Podcasting people in play the IBM way

What do you get when you hand 320,000 employees the tools and corporate podcasting guidelines to internally publish their audio creations? In IBM Corp.’s experience, lower phone bills and better, more informal internal communication.

In August, IBM made its first official foray into podcasting by launching a series of programs called “IBM and the Future of…,” featuring its scientists and other staffers discussing topics like driving, shopping, banking and urban planning. Postcasts are audio files designed to be played on PCs or portable music devices like iPods; listeners can use software to subscribe for automatic downloads of new podcasts in series that interest them.

IBM, based in Armonk, New York, had occasionally posted internal podcasts before on its intranet, but its new “Future” series prompted the company to extend its podcasting support. IBM drafted a podcasting policy similar to the corporate blogging policy it adopted last year, and quietly released a tool for uploading audio files and syndicating them via RSS (Really Simple Syndication). Then it sat back to see what IBM staffers would create.

“People have just gone ahead and experimented,” said Ben Edwards, IBM’s manager of investor communications and the organizer of its “Future” series. “There are some very interesting models emerging.”

One of Edwards’ favorite creations is a weekly status update from IBM’s supply chain organization. The group previously scheduled a weekly conference call with all the employees it needed to coordinate with — a conference that involved as many as 7,000 people. Now, supply-chain executives upload a weekly podcast, which staffers can listen to when they want. “It’s dramatically cheaper,” Edwards said. “Plus you don’t have thousands of people organizing their schedules around this weekly call.”

IBM’s Hursley research lab in the U.K. launched a community podcast aimed at spreading the word about its staff and their projects. Features include interviews with the lab’s researchers and with workers with unusual job responsibilities, like the lab’s health and safety officer.

Other IBM staffers have taken to podcasting to illuminate their particular situations at the company. A new IBM worker created a podcast with tips for other new recruits, while a mobile staffer began a series about what it’s like being an IBM worker who rarely reports to an actual IBM facility.

IBM’s external podcasts are also satisfying the company. It logged 40,000 downloads during the first three months of its “Future” series, which now has six installments available. “We didn’t have specific goals in terms of number of downloads,” Edwards said. “Partially because there’s nothing to measure us against. It’s a very new medium, and it’s a niche. We weren’t sure what sort of audience we would attract.”

Edwards said one thing he’s learned in IBM’s first few months of podcasting is that producers don’t need to fret much about sound quality. IBM has done some of its recording in a studio, but it’s beginning to experiment with portable production and basic handheld recorders.

“If you listen to other podcasts, they have a home-produced quality,” Edwards said. “That’s kind of part of their charm.”

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