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.

Democratized Insight

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

One of the few segments of the IT industry that has stubbornly resisted the efficiencies of Moore’s Law is research. The services provided by big analyst firms like Gartner and Forrester Research are a $3 billion industry that still conducts business pretty much the same way it did 20 years ago. High-priced analysts using the phone and the speaking circuit to tap into what’s on the minds of their IT management customers. Clients pay five- and six-figure annual fees to tap into their insight. A few prominent opinion-leaders affect the path of billions of dollars in IT investment.

Now David Vellante is disrupting that model. His is the kind of Web 2.0 project that just might cause the big players to re-evaluate their value propositions. That could be very good for customers.

Vellante knows the research business. For years he ran the largest division of International Data Corp., a market intelligence firm whose opinions can  make or break companies. Vellante left IDC a few years ago to start Barometrix, an advisory firm focused on IT investment optimization. That team started Wikibon as an experiment nearly two years ago.

Wikibon uses Web 2.0 technology to turn the IT research model on its head. Its collaborative wiki engine makes it easy for a vast community of practitioners to share expertise and experience. It turns out that when you roll up all that information, you have a resource that helps people make the kinds of decisions that used to involve expensive analysts. And it’s all free.

Research Goes Open Source

Call it open source advice.  The first Wikibon community is centered on data storage, and more than 3,000 people have joined.  A core group of 30 to 40 independent consultants and experts use the site to share their advice with the broader community. Before Wikibon, they had no way to reach that audience of storage specialists. Now they give away advice in hopes of winning consulting business. Members get the benefit of their years of experience for free.

The bottoms-up model is incredibly cost-efficient. Wikibon has just three employees. Quality control is outsourced to the members, who have contributed some 20,000 articles and edits to the archive. This democratized approach “hasn’t been as much of a limitation as I expected,” Vellante told me.

And the value of the information is evidenced by the time members spend on the site. “It’s Facebook-like,” Vellante says.  “We’re getting 20 to 30 page views per visitor.”

Wikibon has now grown to the point that the team is beginning to carve the library into subsections; one new area focuses on data protection and another on storage networks.  The small company hopes to monetize its business through value-added programs, such as a new service that helps vendors qualify for energy rebate programs.

Wikibon epitomizes the innovative power of Web 2.0. In the traditional model, insight was communicated from the top down because that was the only affordable way to do it.  With thousands of experts now able to assemble an advisory resource of their own, the opportunity exists to flip that model.  “It feels disruptive,” Vellante says.

Communities like Wikibon won’t put Gartner out of business, but they provide an affordable alternative that will pressure the market leaders to innovate.  That’s the kind of disruption that we can all feel good about.

Twitter Coverage of Thought Leadership Seminar

A couple of active Twitterers covered yesterday’s Mass. Technology Leadership Council seminar on How to Use Social Media to Become a Thought Leader. Here’s the stream

Panelists David Vellante, Jeremy Selwyn and John McArthur were enlightening and forthcoming about their experiences and advice. The room was full and the audience asked great questions. Thanks to the panelists, everyone who came and the two Twitterers who provided such thorough coverage!

The Collaboration Paradox

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

I’m a big believer in the value of social media, enough to have written two books on the subject.  In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I posted the draft of the first book on my blog 18 months ago with good results.  Several thousand visitors read the chapters and several dozen contributed meaningful feedback.

So when I was writing the second book this spring, I thought I would go one better. I posted the entire draft on a Wiki and used my newsletter, blog and personal contacts to invite people to contribute to the finished product.

Few did.  In fact, over the course of six weeks only nine people joined the wiki and only three or four made meaningful changes. It turned out that a blog, with its limited capacity for collaboration, was far more effective in achieving my collaborative goal.

This got me thinking about the paradox of group collaboration. There’s no question that wikis can make teams more productive. Yet they are probably the greatest disappointment of the suite of Web 2.0 tools.

I’m involved in three or four organizations that use wikis to coordinate people’s activities. Not once have I seen them used to their potential. Of the few people who actually contribute to the wikis, most send a duplicate copy of the content by e-mail to make sure everyone is in the loop. Many public wikis survive only because a small number of members maintain them. Few have many active contributors.

Yet there are some phenomenally successful examples of wiki technology.  The most famous is Wikipedia, with its 10 million articles in 253 languages. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales recently started Wikia, a library of 2,500 special-interest wikis in 66 languages that allows people to create reference materials from the perspectives that are important to them.

There’s also evidence that Wikis are enjoying good success behind the firewall.  IBM has said that wikis are its number one social media tool, making it possible for a widely dispersed workforce to collaborate.

Why are wikis such a disappointment when they have so much potential? I think the reason is that productivity has nothing to do with it.

Wikis succeed when the interest of every member is served by participation. Projects that mainly benefit individuals or organization offer few compelling reasons for others to get involved.  It turns out that people are more than happy to comment upon another’s work, but getting them to actively contribute requires an extra measure of self-interest.  People were happy to comment upon my book, but the incentives to get them to actively contribute to someone else’s work were insufficient.  On the other hand, people who are passionate about coin collecting have an incentive to make the numismatics section of Wikipedia an accurate public record.

Productivity is often held out as an incentive for people to use new technology, but I believe that’s only a minor factor.  People continue to use spreadsheets when databases would do a better job.  They fumble along with e-mail, despite its many limitations, because that’s what they know.  The most successful new technologies have been those that enable people to transform their work or their way of life. Incremental improvements are never enough to sustain meaningful behavior change.

Knol's greed appeal will make it a winner

In the two weeks since Google announced plans to unveil a Wikipedia-like encyclopedia called Knol, the blogosphere has been buzzing about its potential impact. Is this the Wikipedia-killer? A nefarious attempt to undermine media companies? A market-share play by a near-monopoly?

In my opinion, it’s none of those things. Knol is just a good idea that fills a gap in the market and that is likely to become a rich and useful alternative to Wikipedia. If Google and its contributors make money in the process, what’s wrong with that?

Knol will succeed because (for lack of a better term) it exploits the greed factor in community knowledge-sharing. Think of Wikipedia as public television or radio: it’s a public information source that is endearing, in part, because it’s so free of commercial interest. Sure, some people do use Wikipedia for business benefit, but most do so for the sake of sharing knowledge and contributing to the public good. Wikipedia’s anonymity is a virtue in that respect. There will always be value to that model and an audience for it.

Knol is a commercial play. According to sketchy details provided so far by Google, users will be able to attach bylines and profiles to their contributions and submit to community ratings. Articles will move up the popularity stack based upon a Digg-like process in which visitors identify the most useful content. Contributors could also see some financial reward if their work is heavily trafficked.

The fact that Knol promotes the identity of its contributors will give it significant commercial appeal, particularly for experts who don’t have the benefit of a big forum for their knowledge. I’ve written the past about an experiment called Wikibon that is a precursor to Knol. The creator of Wikibon, David Vellante, spent many years in market research and understands both the power and limitations of that model.

Market research firms charge high fees because they have a reputation for quality. The analysts who work there command big salaries and enjoy considerable influence in their markets. It’s the think-tank model and it’s tried and true.

The problem with think tanks is that they shut out the vast majority of potential experts. In most business-to-business markets, there is a huge body of knowledge locked up in the minds of practitioners, consultants and small businesspeople who don’t have the wherewithal to become part of the giant research firms. Their expertise is available only to the small number of people they can reach through whatever means they have available.

Wikibon is a long-tail experiment that tries to tap into that knowledge and create a quality information resource at a cost that’s potentially much lower than that of the think tanks. The idea is to remove all of the organizational overhead and just let people showcase their own expertise. If they do it right, they can grow their professional profile and improve their chance of landing good jobs or consulting assignments.

The same factors will apply to Knol, and that’s why it will be so successful. Few Web properties have Google’s capacity to showcase individual experts. There are many blogger networks out there, but Knol should quickly become the biggest blogger network of them all.

For individuals with the time, skill and savvy to promote themselves through a vehicle like this, the payoff could be significant. That’s why I say that Knol appeals to the greed factor. People will continue to contribute to Wikipedia because it reaches a vast audience. They will contribute to Knol because it promotes their personal interests. There will be a place for both models on the Web. There’s no reason that either has to be successful at the expense of the other.