One of the more strategic announcements IBM made at this week’s Lotusphere event was Lotus Connections, (formerly known by its code name, “Ventura”). To recap the news – Connections represents IBM’s first foray into the realm of social software. It is a platform play that can be deployed internally (on-premise) within an organization. It is also will be available as a hosted service offering. Connections is comprised of five core components: Profiles, Communities, Dogear, Blogs and Activities. Additional components are likely to emerge over time (wikis would be an obvious candidate). The platform is designed around an Ajax-style user interface. Connections relies on WebSphere Application Server 6.1, DB2 (with Oracle as an option) and Tivoli Directory Integrator (for integration with LDAP, Active Directory or HR systems).Roller (an open source project) is leveraged for the blog engine. Dogear is an internally built tagging and social bookmarking system that emerged from IBM Research. Dogear exploits XBEL (XML Bookmark Exchange Language). Profiles represent an internal application used within IBM to provide a “Facebook”-like capability referred to as IBM Blue Pages. The Profile schema within Connections can be extended by customers. Activities allows users to organize, share and manage ad-hoc interactions that occur within instant messaging, workspaces and such in a consolidated manner represents work that was started by IBM Research and modified by the product team as part of bringing the technology to market. Connections integrates with Lotus Sametime 7.5 and also supports XML Syndication feeds (based on Atom).
IBM faces multiple competitive pressures as it moves forward to deliver a social software platform for an enterprise audience. From a market and technology perspective:
Consumer-oriented services: There are a variety of online services that offer aspects of what Lotus Connectiosn offers such as del.cio.us (tags and bookmarks) and TypePad (blogging). Facebook has offered its profiling and networking capabilities to an enterprise audience as well.
Open source software: A variety of projects are available for IT groups to exploit such as WordPress (blogs) and Scuttle (tags and bookmarks).
“Web 2.0 Suites”: There has been some movement to loosely-couple various vendor tools together such as SuiteTwo (a project that involves Intel, TypePad, SocialText and NewsGator).
Specialty Vendors: A range of vendors exist that deliver a mix of blog, wiki, XML syndication and related social software capabilities such as Attensa, Confluence, Jive, KnowNow, NewsGator, SocialText, and Traction Software.
Microsoft: Within Office SharePoint Server 2007, Microsoft has included blog and wiki support as well as some level of “social distance” analysis as part of SharePoint’s search capabilities. Profiles are available through its MySite feature. Its Knowledge Network add-on will now be delivered as a Community Technology Preview (CTP) but it included more comprehensive profiling and social networking features which extended to external parties.
The advantage IBM has (as does Microsoft) is the ability to extend the conversation from social software itself to include the typical security, identity, compliance, integration, development, infrastructure and operational requirements that are concerns of larger enterprises. Additionally, IBM can also inject its professional services capabilities into selling opportunities as well. IBM has engagements that can deliver consulting services at the organizational, business process and technology levels.
So what’s not to like? While there is tremendous potential in what IBM is bringing to market, and its is refreshing to see major vendors adding credibility to the space, there are some areas of concern.
First, “social software in a box” in-and-of-itself does not guarantee success. If the software components are to have synergy with each other they need to be designed in a manner that satisfies a variety of individual, group (e.g., community) and network needs. Adoption is heavily influenced by relationship factors as well as work and lifestyle needs (including aspects such as context, relevance, convenience and so on). While the software has been successful used within IBM, we need to see some additional use-case scenarios and proof-points to validate how a packaged solution has advantages over discreet tools used individually in a loosely-coupled manner.
Second, IBM seems to be positioning Connections (at least at this point), to a CXO-level audience, touting its business transformational impacts that can improve growth and facilitate innovation. I don’t disagree with the assertion, but it’s similar to selling dog food to the dog owner and forgetting about whether the dog wants it or even likes it. IBM needs to balance the CXO-level messaging revealed at Lotusphere with a complimentary message that focuses on the workers themselves. Ultimately, success of Lotus Connections will be determined not by the CEO but by the line worker. How well an enterprise deals with its underlying organizational dynamics (such as culture) and is able to positively influence viral and organic adoption patterns are critically important for the success of socially-oriented systems.
These systems might be sold top-down but value will be driven bottom-up.
I can foresee some spectacular failures if a CXO pushes for deployment of Connections with the belief that people will socially engage themselves and actively participate at a community level simply because the technology is available to do so. I wish it was that easy – but experience over the past decade or more has proven that technology is not the silver bullet. IBM needs to be somewhat more forthright in rationalizing Connections as a solution that needs to go hand-in-hand with a health-check on organizational readiness. Some companies will need to re-examine their formal institutions and programs before becoming a “social enterprise”. That said, organizations that are already healthy when it comes to culture and community-building will likely have fewer barriers to adoption and will more rapidly blend the technology into their daily work practices and interactions with other people inside and outside the company.
Third, IBM needs to build out the partner ecosystem around Lotus Connections. I was surprised not to see other business partners and third-party vendors announcing support or demonstrating how they extend the product through plug-ins, mashups and so on. Perhaps that will occur over the next few months leading up to the formal release.
Lastly, while Connections represents enormous opportunity for its professional services group, IBM needs to ensure that the technology can be bootstrapped without the need of a consulting engagement.