IBM Fringe: Employee social networking with a purpose

By Toby Ward − Most intranet or employee directories are the most used, if not most popular, applications on the corporate intranet. Most pull key contact information directly from the HR database or ERP; others allow employees to update and maintain their own information.

For those organizations like IBM that allow employees to edit parts of their profile (but not key reporting information like title, department, reporting lines, etc.), an overlooked and underappreciated challenge often arises: ensuring that employees actually keep their information up-to-date.

An internal study by IBM some years ago found out that 40% of employee directory listings (called Blue Pages) had not been updated at all in the previous 9-month period. A lot of tacit knowledge and information is left unreported in employee profiles. That in itself is not a big problem if you know who you’re looking for, but in a company of 385,000 employees, finding the right employee for the right issue can be a challenge.

An employee profile page using Fringe, IBM's people tagging system

IBM’s Eric Wilcox and his colleagues came up with a solution: create a parallel system that draws in the key employee information from their directory profile (name, contact information, etc.) and add to it functionality that allows employees – any employee – to assign a keyword or ‘tag’ that helps define the expertise of an individual.

Wilcox and colleagues (Werner Geyer, Stephen Farrell, Tessa Lau and Stefan Nusser) created a people tagging system called Fringe.

“People tagging is a form of social bookmarking that enables people to organize their contacts into groups, annotate them with terms supporting future recall, and search for people by topic area,” said Wilcox. “People-tagging has a valuable side benefit: it enables the community to collectively maintain each others interest and expertise profiles.”

Fringe profiles display contact information and automatically generated information from the Blue Pages directory including:

  • Communities that they belong to

  • Blog entries

  • Bookmarked pages (from their social bookmarking tool, Dogear)

The real value is in the people tagging:

  • Employees can tag anyone with any keyword or tag (e.g. a doctor might have the tags “doctor,” “MD,” “surgeon,” “pediatrics,” etc.)

  • All tags are recorded to the tagger and the tagee (therefore no anonymous tags, and no private or hidden tags)

  • When you tag someone, they can tag you back (forcing extra diligence and consideration)

  • Authors of a tag are displayed when hovering over a tag

  • An outgoing tag cloud shows which tags a person has applied to another

  • An incoming tag cloud shows what tags has been applied to that person

  • All tags are linked to the creator, and their respective tags

  • Users can even tag someone through the corporate instant messaging tool (SameTime)

Employees find added value in being able to search for people or experts by tag (subject matter) that might help them in their day-to-day work.

“People tag other people as a form of contact management, and they confirm in subsequent interviews, that the tags they have been given are accurate descriptions of their interest and expertise,” said Wilcox. “Moreover, none of the people reported offensive or inappropriate tags.”

A link on a Fringe profile page, called Zeigeist, takes the user to a page that consists of a tag cloud containing the most recent 100 people tags across all IBM. It also contains a list of recently active taggers as well as recently targeted taggees (those that have been tagged).

“The goal for this page was to try and characterize or draw out trends in the people tagging space,” added Wilcox. “For example, let's say a researcher gives a great talk on how IBM is turning scrapped silicon wafers into solar panels. There might a surge in the use of the tags "solar" and "wafer-reuse" which should bubble up in the zeitgeist cloud. The researcher who gave the talk might also drift to the top of the taggee list.”

Man, these IBMers are smart.

While IBM’s Beehive social networking site (see Behind Beehive’s social success @ IBM) has proven more ‘viral’ in a shorter period of time, Fringe has enjoyed a modicum of success of its own:

  • Number of connections: 206,000

  • Number of profiles tagged: 55,000

  • Average tags per profile: 3.21

  • Number of people tagging: 8,500

  • Average tags per tagger: 20.73

  • Total number of tags: 178,000

  • Self-tags: 31,569

“I think the biggest take home here is that the greater IBM population is able to benefit from a relatively smaller population of taggers,” said Wilcox. “This plays very well into the power law distribution of many social systems. By making tags social in Fringe, not only does the tagger benefit but the community and taggee all benefit as well.”
More directly, says Wilcox,  tag benefits 3 users:

  1. The tagger (helps him/her describe a person),
  2. The taggee (profile gets populated by others), and
  3. The general public (tags are aggregated to add context and improve expertise search).

So some might ask the question, how does Fringe relate to Beehive, their employee social networking site?
”Fringe started from a very different place,” said Wilcox. “Fringe's main goal is to create a better, more representative corporate directory.”

Wilcox highlights some of the differences between Beehive’s social networking, and Fringe’s people tagging:

  • Everyone at IBM has a Fringe page by default where as in Beehive users must opt in and join Beehive explicitly.

  • Content in Beehive such as photos, Hive-5's, and events must all be entered manually. Fringe grabs existing corporate data automatically for the user (except the people tags).

  • Connecting in Fringe requires confirmation while connecting in Beehive does not.

  • Beehive is meant to be more of a place to go and socialize; Fringe is primarily still a corporate directory and expertise search system.

“It has been asked more than once why wouldn't Beehive and Fringe eventually merge...?  I find this to be a very interesting prospect and may be the ultimately desirable state,” added Wilcox. “However, both teams are still investigating really interesting problems from different perspectives.”

But Wilcox and his colleages are not resting on their laurels: the next iteration of Fringe is already underway. 

“We are continuing to aggregate from even more exotic sources than before,” said Wilcox

There are of course many different ways to ‘socially network’ as represented by both Fringe and Beehive, My Space and Facebook. Regardless of the approach, each serves distinct needs and purposes.

Your organization might benefit from one approach, all of the approaches, or perhaps none. Regardless of the view, one conclusion cuts through all the social chatter and business networking: employee social networking fulfills a great need and desire of many employees who are already networking on the public Internet (see The power of Intranet 2.0).

Want to learn more about what others are doing? View the Intranet 2.0 Global Survey

Toby Ward is the CEO and founder of Prescient Digital Media. For more information on creating a social media strategy for internal audiences, check out Prescient's Intranet 2.0 Blueprint and download our updated Social Media Checklist.

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