It might come as a surprise to a generation raised on websites and social media, but IBM was the pioneer in office automation and collaboration. Starting in the 1960s, the company incorporated cutting-edge tools and approaches into its everyday practices that not only unlocked previously buried information, but also changed the way work is done in the modern, knowledge-based enterprise.
The first computer-based system to transform the flow of interoffice data was the
The idea of the electronically networked organization became newly relevant with the advent of the personal computer and token ring in the early 1980s, the latter of which created the world’s first corporate intranet. These innovations gave rise to the client/server computing model that linked PCs with IBM’s mainframes, making it possible for the first time to give professionals throughout the company and around the world access to a broad array of productivity and collaboration capabilities.
This system was known as IBM PROFS™ (Professional Office System). It was built on top of IBM’s virtual machine (VM) mainframe operating system, and ran on the mainframe’s user interface, CMS (Conversational Monitor System). PROFS allowed users to send and receive notes and messages (a precursor of both email and instant messaging); maintain personal calendars; get automatic reminders of important events; schedule meetings and conference rooms; and store and retrieve notes and documents.
“Imagine this office scene: a secretary types a letter, but rather than stuffing an envelope, she sends the message electronically to another typewriter floors away, or even hundreds of miles away. The second typewriter then prints out the letter. A little bit like Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, you say. No, it is happening now at the Information Systems Center, in Poughkeepsie and in Harrison.”
“New Office System Adding Dimension to Secretarial Work,” Sterling Forest NewsMay 1978
“It’s a natural progression. First came the postal service, then the telegraph, the telephone and telecopying. VNET [a network launched in 1972 and used by more than 200,000 IBM employees; PROFS was an application that ran on VNET] allows IBM employees around the world to talk to each other almost instantaneously. It’s part of the company now.”
“Very Special Delivery,” Think magazine #11986
“A very conservative estimate … shows that VNET saves the company more than $150 million a year.”
“Very Special Delivery,” Think magazine #11986
“We’re now competing with more than 100 other office automation firms in the ‘Star Wars’ era of office systems. Industry sources have predicted a compound growth rate of 30 per cent a year with a market of $6 billion by 1983.”
“PROFS Symposium Examines Office of the Future,” STF News, Vol. 3, No 11September 1981
The system included access to newsfeeds from thousands of internal and external sources, and also sported a full-text searchable product catalog so sales staff had instant access to IBM’s vast product portfolio. And since the PROFS system was almost completely menu- and function-key driven, it was relatively easy to learn in comparison to command-driven systems.
PROFS changed the way organizations communicated, collaborated and approached work when it was introduced by IBM’s Data Processing Division in 1981. The next year, the White House adopted a prototype email system of the PROFS system for the US National Security Council (NSC) staff, and soon PROFS became the most popular office system for companies needing a central shared way of communicating and working, along with managing the increasing flow of information.
By the early 1990s, all IBM employees were using the PROFS system for email and interoffice networking. PROFS was eventually replaced by a new IBM office product called IBM
The web was cheaper, more adaptable and easier to use than the mainframe collaboration environment it replaced. And while PROFS boasted much greater reliability and richness of functionality, it was a closed system—self-sufficient and autonomous, but rigidly bound and difficult to integrate. As an open model, in contrast, the web offered the ease of feedback exchange with external environments that would power evolution in a connected world.
Rather than build on its success with a more robust closed system, IBM adopted—and embraced—the web, doing so far faster, more extensively and with greater impact than most of its dot-com rivals, much less its large-enterprise peers. IBM’s intranet portal—w3—soon equaled and exceeded the range of applications and functions that PROFS had offered, providing IBMers with customized information and resources quickly, based on their individual job roles, interests and projects. It evolved into a platform that connected employees to content via integrated applications, which in turn enabled them to exchange ideas in real time and collaborate in new ways.
By the end of the decade, w3 had emerged as the global platform for the work IBMers do, and in 2000, it did something PROFS had never done: It surpassed all other channels—internal or external—as the most credible, preferred and useful source of information about the company. w3 had earned a remarkable level of trust from IBMers, who were visiting 2.5 million times per week for news, online learning courses, instant messaging, web conferences, and other critical resources and functions.
w3 grew to be a much-lauded example—one of the world’s largest—of Web 1.0 business collaboration: a global integration tool for a globally integrated workforce.
A few years later, when electronic networked environments in business were once again transformed by the emergence of social media and other Web 2.0 technologies, IBM again helped shape the landscape. In 2005, it became one of the first corporations to establish social computing guidelines for its employees as part of its longstanding support of responsible engagement in open dialog and the exchange of ideas, and later shared those guidelines as a public resource.
Building on nearly 50 years as a networked business place, today IBM continues to travel the frontiers of virtual collaboration by embracing digital citizenship through a number of its practices. Recognizing social media as a powerful medium to channel communications, the company encourages every IBMer to take advantage of the Social Computing and Social Enablement curricula offered on w3, which guide IBMers in setting up their online social presences and in developing related skills. Designated IBMer “social media evangelists” light the way for their peers.
From PROFS, to w3, to transforming social business, for IBM the networked business place has always been about a lot more than efficiency. It is how the company is helping to create ever-evolving forums and tools for collaborative innovation that can make the world work better.