The Origins of Jams at IBM (MP3 audio) | Mike Wing | May 20, 2005 | For Immediate Release

Could an intranet could be used for culture change? Mike Wing says jams captured best practices from individuals on clever ways to get work done and create value, despite organizational complexity in a global enterprise.

Mike Wing

[27:15] The moment, that, probably without us being exactly conscious of it, that the jams actually probably were conceived, was the moment in 1999 when we saw this research from HR. Human Resources at IBM does a lot of internal research. It always has. They used to do a global employee survey every year. Now, it’s actually done every 2 months, a smaller target population, but by the end of the year, you wind up with the same sort of statistical validity. It’s always asked a range of questions about the company, whether it’s about compensation, or benefits, or job satisfaction. If you were offered a comparable job at another company, would you go? Do you understand the company strategy? Do you think that the company is investing properly to achieve that? A range of things. One of the questions was always about communications. People were asked, in the last 12 months, what have been the best, most useful, credible, reliable sources of information about the company? Anybody who has been in internal communications before, have seen this kind of research for decades. IBC, PRSA, the AMA, the big companies do this. People are offered a range of alternatives, of channels, from formal communications channels — like publications or executive letters, or e-mails or annual reports, or meetings, or web sites. Before the web, we talked about the VM system — on the one hand. There are a couple of informal channels, on the other. Manager and coworker. Anyone who has looked at this research, as all of us have, know that, invariably, the formal channels may shift a bit from year to year. The particular company or the technology may change. However, the basic pattern of that research has been pretty inviolable. People prefer informal channels to formal, usually by a factor of 2 or 3. That had always been the case at IBM, even given VM.

[29:35] What happened in 1999 was that intranet jumped up to pass manager. Nobody had ever seen this. We thought that maybe they had run the numbers wrong. We asked them to rerun them. No, they were right. It kept going, to the point, today, where the intranet is rated higher than managers and coworkers combined. This was non-trivial.

[30:00] This suggested to us, a whole different — we’d always known that we wanted to use the intranet for culture change, and were very conscious about doing so, especially in the editorial. (We can talk about that, if time permits). It wasn’t easy — often it takes two steps forward and one step back to really push — to present how the company was doing, accurately, on the intranet. At the end of the day, we succeeded, pretty well in that.

[30:40] This gave us an epiphany, about the level at which this space could function — the cultural and emotional levels at which it could function. I would say that the jams were probably born out of that.

[30:55] Having said that — I know that that sounds rather grandiose — the truth is that the original World Jam was certainly done to extend that, to leverage that, but it also had a very pragmatic core, which was best practice capture. This is an advanced company, and we all bump our shins against all kinds of problems, on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter how often you reorganize — centralize or decentralize — or introduce new policies. There are certain things that are just intractable in an organization as big and diverse and complex as IBM. It’s old, and there’s much legacy, and there’s as much variety of different kinds of experiences and disciplines. You’re never going to reorganize your way out of that.

[31:50] But individuals can come up — you’re never going to get the perfect system — but individuals can come up with clever, intelligent, common sense working ways to get work done and produce value, in spite of that complexity. We wanted to try to share that.

[32:10] The jams …. The first one was in May 2001, it was called World Jam. We didn’t have any idea of what to expect. We wound up getting 52,000 people participating, which was great.

[32:20] The kinds of topics we dealt with ranged. The core of these events are asynchronous, threaded discussions. In World Jam, originally we had 10 fora. We came to the conclusion that that’s too much, so we’ve tended to have 4, 5 or 6 for subsequent jams.

[32:45] The topics ranged from things like, “it’s not just the CIO, anymore”, because the old IBM largely dealt with CIOs, that’s who made IT buying decisions. The IBM that exists today — our business model — means that we’re engaging with line of business executives, or chief marketing officers, or CEOs. It’s a very different conversation to talk to a Chief Marketing Officer about who the company’s competition is, and what its competitive strategies, than to talk to a CIO about speeds and feeds. We needed to get better than that. Hence, eventually the company’s acquisition of PriceWaterhouseCoopers Consulting. That was an example of a topic that we teed up, because we wanted to try to get best practices on how people got to reach line of business executives and develop relationships with them.

[33:35] There were other more transformational type topics, like, how do you successfully promote a new or less favourable idea or venture in this place. Another set of topics was more personal or social, like, how can we retain our more valued employees, or how should I work on work-life balance.

[33:55] We’ve done, altogether, six of these big ones, of which Values Jam was the fifth. We did another one, towards the end of 2004, which was taking the values, which we developed — a lot of people reacted to those values very positively, but said, correctly, that the company wasn’t close to actually living them. That’s true. We all agree that it’s great to have a platform of common aspiration, but then the question of how do you make them real. So we did a jam to try to tease out what you could actually do, to implement, to make these things part of an operational reality, both at the daily level of an individual employee, and more at the policy level. We got out of that, an overwhelming participation in that jam.

[34:55] One of the interesting things about all of these these jams is the level of hosting. If you’re familiar with one of the rules of thumb of online fora, there used to be one hoster for every (what used to be called) lurkers. In this last one, World Jam 2004, there were 56,000 participants from 32,000 posts. Just off the charts from the level of active participation. We distilled that down to 191 ideas, which we had a rating week, about 3 weeks after the jam, and got the ideas that most of the people of the company regarded as most promising. The top 30, each has an executive sponsor and a whole project team devoted to it. Those are in the process of being implemented, now.

Interview segment time points are available to index the nearly one hour interview.

[MP3 audio]

“A Conversation with Mike Wing, IBM’s Vice President Strategic Communications” | Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson | May 2005 | For Immediate Release at


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