Since I have been writing about IBM’s social software efforts for a while and most recently about Lotus Connections in small bits, (e.g., Activity-based Computing Moves Forward at Lotus Connections) I wanted to cross post his from the App Gap. I was pleased to recently have the chance to have an extended conversation with Suzanne Minassian, Lotus Connections Product Manager. As Suzanne writes in Synch.rono.us, Connections was developed from applications that have been in use inside IBM for years (see The story of Lotus Connections). Connections has six major components: Profiles, Communities, Blogs, Dogear (social bookmarking), Activities, and an aggregation component called the Home Page.
We started our tour with Profiles. Suzanne said that it began in the CIO office in 1988 and eventually became the IBM Blue Pages. Each employee has a page with information about their job, location, background, picture, organization, and more. It provides a place to run searches for people based on those attributes, helping IBMers identify those who might be interested in their work, people who could help with their projects, and teams working on similar projects from across IBM. There are over 360,000 IBMers and over 150,000 more related people on Blue Pages, including consultants and partners, so we know this can scale. A version is now offered to the market through Profiles. Here is a Profile page with widgets, including social tags, reporting structure, colleagues, links. View contact information, background information and aggregated contributions. Download vcard and pronunciation.
The Communities function was also initially developed by the IBM CIO office for internal use. It origins came from Community Maps which provided a way to manage communities, email, and Sametime (aka IM). Elements were added such as discussion forums, ways to share blogs within the community, integration with Sametime as a broadcast channel, and integration with wikis. IBM partners with Socialtext and Alassian for traditional wiki functionality. They will also soon offer wiki capabilities within Connections through Quickr (the new version of QuickPlace). The Quickr wikis tend to be primarily used for team workspaces, which is not surprising.
The blog functionality in Connections came from Blog Central, also developed by the CIO Office from an open source tool called Roller. Blogging was introduced as a way to encourage knowledge sharing within the organization. Many IBMers had external blogs, but an internal blog service gave employees the ability to discuss projects and work at a level of detail that otherwise wouldn’t be suitable externally. I wrote about these early days of Blog Central in a 2004 Portals Magazine article. “IBM set up Blog Central without any restrictions or predetermined uses as a pilot to see what creative uses evolve. Dan Gruen observes that this “hands off” approach has paid off and enabled “bottom up” innovation by individual IBMers. Serendipity, itself, is one of the emerging benefits. Recent blog posts of everyone are displayed at the IBM Blog Central site so participants can see what the others are doing, discovering new ideas, as well as people who have compatible interests. Many new initiatives and relationships are generated this way. This serendipity extends to regular meetings as each participant can look at the other’s blogs to find previously unknown common interests or new ideas to discuss, getting to know more about the others in less time, making meetings more effective. “
Suzanne says that Blog Central is still going strong, serving many different specialty areas within IBM. Sales, engineers, researchers, product evangelists, and experts use their blogs to share information and promote discussions across boundaries. They have updated the interface. There are also many ways to find blog content. Search results within Connections bring back related tags, forums, blogs, wikis and profiles, along with traditional search results. Blogs can also be rated and you can see featured blogs. Here is th blogs tool with ratings and comments.
Social Bookmarking within Connections is provided by the well-known Dogear application created by IBM Research in Cambridge. It was one of the first enterprise social bookmarking tools. In 2004 some IBMers were using del.icio.us but it had its limits. There were also security concerns with having bookmarks on a publically available site, and while you could bookmark internal pages, metadata on that bookmark could share confidential information. Once inside the firewall, the developers added authentication and other features. While they provide the opportunity to make bookmark private, about 4% are marked this way. You can view most popular bookmarks and tags and filter tags to view related ones. You can create watch lists to see what people are doing in Dogear, as well as to follow your favorite tags. You can see who has watch listed you. Within the enterprise you can use tags to find people with similar interests and build your reputation. Internal thought leaders develop a following through watch lists without having to write a blog. You can also provide notifications of tags and write a comment, saving the trouble of writing an email. You can also filter your tags by asking to see only combinations of tags. Now there are over 418,000 public bookmarks within IBM on Dogear.
Activities is another tool developed by IBM Research. It is designed to simplify the work process by connecting the many different communication channels and social software functions related to a single project. It takes the information out of the silos of individual tool and makes information activity centric. You can information directly into Activities or drag and drop information from other tools and add comments. It also has calendaring and contact information. Here is an Activity list with prioritized activities.
Connections allows for extensions through plug-ins that allow you to embed Connections into other tools. This is a good idea and Suzanne said it has increased adoption. You access Connections through Microsoft Office tools, as well as Lotus Symphony. IBM Research and the CIO office are working on new features and capabilities. People have seen the popularity of twitter so now there is an experimental BlueTwit for inside IBM. The Beehive tools are exploring how to use Facebook features like fun walls, photo posting, and high 5’s inside the enterprise. With the opportunity for use and testing within the large IBM population, potential products can be evaluated on usage data across a range of audiences, not just the IT people.
I asked Suzanne about how people can deploy Connections as they are misunderstanding in the market on this issue. You do not need to purchase or have IBM Websphere Portal Server or other IBM products. Connections is offered as a standalone suite of tools. You are provided Websphere application server and access to DB2 at no extra charge. You can also use other databases such as SQL and Oracle. IBM also provides standalone versions of Profiles and Activities. Connections is an on-premise software offering. However, some IBM partners will host it for you, and IBM itself is now offering BlueHouse, a hosting service for small firms, which includes some elements of Connections.
Lotus has been developing community-based software long before Web 2.0. Now with IBM Research and an active CIO office testing new ideas on a portion of the over 500,000 IBMers and external people in the IBM environment, it gives them an opportunity to really test and improve social software in a large enterprise context. I am going to be having several more conversations with Suzanne this summer on this application development process and some of the other tools that have emerged.