anyone who was interested to start playing.

It’s the “playing” part of the equation that’s so important. Many of the most productive technology innovations of the last 20 years have come about because business professionals were allowed to experiment, even if their activities didn’t have any apparent business benefit. The popularity of the Internet itself came about in large part because executives saw their kids playing with AOL and recognized applications to the business.

This phenomenon is happening right now with social media inside many organizations. Employees use the tools to share their individual interests and areas of expertise. Corporate marketers watch and cherry-pick the best ideas to promote to the outside world. Once executives give up on the idea that they have the monopoly on innovation, innovation truly flourishes. That’s when we find the business value.

Faulkner cited the example of one executive who used to hold a weekly conference call with 500 people spread across the globe. A live call of that scale is simply impractical, and no-shows were a problem. So the exec switched from a phone conference to a weekly podcast. The move doubled listenership. Now road warriors and people in distant time zones can tune in at their leisure.

IBM now routinely podcasts news for investors and periodically uses the medium to showcase customers and executive perspectives on developing trends. Many of the sessions from the 2007 Lotusphere conference are available as podcasts.

For businesses that are still treading carefully with social media, these internal experiments can be a great way to get the ball rolling.

Click here to read George Faulkner’s prepared remarks.

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