Inverting the Pyramid

I’m in Berlin at the Web 2.0 Expo Europe. A disproportionate amount of my time seems to be spent with people who work at IBM. ‘Big Blue’ is a sponsor here so maybe it’s no surprise that key members of its social media team are popping up all over the place.

I bump into Delphine Remy-Boutang, World-Wide Social Media Marketing Manager, over lunch, and then there’s Stuart J.McRae and the nine other ‘BlueIQ ambassadors’ who’ve been invited along as a reward for spreading the social media gospel around the company’s 500,000 employees.

Meanwhile, corporate email refusenik and blogger extraordinaire, Luis Suarez, is doing a keynote and VP Social Software Programs & Enablement, Gina Poole, is running a session on web 2.0 at work.

It’s standing room only in Gina’s session and I’m a few minutes late so I only get to perch on the steps behind a pillar and listen to her voice – quite a nice voice, as it happens. Gina is telling the story of Jeannette Browning, an IBM employee who was singled out and praised for adapting social software (Lotus Connection Activities/Lotus Notes) to help her sales team, and then was so chuffed by the recognition/ acknowledgement of her efforts that she started creating lots of ‘enablement’ materials to help other IBMers do similar stuff.

As Gina reflects in the Community Lounge afterwards, it’s clear that this kind of ‘social pyramid selling’ is something she loves to be architect of. In her time with the company (and there’s been 25 years of it – she started out as a programmer in 1984), Gina has set up various social media programmes (BlueIQ, promoting social software use internally, is the latest); and launched a start up, (the developerWorks community).

A common factor behind Gina’s projects has been the use of volunteers in driving things forward. This is how she builds momentum and consensus when introducing something new:

“Run a pilot programme. Get a few dedicated people on board – some early adopters and enthusiasts. Make them the ‘poster children’ of your campaign. Make them the rock stars. Don’t just evangelise the project, say ‘look at what it did for this individual’. Success breeds success.”

Charming, softly spoken and clearly a lover of people, Gina appears to be the Craig Newmark of IBM. So, how would she describe her leadership style?

“More pure leadership than command and control. It’s more carrot than stick. I want to make sure I’m hiring the best people and then create an environment for them to succeed.

“In the old management era, knowledge was power. Now in the social era you want to unleash the knowledge. The powerful person is the one who can lead by influence. You don’t need a big budget and lots of direct reports. You’re managing more of a matrix. Listening is very important.”

And why has social media become so important to her?

“People like to share – that’s one of the most powerful things. This sharing creates ‘weak ties’ you can build on. I’m interested in helping people get outside of their inboxes [echoing the IBM mantra kicked off by Luis Suarez]. People start mixing and matching things in ways that management would never dream of.

“The end result of bringing projects together, that serendipitous stumbling across things is very powerful. Like connecting the dots. It’s a great way to break down silos: ‘oh, you’re doing that, so am I. Let’s work together’…things tend to go in directions you’d never expect.”

Things were very different when Gina started at IBM back in the 1980s:

“When I joined IBM it was very hierarchical and things moved very slowly. It was tough for good ideas to bubble up. We went through a near-death experience. Then Lou Gerstner came in. That [near-death experience] was a great catalyst for a change in focus.

“Management became much more participatory. We turned the management pyramid on its side and then on its head. Now we’re really harnessing creative capital and social capital.”

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