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Podcast #85

Ending Email Overwhelm: How IBM Redesigned Enterprise Email to Deliver Outcomes for All

Duncan Hopkins and M.E. Miller at IBM

In this episode, we cover the fascinating topic of designing at global scale in a way that is inclusive for anyone, regardless of age or ability. I’m joined by M.E. (Mary Elizabeth) Miller, IBM Verse UX Designer, and Duncan Hopkins, Senior Design Team Lead, IBM Design, Enterprise Social Solutions. M.E. and Duncan discuss how they leverage IBM Design Thinking to drive alignment across global teams and develop accessible enterprise applications at scale.
One example of this work is IBM Verse, an innovative application that combines social, email, mobile and analytics and is designed to provide accessibility for individuals with visual impairments and physical disabilities. Tune in to discover how the designers of IBM Verse used IBM Design Thinking to solve a common problem in the workplace – inefficient email – while applying IBM Design Thinking in a way that can be embraced by any business for a “new way to work.”
Low-Vision-Goggles_IBMIBM Designers using low-vision goggles to better understand what users with vision impairments experience.

On This Episode You’ll Discover:

IBM has taken a global leadership position in their approach to application design and development at scale. Using IBM Design Thinking practices, applications are made to deliver the same experience users have grown accustomed to in mobile apps, while providing accessibility to persons with disabilities. IBM’s new product, IBM Verse, delivers a #NewWayToWork approach to email, collaboration and analytics because it simplifies email and collaboration with an elegant interface that “understands you,” resulting in a better user experience.

  • Duncan says, “good design is a great experience for everybody” on any device.

“Good design is a great experience for everybody.” @duncanistan 

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  • Inclusive design is important for users with disabilities.
  • M.E. says understanding the user is a first step in designing for accessibility; she also explains how their IBM Design team bakes accessibility into the design process and the IBM Design Language.

Understanding the user is a first step in designing for accessibility. @MEMillerID 

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  • What design thinking is and what makes IBM Design Thinking unique. 
  • How IBM Design Thinking utilizes three core elements: Hills, Sponsor Users and Playbacks. 
  • How IBM arrives at their outcomes through a cross-discipline team of people, practices, and places. 
  • Accessibility is integral to the foundation of IBM Design Thinking: the goal is to have one interface that functions for all users, and creates a better experience for all.
  • What is involved in designing for accessibility; how this translated into designing for visual and physical disabilities in IBM Verse.
  • Why IBM’s Design motto is: “Works the same. Works together. Works for me.”
  • How IBM’s Design team consists of more than 1,000 designers distributed globally.  
  • How in the next 5 years millennials will make up 50% of the workforce.
  • How IBM has created more than 25 IBM Design Studios worldwide, where IBM designers and even IBM clients can collaborate, innovate, and solve problems.
  • How IBM is the largest company across the globe doing design thinking at scale.
  • How IBM Verse brings email, social and analytics into a single collaborative environment.
  • What the different features of IBM Verse are and how it leads to a better work experience and a “new way to work.”


IBM Verse combines social, email, collaboration and analytics into an elegant interface.

  • How users enjoy the elegant interface and search capability of IBM Verse.
  • That there is a freemium version of IBM Verse. 
  • How you can apply IBM Design Thinking practices in your business for a “new way to work.”
  • How IBM holds a week-long boot camp for new hires to address accessibility and to understand how assistive technologies impact the UI experience.
  • How goggles are used by designers to impede vision and simulate an experience of how a person with low vision sees the screen. 
  • Why M.E. encourages applying IBM Design Thinking as an approach to solving a business problem.

Featured On This Episode: 

There are TWO WAYS you can listen to this podcast with Duncan Hopkins and M.E. Miller:

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P.S. Don’t miss next week’s podcast episode with Ari Lightman, Professor and Director at Carnegie Mellon University.

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Download Social Business Journal, Volume 6: Inclusive Design in a Cognitive Era



Episode 85: Mary Elizabeth (M.E.) Miller and Duncan Hopkins

Bernie: Hey there, welcome to episode 85 of the Social Business Engine Podcast. This is the podcast where I invite thought leaders from all industries who are excited to share with you, the modern business executive, how to harness social media in your business strategy. I’m Bernie Borges, CEO of ‘Find and Convert’ and your host of the Social Business Engine Podcast.

On today’s episode, you are going to meet Mary Elizabeth Miller, IBM Verse UX Designer, and Duncan Hopkins, Senior Design Team Lead, IBM Design Enterprise, Social Solutions.

We’ve published a Social Business Journal issue with IBM that addresses the strategically important topic, Inclusive Design in a Cognitive Era: Reinventing Enterprise Email to Make Workplaces More Productive, Efficient and Humane. Now this Journal is available for download at our website at In other words, it’s the Journals page on our website. Or, you can visit our show notes page on our website for this episode for a link to download this Journal. And, if you’re subscribed by email to get our weekly podcast episodes, which we send every Friday, this Journal will show up in your inbox. And, if you are not subscribed to get our weekly updates by email, just visit our subscribe page at our website,

And now here’s my interview with M.E. Miller and Duncan Hopkins from IBM. M.E. and Duncan, welcome to the Social Business Engine Podcast.

M.E.: Hi Bernie! Happy to be here.

Duncan: Hi, how are you?

Bernie: Terrific! Well, thank you! I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation. Well, let’s get right to it. The reason why we’re here to have this conversation is because you all have been working on some really exciting technologies that address some things that are going on in the workplace.

I have been around for a while and I remember the traditional workplace being very different, as we know it today. In fact, I would even say the traditional workplace doesn’t even exist anymore. We’ve seen the explosion of social mobile and cloud technologies and it’s just changed the way that we work, and more changes are coming fast. We’ve seen employee behaviors that are challenging traditional communication and traditional collaboration processes as more and more employees are working remotely. And, millennials are over taking the workforce.

In fact, I read somewhere recently that in the next five years, millennials will make up as much as 50% of the workforce. And, I read recently that business leaders like your IBM Chairman and CEO, Jenny Romedie, envisions an age where our oceans of unstructured data become meaningful thanks to the power of digital learning and where business processes as becoming increasingly cognitive. Now that is really ambitious. So, with all of these fast moving realities upon us, let’s begin our conversation, M.E. and Duncan, with this question: why is design so important in all aspects of the applications that we use in the workplace?

Duncan: Well, thanks, Bernie. I would say that good design is a great experience for everybody. Consumer applications today really influence how enterprise users use our software. People go home and use all kinds of different things on their computers, laptops, phones and they’re so used to this great experience that really influences how the enterprise is adapting and designing software for this new workforce. It’s extremely important.

M.E.: Yea, and you know Bernie, with us working on social software, design is extremely important for people’s productivity, how you design a product can strongly impact people’s ability to be able to do their job when you’re thinking about social enterprise software. We want to make sure that when we’re designing, we’re designing the best experience for users so that they can do their job and be more efficient. We know that that ability directly is related to the profit of a company. So it’s extremely important.

I know that we will talk about this a little bit later, but I want to go ahead and touch on it because I believe that designing for accessibility is extremely important as well. If you don’t design for accessibility, and you don’t design inclusively for these varying disabilities, the tool that you create will prevent people from being able to do their job. So, it becomes an issue with the tool and not the person’s ability. Thinking about all these things through the design process directly relates to a person’s ability to really be efficient and do their job correctly.

Bernie: So, M.E. and Duncan, a couple of points that you made there that I find really compelling and interesting; one is that as consumers, we use Apps and software on a variety of different devices and that if we go to work and we work in a corporate setting, and we’re using some kind of an enterprise application, we want to have a similar experience. That’s one point that I heard. And the other point that you just made M.E. is about the importance of designing for accessibility for varying disabilities. So can we talk a little bit about each of those, because I think that both of those are really relevant points that can impact so many people?

M.E.: Yeah, for sure. And you playing back on what we were just talking about, it really made me think about IBM Design’s motto that we follow which is: “works the same, works together and works for me.” Really all that’s about, is people in this day and age, with technology being so pervasive and across all of our devices, people expect and have a certain expectation of how things should work. They expect things to work similarly and together, and are expecting great experiences across devices. And, in designing social software for the enterprise, we have to take all of that into consideration.

Duncan: Yes, and it shouldn’t be a different experience when you’re going from your home to your car, to your work. Those should all be the same experience. We should all love using the software that you have to work with, and especially in the work environment where you have to use that eight hours a day or so. You want to be able to have a great experience while you are doing that. It shouldn’t be any different.

Bernie: Right. So then how can organizations rethink their business practices when they engage in a global talent pool that’s very competitive, and they have to manage employees that can be distributed teams, how can they organize around these business practices based on these trends?

Duncan: IBM, of course, is extremely distributed. We have a huge global talent pool that we work with. Our team alone is about 4 or 5 locations, and maybe more than that globally.

Bernie: And is that the design team, Duncan?

Duncan: The design team, but then we also have developers that are also all over the world as well. So, we collaborate and work on a global level every day.

M.E.: What’s really important to IBM Design Thinking is the places that we work and creating these collaborative places. So, we’ve created studios and which supports collaboration with people. We have whiteboards that you can slide. You can easily take them down and reconfigure a room. All of our spaces are open. It makes it a lot easier when you’re sitting next to somebody, you can just turn to them and talk to them.

We’ve put in a lot of effort with our studios. Me and Duncan are here in the Austin studio, which was our first studio with IBM Design, but we’re building our studios across the globe. We’re reaching about 25 studios worldwide. We’re hiring people with great talent, and we’re trying to place the focus on people and our day-to-day work. And humanize the enterprise and that process.

Then we also have practices that we follow, so that comes down to the Methodology of IBM Design Thinking. That methodology is all about collaboration across three core disciplines with what we do within software; which is design, development, and product management. We help to define the goals and missions with something that we call ‘Hills’. We’re also trying to work one on one with sponsor users; and to envision the user experience, so that way we get direct feedback from our end users throughout our process.

Our third core practice that we try to follow is doing playbacks with our stakeholders and with our sponsor users, so that we make sure that we’re aligned and we’re always following the mission of our ‘Hills’ that we defined from the beginning. At IBM with those three areas of people, practices, and places, that really equals outcomes. And, so that has been our process with IBM Design and we’re implementing that across all our product teams to improve how we collaborate

Duncan: Yes, and right now I think we’re the largest company doing Design Thinking at a scale that no one has attempted, at this point. We’re probably going to be the largest design team, globally.

Bernie: Wow, that’s impressive. So let’s come back up 10,000 feet and actually put a definition to IBM Design Thinking because you’ve both done a terrific job of explaining what it is. But, there’s a reason that IBM actually implemented this whole process. Do you want to elaborate on that reason?

M.E.: Sure, IBM is a massive company, and Design Thinking has existed for a long time. It’s an existing concept and really Design Thinking without the IBM part is all about collaboration across those three areas that I was mentioning. So, you have a cross-discipline team. Then it’s also about following and iterative process where you’re constantly trying to understand, ideate, prototype, and evaluate. And you’re constantly doing any of those four phases in any kind of order. What makes IBM Design Thinking unique are ‘Hills’, sponsor users and playbacks. The reason why we have implemented that within IBM Design Thinking is so that we can do it a scale. Within a company like IBM, the suggestion of the three core practices helps us to do that at a company this large.

Bernie: Awesome! Now all of this feeds right into your exciting launch of IBM Verse. So can we talk about, first of all, what is IBM Verse, what are the business challenges that you’ve focused on when you designed and launched, as you’re trying to solve with this design product?

Duncan: A lot of people think it was just a mail application, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s a software application that brings together mail and social analytics into a single collaborative environment. It has some built-in analytics that we use to bring to the surface what is important to you, as a user. We can talk about this being cognitive, but at a high level it is really about knowing what is important to you as a user and what do you need to focus on during the day to get your work done. That could be things like what you need, as far as needs action, items you’ve got going on, meetings that you’re going to attend, what is going to be important to that meeting, who are the right people to invite, what are the files that you need for that meeting? Really making it a better work experience for the user and a new way to work as part of again, part of this collaborative effort within the environment.

Bernie: A new way to work – I love that. I’ve seen that hashtag around.

Duncan: Yes, exactly!

Bernie: Okay! So can you speak to what kind of feedback you are getting from users of IBM Verse?

M.E.: The feedback that we’ve been getting about Verse is that it is a much simpler, UI and easy to use. People are pretty attracted to our elegant interface. One thing that we’ve done at IBM Verse that’s pretty unique is we’ve implemented a faceted search which is a really, really nice, user experience because it really helps people to find their email within seconds, which we know can be difficult in this day and age with the information overload that people have.

Bernie: That’s an understatement M.E.

M.E.: I know, right! I think that there is a statistic out there that out of all of the email that you get, only 14% are urgent. So, you can imagine the noise that we get on a day to day basis.

Bernie: Yes, no kidding! So elegant interface, it’s got the search capability, it’s easy to use. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but anyone can use this, right? You can just log into the website and sign up, right?

M.E.: That’s right Bernie, there’s a freemium version. You can go to our website for IBM Verse and you access an account we’ll give it to you.

Bernie: And that website is…?

Duncan: Yes! So the site to go to would be and you can sign up for the freemium version.

Bernie: Terrific! So let’s come back to the accessibility topic because we touched on that earlier and I wanted to spend a little more time on it as you alluded to M.E., I planned on covering that with you because it is an important topic. Let’s come back and just talk a little bit about, what does it mean when you say that you’ve made accessibility an integral function of the overall IBM Design Thinking process?

M.E.: Our approach to accessibility is just like any other kind of design problem. And you know my process of designing for accessibility; I’ve found that where you really have to start is by understanding the user, and developing empathy for the user. Which is all a part of IBM Design Thinking. Using that and going through our typical design thinking process, that’s how we start to implement accessibility. It’s our goal at IBM Design to do that all the way from the beginning of the process. The idea is that you are constantly incorporating accessibility into your designs and constantly planning for it and that it’s just a part of the design process that you do every day. And, that’s what we’ve been doing.

Bernie: Awesome! And what kind of feedback are you getting on that from users?

M.E.: We’re still in the development phase and we’re still going through the process. One of the things that so important here about accessibility, is that we’re trying to make one experience that works for everyone so it’s not like a second experience for somebody with a disability.

Bernie: That’s a great point M.E., a really good point! I’m glad you made that point. Go ahead, I’m sorry.

Duncan: It’s one interface. So when you go onto the interface, you don’t have to turn on anything special to use interface for accessibility. We try to make it a seamless experience and it’s not an easy thing to do, to make it so that it’s visually pleasing and aesthetically usable by everybody, and take in all the considerations. So, I just want to give kudos out to M.E. and the team that have been working on this because it’s an extremely important problem to solve. It means a lot to everybody here, but it’s not necessarily easy to come up with something that looks and works that simply for everybody.

Bernie: Sure, sure. Can you comment on how you are applying this to IBM Verse?

M.E.: For accessibility when you are designing for it and thinking about it, there are four major disabilities that we look at and particularly we focus on mostly two, which is vision and physical disabilities. The other two major types of disabilities are cognitive and hearing. We don’t incorporate too much sound within our UI so our focus has mostly been on vision and physical disabilities.

What that means is that a user with a range, there can be any kinds of range of disabilities. For vision you could have somebody that’s color blind, or you could have somebody that’s completely blind or low vision, and there are different types of assistive technologies people use. So some people with low vision might be zooming their screen into 200% or they might be using a high contrast mode.

So the whole process is like understanding what assistive technologies people are using, how they’re using it, and how your design works with that. Then just creating a design that will work will all of these different scenarios and ensuring that it’s a good experience in all of those cases. And it doesn’t mean that we create a separate design. We try to create a design that meets all of those needs in one area.

As a UX designer, you know what’s really important to think about is how a keyboard user would be using the user interface. So a keyboard user could be somebody, it’s also blind users, but it could be somebody with a physical disability. They have full vision and are able to view the UI but are not able to use a mouse. So, they’re using the keyboard to navigate the UI. And as you could imagine, you need to design that experience for a keyboard user the same as you have to design an experience for a mouse user, and it just needs to be considered at the same time. Which is why we’re trying bake accessibility into the process rather than bolting it on at the end. That way it’s all incorporated and works for everyone.

And another thing that we have been doing recently is baking it into our design language. So, incorporating accessibility into the visuals, recently we’ve been focused on our keyboard focus needs and incorporating a system into our UI so that there is some consistency across the UI and how it looks visually. It’s pretty pleasant to all users; I also want to point out that every user will use the keyboard within a user experience. So we really wanted to focus on that.

Bernie: Okay, so M.E. and Duncan, what IBM is doing with design thinking is clearly visionary and even in the report that I read, the Forrester report (I know we haven’t mentioned it yet, but I know we’re going to make that available and in a moment we’ll call out the name of that report and how people can get access to that), where it describes the IBM Design Thinking process. I was really fascinated to read that from cover to cover, but the report also said that it’s going to be a rising tide thing. Other enterprises around the world are going to adopt a similar methodology and philosophy.

So, why don’t we talk a little bit about how other companies can apply design thinking across their business to embrace a new way to work.

Duncan: Well I think a good example would be going to look at the design language site and we’ve laid it out there for a lot of people to use, not just IBM. We’ve really put it out there so that other people can adopt it and use it at scale. I think what we’ve got is a really solid experience for how people can do this.

Bernie: Excellent! So, M.E. and Duncan, I have a question for you regarding this process of designing for people with disabilities. If you yourself are not disabled in any way, how do you put yourself in the shoes of someone who needs the accessibility that you want to design into the product?

M.E.: Bernie, I’m really happy that you asked that question because there is a very impactful experience that I had when I first started here at IBM Design. When I first came here I was part of a boot camp for new hires coming into IBM right out of college. And during that time, we had a week where we focused on accessibility and we brought in experts from IBM, within our accessibility group, to talk about what accessibility means to design.

And, when they did that, the leaders of this workshop, themselves, were disabled. First hand I got to see somebody uses a screen reader on their laptop, also interacting with the voice over on their cell phone. Screen readers have a speed in which they read. I believe that the rate that a person normally would listen to the screen reader is about at 33%; somebody who is constantly used to listening to UI and experiencing a UI through a screen reader will listen to it up to 75%, which is extremely fast. It was extremely impactful to hear that, because me experiencing that for the first time, I was overwhelmed. I was like “Wow, how could you ever be able to do anything just using the screen reader?” because I had never experienced that and it’s always stuck with me.

When I talk about accessibility with designers, I always recommend that they go out and look at YouTube videos of people using assistive technologies to understand how that impacts their experience with viewing a UI or going through a UI. I know here at IBM Design, in our IBM Design camp, we’re constantly improving the educational series around accessibility One of the things that we have recently been doing is having an activity where the new hires are using goggles that will augment and change their vision and affect the way that they are able to see the screen. And, that experience of being able to see other people experiencing the UI, or using things helps to put you in a person’s shoes with low vision, or a different type of disability, is extremely impactful.

Bernie: Wow! I can see how that how that must have been very impactful, probably even emotional to experience that first hand.

M.E.: Most definitely.

Duncan: I can also add Bernie that even besides the IBM Design campers we’re also, within our team, doing continual accessibility training. That’s not just for the designers, we’re opening up to developers and managers and anybody so that everyone can experience and understand what it really means to use these interfaces and how important this is to be inclusive.

Bernie: Yea. I was reading in the Forrester case study about how as you are rolling out the IBM Design Thinking methodology that this new language was really beginning to take shape throughout the organization. So, training expanded and it included executives coming into the IBM Design Thinking center and actually going through some training themselves to get integrated into the culture, the methodology, and the terminology.

Duncan: Exactly!

Bernie: Awesome! Well, I’m going to attempt to summarize some key takeaways from our conversation today. I say attempt because we covered so much ground. And of course in a moment we’re going to explain where some of these resources are available online. But, really the main points we covered today, M.E. and Duncan, are how good design is really something that just provides a good experience for everybody regardless of what they’re using and where they’re using it. Design for accessibilities, we’ve spent considerable time discussing, is just extremely important for all the users, and that design for accessibility is really kind of baked into your design methodology for your products. Of course, we spent considerable time talking about IBM Verse and how it flows out of the IBM Design Thinking methodology, and, of course, your IBM Design motto I love that. “It works together, works the same and works for me,” so everything flows from that motto.

And that IBM Design Thinking is something that’s very cross-discipline, across people, practices, and places. And you’ve got methodologies that use ‘Hills’ and direct feedback and playbacks. Of course, there’s elaboration on that in the Forrester report that we’re going to make available in just a moment here to our listeners.

In discussing IBM Verse which is a really exciting, still fairly new offering from IBM, where it provides mail, social, analytics into one collaborative environment and can really make email a whole lot easier to use, and more productive to use. Really in the end, this all comes together as a new way to work. It’s just a new way for us to collaborate and be more productive in this digitally connected age where we’re all kind of facing the same challenge of information overload. Do you have anything to add or anything that I left out as take aways from our conversation?

Duncan: I think you did a great job of covering everything. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Bernie: My last question M.E. and Duncan, is what I call my one thing question and I like to have a little bit of fun with this, but it’s really for the listener. And that is what’s one thing that you would really like to leave the listeners with that you could advise them, as an actionable takeaway, from this conversation today?

M.E.: You know what Bernie, I think you summarized it perfectly, but I just want to close with pointing out that I think that IBM Design Thinking can really be applied to anything that you are doing if you’re trying to solve a problem. Today we gave you examples how we did that for IBM Verse and how we did that with designing for accessibility. Anybody can truly do that this using our practice of IBM Design Thinking and you had mentioned it earlier, we do have a Forrester case study that was published in September this year, 2015, and the name of that publication is “IBM Builds a Design Driven Culture at Scale.” I believe we will make it available on your website.

Bernie: Absolutely! We will link that up on our show notes page, but if there is a link online that you want to send people to, by all means let’s mention it right now.

M.E.: You could also find this link on Twitter at our Twitter handle, @IBMDesign and you can find this link there, and you also can follow what we’re doing here at IBM Design.

Bernie: Awesome! So once again that is a case study from Forrester, the title of it is IBM Builds a Design Driven Culture at Scale” and it’s available on Twitter @IBMDesign and, of course, we will also link it up on our show notes at

M.E.: That’s right!

Bernie: Terrific! M.E. and Duncan any place else you would like to send people online to learn more about you or anything we discussed here today?

M.E.: Well, if you ever want to learn more about me my Twitter handle is MEMillerID and then I also have a personal website which is You can find my contact information there and follow me on Twitter.

Duncan: My Twitter handle is @DuncanIstan. It’s DUNCANISTAN. I also have a website that is

Bernie: Alright! Terrific! Well, my listeners know that we will link all that up in our show notes page at So M.E. and Duncan thank you so much for joining me here today! It’s really been exciting to talk about IBM’s approach to building a design driven culture at scale. It’s really what this whole conversation has been about and the impact that it’s having on enterprise and on people; just people as humans, people as workers, just all of us.

So thank you so much for joining me here today.

Duncan: Thanks, Bernie!

M.E.: Thank you!

Bernie: Of course I want to remind everybody that we’ve published a Social Business Journal with IBM that addresses this important topic: Inclusive Design in a Cognitive Era and how it has reinvented enterprise email to mail workplaces more productive, efficient and humane. This journal is available for download at our website at or you can just visit our show notes page on our website for this episode, for a link to download this Journal. And if you are subscribed by email to get our weekly podcast updates which we send every Friday, this Journal is going to show up in your inbox. And if you are not subscribed to our weekly updates by email, just visit our subscribe page at our website,

And hey, if you’re a regular listener to the Social Business Engine podcast, first of all, thank you and if this is your first time listening to this podcast, I hope you enjoyed it. I know I have; and that you’ll push the subscribe button on your podcast player so that you don’t miss future episodes. And if you are an iTunes subscriber, I would be very grateful if you would write a review for this podcast to help others discover it. We have a direct link to this podcast on iTunes. Just go to

And lastly, I invite you to engage with me on Twitter @BernieBorges and our podcast @sbengine. We also have a Facebook page that is appropriately named And of course, follow our hashtag across, just about every social media channel including Instagram, and that’s #SBEShow.

Well, that’s going to do it for this episode, I want to thank my guests again, M.E. Miller, IBM Verse UX Designer, and Duncan Hopkins, Senior Design Team Lead IBM Design Enterprise Social Solutions.

This is Bernie Borges of Find and Convert wishing you continued success on your social business journey.


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