IBM, as always, put on a really big show at Lotusphere this year. More than 5,000 attendees from all walks of IT and business came together to find out how IBM could help them execute their business strategies — and IBM promised to help them make their business social, and thus more personal and effective. Every IBM executive that I heard present or spoke with had one thing in mind: how to help customers evolve the culture of business from one where employees hoard information and rely on their own ability to solve problems to get themselves and their firm ahead to one where sharing information and insight enables better decision-making and better customer service.

Over two and a half days, I talked to (or heard presentations from) dozens of companies leveraging social technologies to accelerate their business, including:

  • A global management consulting firm that is using an internal social platform to enable project teams to find and engage process and industry experts for client work — rather than having staffing managers rely on their personal networks — and which plans to extend that platform to support document creation and client delivery processes.
  • A snack food company that created a public social platform to engage competitors in a process to eliminate a threat to raw material supply across their industry — rather than working on their own to solve the problem for their supply chain only.
  • A retail bank that uses an internal social platform to optimize routing of customer inquiries to banking products experts located at other branches or central sites — rather than relying on branch personnel who may not know the answer or promising to respond to the customer later.
  • A global philanthropic trust that created a community for victims of a disease to discuss their symptoms, concerns, and treatment plans — raising public awareness and research funds.
  • A heavy equipment manufacturer that used an internal social platform to support travel cutbacks during the economic uncertainty of 2009, and now finds that web collaborations, document sharing, and internal communications enable faster product development cycles and other unanticipated productivity and employee satisfaction benefits.
  • A research laboratory that has used social tools to accelerate thinking that has led to groundbreaking innovations in communities dedicated to both specific customer projects and pure science categories — and their social platform was also used by one of their first employees to plan their 50th anniversary celebration, despite his having been in the workforce longer than the lifespan of the millennials that most business leaders believe are the only employees who will adopt social tools.

All of these companies leveraged social tools from IBM, but the results were ultimately driven by employees adapting to a culture of sharing and mutual accountability. Engaging with peers, customers, or suppliers in human ways to solve problems and create solutions is the key to creating value — social platforms are just a tool.

This is the lesson for vendors: continue to create the tools that enable businesses to leverage the wisdom of the crowd, moving from a group of individuals pursuing a shared goal to a team working together to “enchant” their customers (Guy Kawasaki coined this phrase and repeated it when onstage on Tuesday).

IT professionals will have to learn how to adapt these tools to their business and processes, but more importantly they will have to show their users how to work in a culture where sharing information is ultimately more valuable than hoarding it.