Live Blog: 3M Unites Global Workforce With Technology

Lotusphere 2012When it comes to innovation, everyone wants to know what the leaders are doing, and you won’t find many firms with a better innovation track record than Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing (3M). At Lotusphere today, two representatives to 3M outlined some ways the company is using collaboration platforms to improve access to expertise and information across the far-flung company, which has people in more than 60 countries.

Jeff Berg, 3M, at Lotusphere 20123M’s track record of innovation is legendary, but globalization has presented new challenges. “We’re a century-old company founded on the principles of collaboration, but now we’re worldwide, said Jeff Berg (left), IT eBusiness Architecture and Development Manager.

Internet-based tools have been embraced across the company to compensate for the loss of physical proximity. 3M engineers have adopted a microblogging platform called Socialcast behind the firewall to tie together 800 members across 30 channels. The tool is enabling point questions to be answered quickly.

A sampling:

  • “I need information on 3M Japan products (name withheld) and what are the Eurpean substitutes?”
  • “Does somebody know whether (unnamed competitor’s product) is approved at (unnamed customer)?”
  • “Anybody have a good print anchorage test for films or a test apparatus that performs a wiping motion repeatedly?”

Michael Lynch, 3M, at LotusphereThese questions were all answered in minutes, said Michael Lynch (right), Manager of IT Advanced Personal & Workgroup Solutions. People have gravitated to Socialcast “because of the speed and light touch.”

Not all problems lend themselves to brief answers, though. 3M has also experimented with more ambitious projects involving live seminars, group brainstorms and even contests.

One division launched a contest seeking 50 unique prototypes that contained 3M technology. The deadline was six weeks. The group held live live webcasts and chats to explain the event and succeeded in getting 45 prototypes from across the U.S. 3M filed seven patents on the work that resulted.

The research & development organization has used IBM Connections to take a long-standing technical conference online. The Virtual Technical Information Exchange (VTIE) renders in cyberspace what used to be done with speeches, posters and conference calls.

Last year the event went virtual with IBM Connections, drawing 10,000 participants from around the world who contributed to 140 presentation threads with nearly 1,000 posts and comments. “This was supposed to be a two-week event when it started last summer,” Lynch said. “It’s still running.” The time-shifted conversation has drawn significantly more participation from overseas employees, he added. Presentations are recorded and posted as audio files, which participants can follow up in forums.

Time to Market

Online collaboration is also being used in non-technical functions. A private community of about 200 consumer-focused field sales reps and service engineers now post monthly blog-like summaries of field activity reports, customer wins and innovative marketing ideas. “Not only does this helps us understand what problems need solving in the field, but it helps the headquarters team feel more connected with customers,” Berg said.

For 3M’s largest customers, account managers can now connect with each other to seek innovative solutions. Berg cited one customer in the hospitality industry that needed a noise-mitigation solution that couldn’t be addressed by 3M’s Thinsulate or Bumpon products. A Connections search found just the thing in a completely unrelated industry.

From the Top

Collaboration tools aren’t just for peer connections. Executive managers recently found them useful when communicating with employees about disruptions that would stem from a major renovation of the company’s Minneapolis headquarters.

“Temperatures in Minneapolis can drop to 20 below in winter, so the need to force people outside during renovations was a concern,” Lynch said. “The decision to use for the renovation plans to employees was controversial at first because news has always been top-down.” A wiki devoted to the project proved to be just the ticket, however. “It’s become the most popular internal social site in the company” with 340,000 page views and more than 200 comments, Lynch said. “We’ve been able to listen to discussions, manage objections and actually get great ideas.”

And when it’s 20 below, the creative juices really get flowing.

This is one in a series of posts sponsored by IBM Midsize Business that explore people and technologies that enable midsize companies to innovate. In some cases, the topics are requested by IBM; however, the words and opinions are entirely my own.

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