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.

IBM is using its Community Tools software internally, which allows a person to submit a query to a community of users. People can respond to the notification and respond over an instant messaging service. If more than 10 people respond to a query, then a community chat site will automatically start up.

IBM has found that a small percentage of people respond to these queries. But even a few connections allow people to discover each other and their common interests, Rhodin said.

"We think that's a pretty powerful concept--you've just gotten 10 experts together, that may not have known each other, to collaborate on a business problem. That's a powerful tool," he said.

Traditional content management and collaboration applications usually focus on the creation of a document or presentation, Rhodin said, whereas many technologies and practices associated with social-networking sites focus on people and connections between people.

In addition to these social-networking features, IBM will be building in more support for the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and Atom syndication protocols.

Sametime instant messaging can already read RSS feeds. And IBM is looking to use Atom and scripting languages in Domino Designer, a tool for writing Notes-based applications, Rhodin said.

Mining connections
Burton Group's Hobert said that content management software from different providers is starting to gain tools that allow people to collaborate and communicate without having to quit one application and start another.

A person using instant messaging could, for example, pull up another person's contact information from a corporate directory or sales information from enterprise applications.

Having software to view the connections among different people in an organization can be valuable as well, she said.

"I know this user is working with these users on these topics. So if can't get a hold of one, then maybe the others can assist me," Hobert said. "The tools are exposing information so users can make inferences."

IBM intends to build its social-networking features onto its server software and make those features available from Sametime, Notes or a Web browser.

Sametime and the upcoming version of Notes, code-named Hannover, which will go into beta in the fourth quarter, both run on the Eclipse Rich Client Platform, which allows IBM and third parties to build add-on programs for voice, video or other services.

To make them suitable for corporate customers, IBM will add features to audit or retain information from online discussions, Rhodin said.

"Ad-hoc, interpersonal processes are a great opportunity to eke out more productivity," said Rhodin. "A lot of these concepts have been around for a while, but the user inferfaces have become more approachable."

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