RealTime IT News

IBM Makes Social Computing Push For Business

ORLANDO -- IBM  outlined its opening gambit in what promises to be a fiercely competitive race to bring social computing inside the enterprise firewall.

Social computing is a component of Web 2.0  that is characterized by blogs, tagging of Web sites and social networking, and has thus far had a greater impact among consumers than businesses.

But the Armonk, N.Y.-based software vendor is betting that customers will be intrigued by the potential of these kinds of technologies to enhance productivity and stimulate innovation within their organizations.

IBM's new social computing platform, Lotus Connections, includes five basic components: Profiles, Communities, Dogear, Blogs and Activities.

Jeff Schick, vice president of social software at IBM, referred to it as "an enterprise-ready, social software platform offering, built as loosely-coupled, extensible services that promise an integrated environment for collaboration." Schick spoke about the new platform during a keynote session here Monday evening.

Companies need to stimulate innovation after having spent years trimming the fat and working on efficiency, said Schick. But, he argued, "you can't impose innovation -- you have to nurture it."

Schick, along with several other IBM executives, described the platform as being modular, but their presentations made clear that the five components work best together.

The Profiles component shows basic contact information for employees, and includes communities to which they belong, and links to their book-marked sites, blogs if they have one and activities they have in common with the searcher.

"My father always told me that to succeed in business, you need good connections," Schick said.

The Communities application allows employees to organize themselves by community of interest, and allows viewers to see the names of community members as well as their profiles and their bookmarks.

Community members add comments about the subject around which the community has been formed and can reply to each others' comments.

Ronnie Maffa, director of social computing at IBM, explained that this ability is a good way for companies to retain knowledge as people move into other spheres in the organization or leave it entirely.

"As the network grows, you can connect with people in the future and you can leave things behind for people in the future and learn things from people who came before," she told internetnews.com.

The Dogear application is another collaborative way of finding information. Much like consumer tagging applications like Yahoo's del.icio.us, it is used to book-mark relevant Web sites; users can also subscribe to a given individual's dogears, much as they would subscribe to a blog, or they can view other sites which the same individual has dogeared.

Many knowledge management applications require users to apply metadata tags from a pre-determined list of categories. Dogear, in contrast, lets people enter tags of their own devising. However, they are shown tags applied by other colleagues as they begin to enter their own tag labels. According to Mike Rhodin, general manager of Lotus, this is a more effective means of developing what is known as a "folksonomy."

"Tagging is an implementation of metadata that people will actually use," said Rhodin.

Ajamu Wesley, senior technical staff member for community-centric collaboration at IBM, noted that this can save time by allowing users to get information from subject-matter experts who don't have time to chat.

"The person may not be available, but you can see where they get their information from, they've already vetted it... It saves time. People talk about the value of freeing up data locked up in databases, and now you can do that on a human scale," he said.

The Activities application allows users to aggregate all the information about a project -- including electronic correspondence, dog-eared Web sites and potential team members and subject-matter experts within the organization. It also allows users to save the activity once it has ended in order to replicate the same process for future projects.

Rhodin noted during an earlier keynote that social computing is "all about empowering people and organizations that didn't know they had common interests." It also encourages people to add taxonomies to information without trying to enforce rigid structures down the throats of unwilling employees.

Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT Research, said that companies may have a hard time understanding how social computing can add value rather than distract their employees from the task at hand. But he said that IBM has done a good job of breaking down the concept into a way that's easy for enterprises to understand. "They've extrapolated the business value of each of the five elements in a way that's pretty compelling," he told internetnews.com.

King noted that there are several vendors offering aspects of social computing for the enterprise space, but that none of them have done so in a holistic manner.

IBM "takes the concept of social computing and puts it in a business context, and it's not something I've seen anyone else do," he said.