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  • Lou Killeffer

Market Research During the Pandemic with IBM's Jim Newswanger

Updated: May 22, 2020

During an interview last week, for my friends at Informa Connect, Jim and I discussed IBM’s remote workforce and the continuing impact of the coronavirus as they help their clients through the current crisis - and Arvind Krishna steps forward as IBM’s new CEO.

As the Senior Research Manager of Corporate Social Analytics, James Newswanger leads market research for IBM Market Development & Insights. In managing IBM’s voice-of-the-employee listening program he supervises data scientists and research analysts assessing IBMers’ satisfaction with digital transformation, their understanding of corporate strategy, and their adoption of social business media. Jim also directs IBM’s “Jam” research, applying Watson software to mine very large on-line discussions to identify themes, sentiment, and influencers. The “Jam” program methodology has been recognized with an AMA/Nielsen EXPLOR award.

Lou Killeffer: James, what does IBM look for today from its market intelligence and market research function?

Jim Newswanger: There are many people here at IBM in “market research” who would answer that question slightly differently. My view is primarily internal, and my focus is on IBMers: their understanding of corporate strategies, their satisfaction with internal tools, and the like. This is essential to IBM as our promise in the marketplace is often realized through our employees. While we are or have been well known for mainframes, laptops and other hardware, today, and for some time now, what IBM delivers to our clients often comes directly through the IBMer.

LK: What are you and your research teams focused on at the moment?

JN: Our focus right now is on understanding what IBMers are feeling and how they’re helping our clients through the current crisis.

Interestingly, we are a work force that’s entirely comfortable working remotely. Most of our employees can be mobile and don’t need to go to a traditional office routinely. We began the transformation to a digital workforce under Lou Gerstner’s tenure as CEO. Under Sam Palmisano and later Ginni Rometty, we became an even more digitally based workforce, and we will most certainly continue as we expand further into cloud and cognitive computing under Arvind Krishna, who became our new CEO on April 6th.

So, while IBMers are used to working this way, we are not used to clients now needing to work this way—or asking us “how do we work this way?” Our new, or at least temporary, normal is “work at home” with children in the room, pets seeking attention, or spouses and partners dropping in. That’s new for many, and basic issues like “how do I host or present a successful online meeting” are in the mix, along with “help me stand up and secure my website,” “improve my supply chain and delivery,” “how do I move to the Cloud,” “how do I use AI”, etc., -- and yes, our people are well positioned to advise on these issues.

And, of course there’s the presence of the CV-19 virus and the support needed to allow employees to protect themselves and their friends and family, as well as produce solutions that innovate for our company, for our clients, and for the world.

LK: Has your research expanded or shifted in any way in response to the global pandemic?

JN: IBM is conducting social media listening relevant to pandemic issues. We have initiated a tracking survey in the US regarding the pandemic on April 1. We intend to canvas CXOs, with a focus on Chief Medical Officers who find themselves thrust into the limelight. And we have already conducted one internal Jam in a client-facing business unit to understand general and industry-specific issues that are top-of-mind.

LK: What are you finding?

JN: Without getting into specifics quite yet--as I do think it is too early to make definitive conclusions—we are certainly “working” to a new normal for work and life. I believe our findings will continue to evolve, both internally among IBMers and externally among citizens and clients, as we’ve not seen the full impact of the virus and its economic consequences yet.

Yes, many companies are getting by, they’re still in business, they’re still employing people. But how long can a company last with its people working from home? How does that impact different business models? What’s the new world going to be, and how do you and your business fit in? It seems we’re on the cusp of some very real long-term change.

LK: What research tools do you use to stay in touch with your IBMers?

JN: First, we are fortunate to have one of the world’s largest and best intranets—we call it “w3.” It is the top source for news and information and it is the primary entry point for most internal business processes: including the company directory (“BluePages”). It has surprised me to learn that many businesses do not have a good searchable online directory to find and communicate with colleagues!

Then, we are well known for what we call “Jams,” which are large time-limited, guided online qualitative discussions, like an extremely large focus group or conference, if you will. We can place several thousand if not tens or hundreds of thousands of people in an event for about one week to discuss corporate culture, strategy, D&I, you name it. We once held a Jam for Nigeria!

For IBM Jams, we’ll invite about 350,000 employees worldwide. We have seen as many as half register, and tens of thousands online are once. Not everyone participates by posting comments obviously; but we have seen anywhere from 20% to 40% post—and far more people are either reading along or “liking” and “watching” ideas.

As I noted earlier, we did a Jam a few weeks ago on new ways of working during the pandemic across the 10+ industry sectors we’re focused on. These events yield an enormous data dump of qualitative text. We use software, like Watson and SPSS to analyze the text for key concepts, looking for themes and sentiment and validating influencers. That’s how we validated that the food industry supply chain and the delivery of groceries have become very important topics across CPG.

LK: Sounds fascinating; do you do client facing Jams as well?

JN: We have done many different Jams externally for clients, in almost every industry and worldwide. How a company plans to expand diversity and inclusion has been a topic that’s quite relevant recently. And yes, often there’s an event that spurs on a Jam, for example new leadership wants to introduce themselves and hear views on company values, strategy, reorganization and the future in general.

And we will likely do an IBM employee Jam with our new CEO Arvind Krishna. The interest level with a new CEO is always quite high—not to mention discussion of a new world order during and after a pandemic.


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