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What we can learn from IBM's social media policy

You don't need elaborate rules to manage Facebook and Twitter

 Many organizations are learning how social media can help facilitate intra-company communications. Of course, many others are approaching this new potential tool with trepidation, for they see the possible loss of productivity that could be caused by its misuse.

Because many have not resolved this dilemma, even simpler forms of alternative communication, such as instant messaging (IM), have been put on hold in many offices. Believe it not, in some offices, e-mail was forbidden until relatively recently.

But is this the right way to go?

Well, IBM doesn’t seem to think so. Instead, the computer industry giant, who happens to turn 100 years old this month, has embraced the possibilities that social media platforms, and their use by IBM employees, can represent.

Since 2005, the folks in charge at IBM have setup a working set of rules called the Social Computing Guidelines. IBMers (what employees of IBM are called internally) are supposed to follow these guidelines when utilizing any type of social media.

And all the rules make perfect sense. They include statements about making it clear that you are not speaking for the company, being open and honest about your online identity, and other things about generally accepted Internet behavior.

In a lot of ways, the policy that IBM follows is not unlike our advice for federal employees about how to use Twitter and Facebook without getting fired.

Just complying with a few of the policy suggestions, like “don’t pick fights” or “adopt a warm and open personality” could have kept the Secret Service from accidentally launching a war of words against Fox News

But IBM’s concerns about productivity loss due to excessive social media loss are limited to this one sentence: “Don't forget your day job.” All IBM employees are expected to make sure that their online activities do not interfere with their job, or commitments to customers.

Pretty simple, right? Yet it’s also elegant. IBM assumes its employees can act like adults, and can, on their recognizance, moderate social media usage. The threat is still there, even if lightly implied. If you screw up your day job, well, you’ve screwed up your day job. Regardless of the reason, there will be consequences. Perhaps government could take a page from this attitude.

You know, I sort of pictured a 100-year-old company to be like the old man who lives down the street and sits on his porch to yell, “You kids, with your Twitter and such! Get off my lawn!” But obviously IBMers wouldn’t still be around after all this time if they weren’t constantly looking to the future and embracing (or sometimes inventing) new technology and ideas.

Being willing to adapt to changes not only regarding how computers work, but also how society works with computers, is what has kept IBM young and relevant for an entire century.

Happy Birthday, Big Blue!

Reader Comments

Tue, Jun 7, 2011 Sensor CTO

IBM's "knowledge" and experience did not happen overnight and without painful lessons. IBM was and is no different than most other IT focused commercial entities when it comes to experience and operational use of new technologies. When the Internet first started out, they had no guidelines for years. It was only after the 1999 pension debacle where thousands of employees used the power of the Internet through the old Yahoo Groups to force management issues to public view and create a public relations and HR disaster that IBM leadership sat up and took notice. Today's guidelines are somewhat restrictive and possibly too for some of the younger folk but they make sense as a framework for most government and commercial entities. If you are looking for guidelines, don't just focus on one agency or company's documents. Search and understand the guidelines of as many as you can possibly find. Build a composite resulting set of guidelines of all your research. This helps you avoid copyright issues, which companies like IBM will pursue against you. Then use legal, HR and new employee feedback to polish it up into a good working set of guidelines. Last, but most important, enforce them and keep them fresh through periodic updates from lessons learned.

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