Giving Up Control Unleashes Wisdom of Crowds

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

At IBM, podcasts are now a popular form of internal communication. One IBM executive who used to hold an unwieldy weekly conference call with 500 people spread across the globe now podcasts the same information. Listenership has doubled. At a company in which 40% of the employees work primarily outside of an office, podcasting is revolutionizing internal communication.

It wasn’t always that way. Podcasting was introduced without fanfare at the computing giant, but it quickly achieved traction because employees were allowed to experiment and “play” with the new medium, according to George Faulkner, who is one of IBM’s most visible podcasters.  In fact, one of the first successful internal uses of podcasts arguably had no business value at all: it was an IBM “battle of the bands.”

But that experimentation led to experimentation which yielded practical business applications that have reduced internal communication costs and improved IBM’s outreach to investors and the public. This is one more example of how letting go of control can unleash the innovative energy within an organization.

Sabre Holdings learned this point an enterprise Web 2.0 platform that is changing the ways its employees communicate and creating a company knowledge base. The software is known internally as SabreTown and now is being packaged for sale as Cubeless. It’s social networking software that any company can use behind its firewall.

SabreTown was derived from a website called Bambora that Sabre constructed for consumers. Members define their areas of expertise and agree to answer questions from other members in those areas. The more exchanges that take place, the richer the member’s profile becomes and the more useful the travel database.

SabreTown has helped unlock untapped expertise within Sabre Holdings, according to Al Comeaux, senior vice president, corporate communications for Sabre. With Sabre’s rapid evolution into a globally distributed company (only 45% of employees are U.S.-based today, compared to 85% eight years ago), there was a need to break down barriers of location and time.

Getting employees to buy in to the community meant giving up control over how they used the tool. Sabre rolled out the application internally without restricting the topics employees could discuss. “The more we can get people talking, the more we can capture,” says Erik Johnson, general manager of Cubeless.

More than 200 groups have formed within SabreTown and personal blog spaces are available to everyone. Any information entered into SabreTown is processed by the relevance engine and built into employees’ personal profiles. Sabre is effectively creating a massive knowledge base in which employees willingly populate with their own information. And the company is building out SabreTown’s capabilities to make it into a full-blown social network.

A key element of success was giving up control. Sabre Holdings’ executives say that SabreTown would never have taken off internally if Sabre had tried to dictate how it could be used. By letting people play, innovation took over and business applications emerged. SabreTown is a hit within Sabre and it will pay big dividends as employees share expertise.

As I noted last week, large organizations and their managers struggle with giving up control, but that’s often precisely what they need to do to. Web 2.0 technologies have demonstrated that the wisdom of crowds is greater than the knowledge of any one manager. By giving up control, organizations can gain loyalty and respect. Which, paradoxically, enhances control.