Most vendors must guess what customers want to buy, and how they'll use it. For IBM, however, with about 400,000 employees, it has the potential to be its own best laboratory, one that becomes even more potent when mixed with active participation in open-source communities.

That potential, as I discovered in an interview on Friday with Jeff Schick, IBM's vice president of social software, isn't a "gimme," but is powerful if you can enable the right sort of corporate culture and processes.

For example, Schick mentioned that IBM has a technology adoption program for employees that spans the gamut of new products, add-ons and patches to existing products, and still-raw technologies direct from IBM's labs. While the invitation list and process is different for each particular item, IBM generally encourages its product groups to "experiment" upon each other. The earlier in the development process, the better.

At the heart of this open approach to technology adoption are open standards and open source. When I pressed Schick on the relative importance of both ("If you could only choose open standards or open source, which would it be?"), he responded:

Our products may include open-source components, and often do, but ultimately open standards are the most important consideration for customers. As customers integrate our products into their various enterprise systems, open standards are critical for ensuring they work.

Point taken, but it's impressive just how much open source influences IBM's product development. Gartner estimates that 80 percent of commercial applications will include open-source components by 2012. At IBM, the number may even be higher.

Despite IBM not releasing its core software products under open-source licenses, Schick noted just how integral open source is to IBM:

From a development perspective, as we build our social software products in Lotus, we're always looking at ways to improve quality and time-to-market. Open source often helps us with both areas.

For example, we were blogging within IBM for a long time before deciding to build the Lotus Connections product, which is fast approaching hundreds of millions of users. After some study, we decided to build the blogging piece of Lotus Connections using the Apache Roller project, an open-source Java blog software. We have become active contributors to the project since then.

But it's not just in Lotus Connections. As you look across nearly every capability across our social-software strategy, open source plays a critical role. Open source is an integral part of how we build products. Our engineers are very much in tune with the wide variety of open-source components that are available to them, and use and contribute to them. Regularly.

IBM seems to have figured out better than most how to marry the global open-source laboratory with a massive internal laboratory. Talking to Schick, there appears to be a very blurry line between "internal" development and "external" development, giving the company a significant advantage over proprietary (Microsoft) and open-source (Liferay, Open-Xchange) competitors alike.

Some competitors may be able to match IBM's scale, but few to none have managed to marry internal scale (employees) with the power of external scale (open-source communities) in the way that IBM has.