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Icons of Progress

A Global Innovation Jam


In July 2006, IBM kicked off a defining moment in collaborative innovation: arguably the largest online brainstorming session ever held. The event was the IBM ® InnovationJam ® and it attracted more than 150,000 participants from 104 countries and 67 different companies over the course of two 72-hour sessions.

They were drawn by IBM CEO Sam Palmisano’s objective to invest up to US$100 million to develop and bring to market the best ideas from the event. Their dialog resulted in tens of thousands of creative and far-reaching ideas, many of which are already having an impact on business and society today.

“We opened up our labs, said to the world, ‘Here are our crown jewels, have at them,’” said Palmisano. He had good reason to share: an earlier visit to the company’s labs had convinced him that many great ideas were percolating, but behind closed doors. In his mind, they weren’t going to escape into the market using traditional development methods.

It was an earlier jam—ValuesJam, in 2003—that crystallized the core IBM value of “Innovation that matters.” “But there were still gaps in our capabilities, still people who confused technological invention with true innovation,” said David Yaun, a corporate communications vice president who ran IBM’s innovation programs at the time. “Experiential programs like InnovationJam featured both the outcomes and the collaborative nature of true innovation.”

In that regard, IBM’s jams represent a new form of organizational intervention, a way to accelerate change. As their name suggests, these jams are like jazz improvisations, connecting people who might otherwise never meet, allowing them to formulate and build on each other's thoughts, and in the process, create something entirely new. Because they are radically open and democratic—everybody has the same capacity to participate, regardless of level or expertise—jams speak to the expectations of today’s professional worker.

While InnovationJam was novel because it included external participants, jamming was already a way of life for IBMers. The process grew out of the company’s rapid embrace of its intranet in the late 1990s. Research showed that IBMers trusted and relied on their intranet at unprecedented levels—even more than their managers or the grapevine. Seeking to develop and extend that trust, the company introduced WorldJam in 2001. This event drew upon experiences in online collaboration, including IBM’s own VM Fora in the 1980s, as well as in-person jams held in IBM Research labs in the late 1990s. In the process, IBMers invented a new medium, something beyond online communities, brainstorming sessions, or traditional suggestion systems.

As IBM’s chairman Sam Palmisano put it in an interview with Harvard Business Review, “You just can’t impose command-and-control mechanisms on a large, highly professional workforce.” Palmisano sees unfiltered dialog not as a drawback but as a tremendous benefit for a leader: “You could say, ’Oh my God, I’ve unleashed this incredible negative energy.’ Or you could say, ‘Oh my God, I now have this incredible mandate to drive even more change in the company.’”

Jamming also speeds implementation of the new ideas and plans it brings to the surface—in part because they are already pre-socialized. Following an initial 72-hour InnovationJam session that resulted in 46,000 posts, the most promising suggestions were distilled, and 31 ideas were brought forward for further refinement and validation in the next phase of the jam.

In the second phase, jammers grappled with a new set of questions: What competition for a given idea is out there? Would you be willing to use the idea yourself? How can our clients and IBM generate profit from it? Wikis were set around each big idea to help collaboratively build basic business plans and use scenarios. Some ideas held up to the scrutiny and got stronger, while others fell by the wayside.

Ten promising ideas surfaced and entered an accelerated development program sponsored by IBM executive vice president Nick Donofrio. The most successful of these projects—including the creation of an on-demand system for real-time analysis of traffic flow; infusing intelligence into the world’s utility grids; the introduction of smart healthcare payment systems and a new business unit to provide solutions and services that would directly benefit the environment—became part of the IBM Smarter Planet agenda, and have since generated billions of US dollars in revenue for the company.

Today, jams have become part of IBM's management system and culture; a second InnovationJam took place in 2008. They have also spawned a consulting service offered to the company’s clients. Jams are used for many purposes: from organizational transformation, to best-practice capture, to societal change on a global scale. One example is Habitat Jam in 2005, a collaboration among IBM, the United Nations and the government of Canada to shape the agenda of the UN-HABITAT organization’s biennial World Urban Forum.

In the end, jamming is a new medium for an old purpose. It continues IBM’s century-long history of innovating the process of innovation itself—from classic research, to open source and social media, to the cross-societal collaborations of the company’s Smarter Planet agenda. In particular, WorldJam and its progeny have helped move IBM from the Web 1.0 era—with its focus on content and publishing—into the era of Web 2.0 and beyond, to what some are calling “social business,” where IBM is continuing to be a pioneer. In that history of collaborative innovation, IBM’s jams hold an important place—and they continue to play an important role today.