An inside view of IBM’s Innovation Jam

Hoping to discover new ways to bring technologies to market, IBM brought together 150,000 employees and stakeholders in an online forum that was the largest brainstorming session ever held. Here's an inside look at IBM's far-reaching "Innovation Jam."

With its eight labs and 3,200 researchers, IBM Research is the world’s largest corporate research organization. In 2006, its scientists were working on amazing new capabilities, including building an Internet that would allow shoppers to visit 3-D stores and see 3-D product demonstrations and a new software program that could perform real-time speech translation so that, for instance, words on the Middle East’s Al Jazeera news network could appear with English subtitles immediately, without the need for human translators.

IBM’s chairman at that time, Sam Palmisano, toured the labs where these projects were being developed. He was excited – not only about the breakthroughs, but also about developing new ways to bring these things to market quickly. Palmisano thought that, given that IBM has 346,000 employees, there had to be faster ways to bring these new technologies to market.

Adapting the “Jam” format to innovation

The company decided to hold an innovation “Jam” to accelerate the launch of new technologies. The company had developed this concept back in 2001 – over the course of three days, people would seek substantive answers to questions using a group of interlinked bulletin boards and related Web pages on IBM’s intranet. Employees would address questions like “How do you work in an increasingly mobile organization.” And the idea was that people would all get to participate and be listened to while they generated valuable new ideas. From the beginning, this process engaged tens of thousands of people, and subsequent Jams helped clarify IBM’s values and improve the organization’s operations.

This Jam focused on bringing new technologies to market faster was the first of its kind. IBM had only the vaguest ideas about how to make money from most of the new technologies the scientists had demonstrated. How could they turn them into profits? IBM was demanding more from the Jam system than it had before and was seeking results more central to the company’s future. It would, as proposed, be the largest-ever online effort to advance technological innovation.

How it worked

The “Innovation Jam,” as IBM called it, took place in two three-day phases in 2006. It was successful in uncovering and solving problems, and mobilizing support for new ways of using IBM technology. Over 150,000 IBM employees, family members, business partners, clients from 67 companies and university researchers took part. These people came from 104 countries, and their conversations continued 24 hours a day. Participants posted more than 46,000 ideas. They enthusiastically offered many potential money-making suggestions.

Organizers laid out key emerging technologies for participants. Web pages described 25 clusters of technologies is six broad groupings. The Web sites included mini-lectures from IBM experts on some of the technologies and demonstrations of others. Experts from the Research Division acted as online moderators to help participants understand the technologies and address customer needs.

The first phase took place in July, when the company posted information on key technologies and participants brainstormed new ways to use them. The second occurred in September, when participants refined ideas from the first phase. They clicked to a separate site where they could work on business plans for key ideas using wikis.

Results of the Innovation Jam

Not everything worked ideally. Many of the participants logged on just to look around. And there were other difficulties as well. In fact, few contributors built constructively on each other’s postings. The company organized the Jam to capture huge numbers of ideas from IBM’s network, but purposely didn’t design it to guide conversations. Therefore, there was almost never any consensus. And, naturally, the brainstorming produced many impractical or irrelevant ideas: a solar-powered toilet and vending machines selling flaxseed, for example.

New visions emerged afterward rather than during online conversations. Senior executives spent weeks sifting through tens of thousands of postings — gigabytes of often aimless conversation. Working through the static let leaders extract key ideas, put them together into coherent business concepts, and then link them with people who could make them work.

Thus, IBM learned some paradoxical things: On the one hand, the company saw how many people throughout the organization have important strategic ideas. And it learned that online conversations and sophisticated technology can bring those ideas to bear on important societal problems and make them worth millions. But IBM also learned that people are limited in how they recognize and build on each others’ ideas online. These limitations meant that analysts and top-level managers were essential – together with sophisticated software for combing through vast amounts of verbiage – to making these ideas useful. Leaders found themselves identifying and nurturing good ideas — which was often a new role – but they still had to be the drivers of this progress.

A powerful (but ponderous?) way to innovate

The successes so far show that the IBM Jam process has helped IBM to innovate. It is not the only way to manage a massive online conversation, and it may not turn out to be the best for every large group. But no matter what kind of large organization or network you want to get innovating, an understanding of the Innovation Jam is essential; the Jam experience demonstrates the tremendous complexity of a large online conversation and shows one way to deal with that complexity successfully.

The IBM Jam system takes every comment seriously and is capable of aggregating many not-so-big ideas to create businesses large enough to matter at a $99 billion-a-year corporation. However, there are trade-offs. Where online conversations and live brainstorming sessions can be exhilarating, a Jam is fundamentally a piling up of ideas that will later be evaluated slowly. People enjoy it, but it rarely generates the rapid answers and thrill that some online experiences can produce. If IBM’s goal had been rapid innovation, rather than the careful assembly of businesses that could make a difference in its portfolio over the long term, it might have benefited from a different approach.

Compare the IBM Jam with smaller online innovation discussions created at other companies. Other systems typically lack the capability to do justice to vast collections of ideas, but they create more excitement and quicker results. And some of the reasons for the contrast illuminate the nature of the problems that huge, innovative processes entail.

In 2007, Salesforce.com Inc., the leading producer of sales lead management systems, introduced Salesforce Ideas, a system for managing suggestions from customers, employees and others. The system is used by Salesforce itself and by Dell (for professional customers) and Starbucks (for everybody). The Starbucks conversation, open to everyone, is accessible at http://www.mystarbucksidea.com/.

The Salesforce, Dell and Starbucks systems have one striking feature that distinguishes them dramatically from IBM Jams. Borrowing from such Web sites as Digg.com, where visitors vote on what news items are most important and leading vote getters are immediately displayed at the top of the site, systems based on Salesforce Ideas allow visitors to vote interesting new postings to immediate prominence on its pages. Site visitors are encouraged to comment on the proposals at the top of the page, and discussions sometimes evolve quickly about how proposed ideas can be put into practice. Salesforce, Dell and Starbucks have implemented significant numbers of ideas discussed on the sites. (One example is the creation of Dell’s first server with Linux preinstalled.)

A Salesforce executive said in an interview that its system can be expanded indefinitely. Thus, a large group of linked Web pages like that created for the IBM Jam could be created using Salesforce Ideas. However, it’s important to note what Salesforce’s approach gives up. The posting that gets the most “promote” votes may not be what’s best in any scientific or business sense. The top vote-getting news items on Digg.com are often sensational trivia. If two posts appear at the same time and one is a bit better written, it may get so many more votes that it is immediately promoted to the top of the site while the other is ignored – the next people to sign on are channeled into reading and perhaps replying to the post that got the most votes, and the Web site may never get anyone’s views on questions that may be of greater long-run significance.

This danger suggests that no one organizing a big online conversation can escape trade-offs. For IBM and some others, the broad, time-consuming Jam approach seems best. Paul Horn, now retired from IBM and serving as a scientist in residence at New York University, summarizes:

Jamming is a form of brainstorming. And the first thing you have to learn in brainstorming is: Take in all the ideas. Even if the ideas are crazy, take ‘em all in. That means you’re going to get a lot of garbage. But it forces you to think out of the box. You do it on this scale, you come out, and you’re just completely saturated with stuff and you have to come up with some way to winnow those things down.

The process seems to work not only for IBM but also for others: In 2007, IBM launched a service that runs Jams for other organizations. The first was an Automotive Supplier Jam, which brought together auto component makers and their auto manufacturer customers under the auspices of the Original Equipment Suppliers Association.

This article is adapted from “An Inside View of IBM’s ‘Innovation Jam,’” by Osvald M. Bjelland and Robert Chapman Wood, which appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. The complete article is available at http://sloanreview.mit.edu/smr/.

Ad

STAY CONNECTED

 
Ad