Dell CIO on Culture and Web 2.0

Decide whether to buy or build, choose features and functionality, weigh security and privacy concerns, consider ROI–it’s easy to get bogged down in discussions over social media. While those discussions are crucial, they’re only chapters in a larger, more strategic narrative.

That larger story, says Dell CIO Robin Johnson, is about developing a culture that supports successful social media projects. At Dell, those projects tend to focus on generating ideas for products, product development processes and sales. “What I’m really trying to do is foster debate internally among our 80,000 employees in 20 locations,” Johnson explains.

Creating such a culture at Dell means getting people to adopt the technology and ensuring that senior leadership is publicly engaged in the unstructured dialogue the technology supports, be it about R&D, sales or customer support. Perhaps most essential, says Johnson, it means that management must use the feedback posted in idea forums, blogs, wikis and other interactive spaces.

Let’s start with adoption of social media, which Johnson says is barely recognizable compared with what it was 20 years ago. “What you’re seeing today as compared to the days of the mainframe is a huge interaction between how people run their lives outside the office and how they expect to run it inside,” he says. For example, he points out that nearly everyone knows how to connect a computer to a network today, while very few did two decades ago.

Similarly, Johnson says workers expect the information-sharing tools they use at work to mirror those they use at home. He sees his role as overseeing the development of secure methods to meet that expectation.

Dell employees are entitled to expect their business tools to be as “totally familiar” as the ones they use in their everyday lives, Johnson points out. “If you know how to send a picture from your phone to a Website, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to use the same method at work,” he says.

What’s more, Johnson adds, people don’t want the “burden of learning” the ins and outs of another application.

Yet, even with the most familiar application interfaces, tools don’t cultivate themselves. Johnson likens Dell’s EmployeeStorm–an online forum to which employees can contribute and rate ideas–to the old idea boxes that used to sit outside managers’ offices.

The key to success, he says, is making sure that executive management is actively engaging with the ideas. (There are, for example, about 4,000 ideas posted on the sales area of EmployeeStorm.)

Engagement, Johnson says, means publicly acknowledging contributions. “It’s worthy of my time to respond to blog posts and say, ‘That’s fantastic to see this being talked about,'” he explains. “That inspires people to use the tools.”

But responding involves more than just a virtual pat on the back. It also means listening, adopting the most promising ideas and relaying those decisions to the work force. “Adopting ideas gives people a feeling of validation that they can contribute and knock down barriers,” he says.

Johnson urges anyone who wants to use social media for idea generation first to take stock of what the organization can handle and respond to–or risk failure. “There’s no point in running a hundred Storms if you only have the capacity to respond to 10,” he says.

The danger lies in falling in love with the technology for technology’s sake, when what’s at issue is fostering more effective communications. And in the case of generating new ideas, those communications are dependent upon accountability and action from executive management.

“The tool may be sexy,” Johnson says, “but if no one listens or takes action, then its usage will die.”

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