Q&A: IBM's GM of social business on C-level strategies, Microsoft, and Oracle

IBM's general manager of social business discusses how Big Blue compares to what competitors like Oracle and Microsoft are doing in the social space.
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

Orlando: To better understand IBM's social business strategy, there might not be anyone more appropriate to discuss it with than the corporation's general manager of social business, Alistair Rennie.

Alistair Rennie
(Credit: IBM)

I had the opportunity to sit down for a brief chat with Rennie during IBM Connect 2013 on Monday to follow up on a few questions from the opening keynote and press conference.

Social media within the enterprise has become a hot space, as seen through a slew of acquisitions made by the likes of Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce.com, and, of course, IBM, last year.

Thus, I wanted to know more about how IBM's social business strategy can be put to use and how it compares to the competition.

Here's what Rennie had to say.


On defining social enterprise


Given that many businesses still don't understand what "social enterprise" means yet, it's plausible they don't understand "social business" or "smarter workforce" yet either. That could be a concern for the likes of IBM as they push these initiatives forward.

But Rennie and company don't seem too concerned, frequently acknowledging throughout Connect 2013 that social business is still in its infancy.

He quipped, "It's like any IT term. We love buzzwords."

On a more serious level, he explained that for IBM, social is just one piece of the puzzle. In tangent to big data, he suggested that it's not truly meaningful until you put it into context. Some examples, according to Rennie, include product innovation, client engagement, and talent discovery.


C-level use cases


In building a smarter workforce, that also includes changing the way that C-level executives work. Rennie noted that many "traditional business models" for front-office units such as human resources, customer support, and ERP "fly out the window" in the face of what social analytics could do.

Citing making smarter predictions about who to hire and putting better teams together, Rennie offered a few more specific thoughts for C-level execs:

  • Chief HR officers: "HR officers are increasingly moving from more traditional service functions to really helping other lines of business change the way they work through talent retention," Rennie said. He continued that IBM's focus with its smarter workforce solutions is to look at sets of information to find skills needed for an organization. "You'd think that's a simple process," Rennie said lightly, but he answered that's not true--even in smaller organizations. He explained that it's not about just one set of data but a mixture of sources, including performance, assessment, project, and external data. Rennie posited that with the more sources you can bring together, you start to understand interesting things. But then it becomes about knowing which questions to ask.

  • Chief sales officers: Rennie cited customer service as one example, arguing that this really must be deeper than just social monitoring and seeing what customers are saying. It's up to chief sales officers to then take that data and adjust business plans accordingly to build and maintain relationships.

  • Chief marketing officers: Reflecting the consumerization of IT, Rennie said that there is a "whole generation of people in leadership positions that understand what's possible with IT," pointing out that they also have more intimacy with part of the business they run. For CMOs, that has a lot to do with understanding what solutions and strategies resonate best both inside and outside of the company. Noting a 2011 IBM survey, Rennie predicted that "it's highly possible that CMOs will spend more than CIOs within a short period of time."


On the competition


Going back to the social enterprise question, a priority for IBM this week is to differentiate its smarter workforce strategy as a more comprehensive approach.

Rennie pointed toward arguably the most powerful social network in the consumer world--Facebook--about what should be the frame of reference in determining what should be backbone for social media in general: people.

"Facebook centers around the people and the social graph underneath that," Rennie replied, explaining that once you establish that, then you can connect content to groups and communities. He asserted that any social-media model that doesn't center on the person won't work.

Thus, therein lies what he sees as the problems for other industry titans. Here are a couple of examples:

  • On Microsoft and Yammer: "Yammer was $1.2 billion admission that Microsoft doesn't understand social networking," Rennie said flatly. He described that Yammer is a "credible tool," but he's not sure it will survive the acquisition. He argued that the problem with this merger is that Microsoft is focusing on documents rather than the users.

  • On Oracle and Taleo: "I think their vision is quite a bit more narrow. That's going to cause a certain degree of limited value," Rennie commented, asserting that IBM has a more "compelling approach" with cognitive-based solutions. He added that Oracle's approach isn't about changing the way an organization runs but rather "just looking for OK talent for a slightly lower price.

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