Professionals are social too
Jeffrey Schick, VP of IBM’s Social Software division, reveals why social networking makes good business sense
I’m not one to gamble but chances are you’re probably reading this interview with Facebook or Twitter just a tab away…
It’s hardly prophetic considering this age of laptops and BlackBerrys, but while we’re used to connecting through social networking services in our personal lives it’s also something we’re accepting, and even demanding, in our careers.
Tech giant IBM launched Lotus Connections, a business-ready social networking application, in the beginning of 2007 to an eager client base. Sceptics however were more eager to find out if it was simply a case of companies hesitant to be the last man standing idly by as the Web 2.0 wave swelled or if they genuinely believed in the benefits involved.
We caught up with Jeffrey Schick, VP of IBM’s Social Computing Software division, to find out how companies really approach the business of social software today.
“I think in the very beginning when we launched Lotus Connections back in 2007, for sure the meetings we had with clients were because they were hearing so many things about social networking, and their own experiences on LinkedIn and Facebook…I think now people are really looking at it because they understand that if I use these sort of collaboration technologies I can connect people with people, and people with information, easier than before,” he states.
The Lotus Connections suite, which offers five distinct tools – profiles, communities, activities, bookmarks and blogs, is now the fastest growth organic software product in IBM’s long history.
According to Schick, it has attracted millions of users in the two short years since it hit the market. “It’s tens of millions moving to hundreds of millions in a very rapid way,” he confidently states.
While the rise seems meteoric, it needs to be understood that companies are using the product in vastly different ways. For example, HSBC have rolled it out to their workforce of about 385,000 people globally as a means to collaborate, interact and communicate. At the other end of the spectrum, the Practising Law Institute in the United States have used it to create a create a community where lawyers can access content, keep updated and interact with both educators and their peers. Every attorney in the States must attend a course from the Institute annually to retain their licence so it’s easy to see why it’s members number in the millions.
Bashar Kilani, manager of software business at IBM Middle East, told itp.net in October last year that companies in the Middle East need a cultural change before they could fully embrace Web 2.0 and use social networking tools to enhance business productivity. While the trend might’ve been slow to catch on in this region, Schick is upbeat about the market today.
“I’ve met with a set of clients (in the Middle East) that were very very interested in the collaboration and social software technology, and they’re very open to the idea of how best to share information and move beyond email as their sole collaboration tool….we have some pretty interesting projects underway in the region as well,” Schick states.
The beta version of Lotus Connections 2.5 release, which will be available in July, went live recently and reflects productive additions such as micro-blogging functionality and message boards embedded in profiles.
“We have full-fidelity profiles and we’ve added a Twitter-like micro-blogging capability directly into the profile. There’s a lot of use of Twitter that’s narcissistic but really when you start to put something like that to business-purpose use it’s a very powerful feature,” Schick points out, adding that “…in Facebook people have that Wall where people write on; now we’ve added to Connections the Wall-type feature – we call it the Board. It’s absolutely helping folks to better communication and better interact and connect.”
With access to a constant stream of information, it’s left some wondering if there’s such a thing as staying ‘too connected’, which Schick refutes.
“What’s the penalty for not getting the right person over the right opportunity at the right time? What’s the penalty by not being able to retrieve information very quickly? What’s the penalty for not leveraging best business practices over the organisation?” he rebuffs. “My thought here is that a good idea can come from the top of the organisation as well as the bottom, from inside as well as outside. Innovation doesn’t have to be big fireworks and sparks; it can come from somebody who’s just a user of your capability or somebody who is part of the extended team, coming in and relating their experience which could then help you improve the business process.”
“I don’t know that I’ve seen any aspects of over-extending your connectivity because quite naturally you start to put up barriers. If I turn myself on with instant message and I’m getting too many questions, I can back away from that,” he concludes.
In a market where the ‘next big thing’ is just round the corner and could potentially change the way we live, IBM’s software team is focusing on two main areas over the next few years. One is the idea of ‘social everywhere’ to infuse social software and collaboration into the very core of how people work and the other involves Web 3.0.
“For me that’s really the semantic web - the web that now moves beyond just displaying information but making sense of information by allowing a level of intelligence and intention management and insight to be derived from all of the collaborative input,” he explains of the Web 3.0 phenomenon.
Wolfram Alpha, a search engine that’s scheduled to launch later this month, is being hailed as one of the Web 3.0 pioneers. It can understand and respond to ordinary language, answering questions directly instead of throwing up a list of search results for specific search queries. It’s the beginning of a whole new chapter in internet history.
Which brings us to an important question - when the next big thing happens will you already be in the know and reaping the productive rewards…or waiting for the memo?