When Big Blue holds an online meeting, you know it's going to be, well, big: 53,000 visits to the home page, 6,000 employee comments and replies posted, 6 million (that's right, million) hits — in just three days. Known as “World Jam,” IBM's May 21 to 24, event started out as a “scientific experiment of what happens when you invite 300,000 people online,” says Jonathan Spira, chairman and chief analyst at Basex, a New York firm that specializes in online communities and knowledge management. It turned into a highly publicized event that many other companies are interested in re-creating for themselves. And some, like Spira, predict that it will forever change the future of large corporate meetings.

Many Perspectives, One Goal

World Jam was designed around the belief that anyone in the organization was capable of figuring out problems and coming up with clever solutions. The company would then be able to take these ideas and share them with everyone.

“It was a best practices surfacing effort,” says Mike Wing, IBM's director of worldwide intranet strategy and programs. “It was not a suggestion box or a free-form chat. This was not to propose things that management should do. This was very much E to E — employee to employee. We chose topics deliberately so that the ideas that they generated would be things people could go implement, not things that required large capital expenditures or policy decisions.

“We didn't necessarily want the executives who were responsible for X, Y, or Z topic [to respond to problems],” he adds, “because we precisely wanted to come at things from some unusual angles, encouraging people who would bring a different intellectual frame of reference to the topic.”

A voting mechanism even allowed the online community to qualify and rate the ideas that surfaced.

Boxley Llewellyn, IBM's director of thought leadership, IBM Global Finance Sector, was the originator of one of the thousands of ideas that sprang up over the course of those three days.

“It just so happened that one of the 10 topics — thought leadership — is one that is close to my heart and my job,” Llewellyn explains. “I passed on a best practice using vision demos and prototypes to show business ideas rather than just technology. It's something we have been doing for a while, so I thought passing it along would get moderate interest. But in fact, a lot of people considered it pretty new and innovative. I got a lot of feedback through the system, and I even had people send me e-mails or call me on the phone to get more information.”

Llewellyn wants to see a more intimate version of World Jam tested in the near future. “Smaller pieces, where my community of 50 or my boss' range of several hundred people in different disciplines, would be fascinating,” he says.

What was so productive about World Jam was that it was an event — not an ongoing dialogue. “If it was always on my desktop, it would be difficult to capture my interest compared to all the other things going on,” Llewellyn says.

But Will They Come?

But what if you spent millions of dollars on an online meeting and nobody showed? Don't think IBM didn't worry that it might happen.

So bright and early on launch morning, IBM CEO/Chairman Louis V. Gerstner Jr. sent a “Dear Colleague” e-mail to his global staff of 300,000, urging them to participate. That communication let the company employees know that this wasn't just some crazy idea conjured up by the company's intranet team.

Going in, some IBM managers would have been thrilled with the participation of 2,000 or 3,000 employees. But the numbers kept growing. No one's quite sure of the day-by-day hit count, but by the end, 6 million hits had been recorded.

What was Gained?

One of the few outsiders invited to observe World Jam, Basex's Spira is preparing a white paper on the event.

“From the phone calls I have gotten from some major companies, I think they would do one [a World Jam] tomorrow if they could,” he says. “Companies with tens of thousands of people will jump on this. It's a new model for large corporate meetings.

“It had always been presumed that you couldn't have a meeting for 70,000 people without turning the entire company off,” he continues. “But this meeting format lets the business continue without disrupting the environment. The CEO could send out an e-mail and get 80,000 responses.”

The comments he has read from World Jam participants indicate that they also got a different sense of IBM's corporate mentality after the event.

“They felt more a part of the company. So you can derive from this that it had a good touchy-feeley effect, even though it wasn't face-to-face,” says Spira.

IBM is keeping the cost of World Jam under wraps, although an article in The New York Times described it as a “multimillion-dollar” project, adding that “IBM would have charged a client millions of dollars for the resources World Jam absorbed.”

Wing explains that determining the precise cost of putting on World Jam is skewed because so much of the infrastructure used by the event was already in place, including a globally distributed intranet in 165 countries that all of the company's 300,000 employees can access.

What Would They do Differently?

Of course, 72 hours was not enough time to take what happened in the first 24 hours and respond to it or modify the process. But there were certainly lessons learned for the next event.

For one, unlike the 10 main discussion forums, the breakout jams — synchronous chats that forum attendees could schedule themselves by inviting six to eight other people — were not a success.

There were two kinds of breakouts: Participants could schedule one themselves and invite people to it, or they could use a “jam broker” that would put together people with similar topical interests who were available at concurrent times.

“We don't know why they [the breakout sessions] didn't work, precisely,” Wing says. “It could be a user interface question. One of the things we have been speculating is that for this kind of experience, it needs to be even more spontaneous than this made possible.”

It's also possible that employees already had enough options.

“There was a lot going on,” Wing says. “The event was fairly novel, and it just may have been that once people were engaged in the discussion, or they were interested in reading what other people said, they didn't want to go somewhere else to do it.”

This result varied from forum to forum. Some forums generated deep, practical discussions, with eight to 15 responses to an initial comment. Others functioned more like bulletin boards, where people posted ideas.

“We need to try to study that and understand why that happened,” Wing says, “but I would say that in a general way, there wasn't as much synchronous interaction as we had thought there might be.”

World Jam 2

Where does World Jam lead? Is it a business plan? Does it create a product or a service that IBM can export, or were the results strictly for in-house use?

“Probably all of the above,” says Wing. “One of the things it leads to is a higher collective IQ. [It socialized] clever solutions to persistent issues or challenges that this particular enterprise [faces] and to some degree, any comparable enterprise experiences. [World Jam touched on] everything from things that are peculiar to IBM, like trying to reach business executives as opposed to CIOs, or more universal things such as mobility or balance.”

IBM's Social Computing Lab, which is staffed by psychologists and an anthropologist, is using World Jam to explore how electronic network environments can more fully replicate actual human interaction in online communities. It is one of several units studying the event, interviewing moderators and facilitators, surveying participants, and trying to understand what the nature of the experience was, why people took the path they did to different topics, and how they behaved.

There are already plans for a World Jam 2 and World Jam-style application of this in different parts of the company, including one tailored for the IBM sales force.

“With this World Jam, we gave people the capacity to access knowledge and to contribute their own,” says Wing. “What exact form the next one will take, I just don't know.”

WORLD JAM AT A GLANCE

Location: IBM's intranet site

Date: May 21 to 24, 2001

Number of attendees: 53,000 visits

Number of hits: 6 million

Number of attendee comments registered: 6,000

Planning time: 10 months

Cost: Although IBM would not go on the record, it is estimated to be in the millions.

World Jam: A Screen Shot

On the morning of May 21, 2001, intranet users pulling up IBM's home page were directed to a special World Jam link. Clicking on it took them to a general description of the meeting and an activity map. Employees could go directly to one of 10 forums that addressed problems ranging from work/life balance to sales tactics. There was even a “forum matcher,” a decision tree that sent people to a specific area based on answers to leading questions, such as “Are you more restless or relentless?”

Each forum page had a picture and a description of the moderator's background in relation to the topic, and his or her ongoing comments. Moderators nominated “best practices” in their areas, which were then voted on by attendees. At the end of World Jam, a page titled “10 Great Ideas” was posted.

Another area called “Thinking Tools” offered descriptions of different approaches to problem-solving, visual thinking, or classic brainstorming. Flash software applets (a small program that can be sent along with a Web page or within a larger program) in the form of thinking games were created especially for World Jam. Other bells and whistles included an animated town-crier stick figure named “Blue” who announced event news.