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Questions and Answers on IBM's 'Socially Translucent Systems' and the Evolution of Corporate Cultures in the Online Environment

8 June 2005 No Comment

Philippe Borremans, PR Manager, IBM Belgium & Luxembourg, concludes his discussion about IBM’s recent online activities in a Q&A with IAOC president Don Dunnington

In your post about Online Jamming you mention IBM's experiments in social computing. In following that link, I was interested to find this discussion concerning translucency:

We call systems which provide perceptually-based social cues which afford awareness and accountability 'Socially Translucent Systems.' In such systems we believe it will be easier for users to carry on coherent discussions; to observe and imitate others' actions; to engage in peer pressure; to create, notice, and conform to social conventions. We see social translucence as a fundamental requirement for supporting communication and collaboration.

People who write about blogs and wikis often cite the importance of transparency in online communication, but translucency is a new one to me. Can you elaborate on the difference between translucency and transparency?

Well Don I would say that translucency will enable full transparency in online communities. Let me try to explain in the words of a colleague:

In our work at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, we are designing “socially translucent” systems that support groups working within online communities. We are interested in making people and their behavior more prominent, enabling the creation, exercise, and mutual observation of social behavior.

To do this, we combine support for conversation with visual representations of people and their activities vis à vis the conversation space to provide a community-oriented environment for carrying out work. We are explicitly interested in blending work and social talk, synchronous and asynchronous interactions, and private and public discourse.

So once you have such a system in place (because today it is still in the research phase) you will be able to actually see the transparency of an online conversation/collaboration through visual representations. I hope this helps, I am not a specialist in this area but for those who are interested in the topic I can point them to Social Translucence: An Approach to Designing Systems that Support Social Processes written by Thomas Erickson and Wendy A. Kellogg, IBM T.J. Watson Research Center.

Once your Socially Translucent Systems get out of the lab, we hope you’ll come back and give us a demonstration. You mentioned that in an earlier ValuesJam session, IBM'ers engaged in a dialog concerning corporate values that dated back to Tom Watson, Sr., IBM's founder. IBM may be the only organization whose corporate values could be summed up in one word: THINK. Is “think” still at the core of IBM's values?

Through the Values Jam our employees defined the 3 following values for all IBM'ers:

  • Dedication to every client's success
  • Innovation that matters — for our company and for the world
  • Trust and personal responsibility in all relationships

“Think” is of course a very strong word which incorporates everything we do, and still fits nicely in all 3 values. I can tell you, I've got a poster next to me at work with just “Think” on it — kind of a reminder/wake up call when the stress level is rising, and it works.

I think corporate culture has always had a big influence on companies (even if they didn't acknowledge its importance themselves). Was it your long-established corporate values that gave IBM management the courage to suggest that all its employees should blog?

I do not think the two actions are related although they mutually support one another. IBM has always believed in the importance of open exchange and learning. We also believe in contributing to the world in various forms, be it through technology, volunteering or through public dialogue.

Certainly in the online environment, where transparency and employee empowerment reign supreme, I expect clear corporate values and an open corporate culture will prove to be a benefit. One of the unanticipated benefits may be that it makes companies more flexible and able adapt to revolutionary changes (as blogs have been portrayed) and treat them as a natural evolution.

Since 1997 we have recommended our employees to use the ‘Net, at a time where many companies where restricting access so I do not think this is revolutionary at all for IBM. IBM'ers have been working with the web for years now and blogs are just another medium we use to contribute our experiences and knowledge in a responsible way.

You know Don, before we even got together and sat down to discuss if IBM needed guidelines on blogging there was already a “guidelines” wiki page available on the intranet. IBM bloggers had already written down the most important guidelines for their “internal community”. Fascinating to see that this is what our third corporate value is all about.

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