Written by: Megan McDowell
IBM used their Millennial workers to create their own internal research through an internal market research online community.
A Desire to Understand
In a recent article by Fast Company entitled, These Millennials Have Become The Top Decision Makers At IBM, the author Cale Guthrie Weissman looks at how IBM has created a community of millennial employees whom they can survey concerning key ideas and gather insights on how to stay relevant. Why is this so revolutionary you might ask? I think of it like this: imagine an old, relatively wealthy neighbourhood, where the majority of residents are over 55. This neighbourhood has begun to start seeing demographic changes. A younger group starts popping up, in and around the surrounding neighbourhood. This group is so different that residents can’t understand or relate to them. Coffee shop chatter may revolve around how “lazy, inefficient, or spoiled” this group is compared to previous generations. Now while this group may be different, they are not less intelligent and in many ways are more able to adapt due to their upbringing than the current demographic. The community has two options, the first being that the two groups stay divided or they can do like IBM and start using this group’s experience and intelligence to benefit the greater community. Companies right now are recognizing this growing gap, but rather than adapt and change, many are criticizing and scoffing and will in the end be left behind. IBM’s desire to understand and engage this younger generation has led to an increased ability to stay relevant to their customers.
Weissman writes how this past Met Gala showed the power of IBM’s millennial online community when the company decided to create an experimental couture gown designed partly by machine and partly by designers, to be worn by Supermodel Karolina Kurkova. The company asked the panel which highly influential designer should be chosen to design the dress, and Marchessa was chosen as the fashion designer. Marchesa then worked alongside IBM’s supercomputer to design the dress, with the computer choosing items like colour palette and fabric. The project turned out to be a success.
The online research community consists of 5,000 millennial aged IBM employees from around the globe. The Marchesa collaboration came through surveying the panel known as the “Millennial Corps.” This group serves as “beta testers” for the company, and the platform allows them to talk amongst themselves on a variety of subjects. The two IBM workers in charge of this project are Samantha Klein and Sara Sindelar, IBM’s first “intrapreneurs,” who serve to create startup-like cultures within the company.
The research community started less than two years ago after senior executives asked Klein and Sindelar to come up with a way to get younger employees to engage and change the company in a more meaningful way. IBM is a large company, Weissman writes, “with 377,000 employees in 170+ countries, and management was trying to find a way to get more from the younger generation of workers.” Klein and three other members decided that in order to engage this younger demographic they would need to survey this demographic and find out what they wanted most from their employer. According to Weissman, the answers varied, but Klein said the two things that stood out most were: “One, the millennial employees wanted to be able to work on projects that they were passionate about. Two, they liked the idea of having a direct pipeline to the top decision makers.”
Since that first survey, the group has grown to comprise more than 5,000 employees who identify as this younger generation. The growth has happened organically and IBM has created a digital platform for this group allowing them to chat amongst themselves and respond to surveys sent to them from the company on different projects that IBM is heading up. The platform not only serves upper management but also fosters a community amongst employees. Weissman writes, how “according to Matthew Graham, it’s a way to feel connected with the hundreds of thousands of employees at the company.” This community helps create a sense of belonging in such a massive organization.
Happy to Join
Weissman comments that the Millennial Corps panel is composed of individuals who have self-selected. Those who were interviewed were happy to join the group, and were not forced. “There is no mandate for IBM employees under the age of 30 to join the platform. The people interviewed for this article were all enthusiastic, ambitious, and likely welcomed the “millennial” moniker.” However, creating a panel with a certain demographic, needs to be done with caution to keep from seeming as though they are being pandered to, writes Weissman.
The important thing we can learn from IBM is that they have harnessed the power of two overlooked factors. One being the power of a qualitative online research community, to harness the intelligence of a group in order to stay relevant with customers. The second, that highlights IBM’s innovative force is that rather than dismiss a large demographic for its differences, it has sought to empower this group and use the empowerment as a way to fuel innovation and creativity.
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