IBM warms to social networking

Can MySpace show IBM how to sell collaboration software? Lotus GM Michael Rhodin thinks so.

IBM is building social networking tools into its collaboration software in an effort to bring the concepts of Web 2.0 and online communities inside corporations.

In the coming weeks, IBM's Lotus division will announce updates designed to encourage ad-hoc communications among a customer's staff, Michael Rhodin, the general manager of IBM's Lotus division, told CNET News.com.

The guiding idea behind the effort is to help people tap into the collective knowledge of their co-workers, in much the way consumer social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook connect people online.

"The real phenomenon of Web 2.0 is the concept of community," Rhodin said. "What if you could create tools that allow you to tap into the collaborative wisdom of a community?"

IBM's collaboration software--namely, its Notes client software, Sametime instant messaging, and Web portal software--will gain capabilities from a project called IBM Community Tools, Rhodin said.

These tools, due out in the "near future," will allow an individual worker to ask a group of colleagues if they know the answer a specific question, he said. Later versions will make use of IBM's Dogear, a social bookmarking system to help different communities share information.

Software vendors, including IBM, Microsoft and Adobe Systems, are cherry picking ideas from the consumer Web to stimulate sales of their corporate software.

Michael Rhodin Michael Rhodin

Each is working on collaboration techniques common to the Web, such as sharing bookmarks, group discussions and tagging. They are building these into products aimed at businesses, noted Karen Hobert, an analyst at the Burton Group.

That's a break from the traditional approach of using content management systems or relying on e-mail for collaboration. And it's a development that could make life a lot easier for people using the software, Hobert said.

"Instead of making users go to a specific tool to get something done, they are making the interfaces to (social networking services) more open and integrated, so users can work from their preferred tool," she said, "so you can interface with your workspace from a mobile device or when you're offline with your laptop."

Knowledge management redux?
In some regards, IBM's embrace of social networking represents another pass at "knowledge management," which promised to make businesses more productive by allowing workers to connect with subject experts or find relevant information.

Those efforts, however, failed to deliver on the goals because they were too structured and mandated, Rhodin said.

"The reason knowledge management failed is quite simple: Knowledge inherently resides in minds. Putting it into a system that can be managed is inherently flawed," he said.

By contrast, social-networking tools tend to be voluntary and controlled by the people that use them.

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