Engaging Employees

July 30, 2007

Engaging employees in an ongoing dialogue about business development and the issues of operating in a global economy is an important element of IBM’s corporate social responsibility strategy.

A worldwide online ‘jam’ in 2002 – open to all of IBM’s 300,000 employees – to consider the company’s values was such an outstanding success it was followed by another online session a couple of years later to debate how innovation could enhance business and society.

One issue raised was the need to capture the suggestions of IBM’s staff, and this led to the launch of a global ideas programme that reaches out to every employee. It encourages them to think about challenges facing the company, its customers and the world around them and traverses subjects as diverse as virtual online societies, climate change and how to enhance economic development in Africa.


Prior to the second jam event, the company harvested the ideas of employees through a range of individual suggestion schemes in each country. Panels of strategists and technologists reviewed each tranche of ideas as they came through.

But with the pervasive growth in online collaboration, it made much more sense to create an intranet-based global forum, ThinkPlace, where anyone could put forward suggestions, comment on them, drive them forward – or say why they wouldn’t work. ThinkPlace is a means to open up each proposal to a much broader panel of reviewers – the 300,000 or so IBM colleagues around the world.

Once an idea has been lodged, catalysts can evaluate them, act as monitors to help the initiator develop an idea, or work as project managers to make things happen. Initially, catalysts were master inventors or senior technical staff members – highly-qualified IBM people who tend to work at the boundaries of technology – but now, the role has opened up to include people across all disciplines.

Anyone can nominate themselves to become a catalyst. A growing number of graduates, who have recently joined IBM, are also taking on the role, bringing with them a fresh perspective unburdened by company traditions or policies.

“We have created a spirit of intra-preneurship,” says Matthew Whitbourne, a senior inventor who oversees the UK’s ThinkPlace catalyst community. “Engaging all employees in this way gives every employee a voice, because anyone can put a suggestion in and everyone is encouraged to collaborate and rate them.
“We have regular reviews with the project office in the US, which involves European co-ordinators as well as those who have initiated and collaborated on a proposal, and hundreds of ideas have been implemented as a result.”

Virtual collaboration

One successful example is the suggestion by an employee that IBM explore the possibilities of Second Life, the virtual online society that has its own currency and is being used extensively by major brands to engage worldwide audiences. IBM recently used its Second Life presence to great effect as part of its support for the Wimbledon tennis championships, hosting a virtual press conference and bringing the on-court action into the virtual world.

ThinkPlace was also used to gather ideas from employees worldwide on how to improve economic development in Africa. More than 1,100 staff collaborated on a range of ideas that have been added to the agenda for IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook sessions, which bring global thought leaders together for face-to-face discussions over a three-month period.

The many-heads-are-better-than-one approach was also taken up by more than 4,000 people working in IBM UK’s consulting division, who ran a two-week ThinkCO2 event to capture suggestions on how to lessen the impact of business on the environment.

More than 360 suggestions came pouring in for ways to reduce the carbon footprint of IBM’s consultants and how the organisation could help clients conduct business in more environmentally-friendly ways. The initiative was so successful, it is now being offered to customers as part of IBM’s Carbon Management services.

Online networking is effective for engaging interested groups and generating ideas, and is invaluable for building cultural understanding. This is very relevant in a globally-integrated business where people routinely work in global teams. It’s also important in a flatter world, where people need to understand global issues.

Celia Moore is Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs Executive for IBM Europe, Middle East, Africa. She is a member of the board of directors of CSR Europe and the European Academy of Business in Society.