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IBM and Social Software for Business

Dave » 10 years 42 weeks ago

IBM recently announced its Lotus Connections suite of products, touted as “Social Software for Business”, and I wanted to share a quick word.

Lotus Connections has five Web 2.0-based components — Activities, Communities, Dogear, Profiles and Blogs — that help business people quickly connect and build new relationships based on their individual needs. […] Lotus Connections helps organizations foster a sense of community, especially among geographically dispersed teams, helping employees come together to share their knowledge and collaborate on a project.

This announcement by a technology giant gives further credibility to those of us innovating in the team collaboration space. The market is forming, awareness is spreading, and it’s only a matter of time before team collaboration tools like these become commonplace. It underscores that these tools will be leveraged even across conventional enterprises (not just for loosely formed distributed teams) and affirms my belief that these tools will in fact be the catalyst for evolutionary change in the very structure and model of these organizations.

I think IBM emphasized the right initial pieces. Profiles allow for quickly finding each other, cultivating the “human element” and allowing for personal social networking. Communities are the logical extension, allowing for public networking and participation, around common interests, issues and ultimately projects. Blogs make it easy for everyone to share their own stuff and follow that of others, while allowing for rich dialogue. Bookmarks exposes and enables interaction around the things people are finding interesting, namely material across the web. What they call Activities sounds like a way of aggregating all this stuff and giving it context, allowing for clean and comprehensive views of all the information that’s relevant. Those are key components in any real collaboration environment.

I’m sure they’ve got more planned. Instant messaging, another important component even at present, is notably absent from the press release, as is collaborative authoring (wikis). However, I’m sure there are plans for these, and they’re certainly staying on top of the bleeding edge. An excerpt from this IBM interview reflects that:

Currently we’re working on a project that leverages societal intelligence, and we have a prototype called sense.us. This is a Web site that combines information visualization with social software, enabling collaborative visualization by groups of users. Interactive visualizations of United States Census data yield insights into the structure and evolution of American society over the last 150 years. Through discussion forums, graphical annotations and linking between related views, people can discover and point out interesting findings, share possible explanations, and ask questions. The result is a process of social data analysis that speeds and increases insights and provides visualizations people can share.

I particularly like hearing that. We did much research here on group decision making and reaching a consensus en mass (funny, we had thrown around a similar name for that component). I believe it’s an important component, especially with large collaborations.

IBM”s success will depend on how good the actual user experience is and if they manage to expand beyond the market of traditional enterprises using what are arguably legacy products from IBM. As this article notes, IBM isn’t exactly considered hip and innovative, especially amongst the market that is increasingly adopting slick collaboration apps like Zoho, Socialtext, and Google’s various offerings. On the other hand, IBM is articulating an overarching strategy in the space where others haven’t (including Google). Still, I don’t think the market will turn to “old school” vendors like IBM for their social software, even if its for business.

At Woven, we’re pushing to build a platform for distributed work — in our own way and with our own strategy. We’ve taken a bet on open source, specifically the Drupal platform, attempting to strategically build off that. I’ve been advocating amongst the community for pushing Drupal towards being a full-fledged collaboration environment, and I think this news from IBM should serve to remind people that this is really where it’s all going. Drupal’s founder Dries Buytaert expressed similar sentiments, proclaiming “bring it on, IBM!” and he noted that IBM has failed in the past by not embracing an open source alternative.

My overall take away is that it’s good news for the space, and shows the market is moving in the right direction. I’ll end with this factoid from IBM’s own press release:

According to the industry analyst firm Forrester, social software tools will become so much a part of the fabric of an enterprise’s collaborative environment that it will be like air — enterprises won’t be able to imagine life without it. Further, according to Forrester, the demand for social software tools is growing with usage rates of social software services almost doubling between 2005 and 2006.

We’re just getting started.

Where do you think these tools are headed? What do you think is needed? What do you think this means for you or your organization?