Lotusphere 2011 – my review in 6 posts 2) The Social Business message

[ Ah, that took rather longer than I’d expected! Real life getting in the way again 😉 ]

So, post 1 covered the stats and the take-aways from Lotusphere 2011.

This post is discussing the main topic of this year’s event – Social Business.  I know you’ll all have missed that, ‘cos it wasn’t mentioned much! 😉

IBM Social Business @ Lotusphere 2011
(Image courtesy of Jon Roling on Flickr)

The theme

Unlike most other Lotusphere themes (Envision Decisions, FutureInSight, Emergence, Resonance etc.), the tagline of Lotusphere 2011 – ‘Get Social. Do Business.’ – really did sum up the significant message from the conference.  Social Business was the thread that ran through all the keynotes, was mentioned in almost every session I attended and was taken to heart by every almost attendee I met.

So, do we all understand what IBM means by ‘Social Business’?  I’m sure that the high-level message of the need for all businesses to begin operating outside their walls, in ways that break down knowledge silos, enabling employees, customers and partners was understood. In particular, Andrew McAfee did a great job of expounding on what Enterprise 2.0 (his term for Social Collaboration or Social Business) software is, and how he sees it revolutionising businesses and organisations in all geographies and verticals.  For me, that was the turning point of the conference, when the audience began to really understand the possibilities of Social Business, and IBM followed this up particularly well in the rest of the Wednesday keynote, by laying out how the rest of the IBM solutions portfolio (Cognos, Rational etc.) will be building on Social technology in the future.

The vision

I think that overall, the vision was articulated pretty well – this being something that Collaboration Matters has been talking about with our customers for years now – that organisations need to adopt facets of Social computing inside, outside and through the firewall; that organisations can operate in a flatter and more dynamic way with both employees and external contacts, and that innovation can be embraced by increasing knowledge flow.  Whilst I certainly didn’t enjoy the panel discussions in the keynotes (2-minute videos of each case study would have worked much better), the customers involved did outline areas in which Social Business projects have had a significant effect on their profitability, staff retention and customer loyalty.  Those are the kinds of use cases that all of us can use in the future to assist other organisations to understand the benefits of Social Business.

But…

Where I believe that IBM did not do a good job was in outlining ways in which organisations can get from here to there – from the messaging and collaboration infrastructure and techniques in use today to this grand vision of Social Business that we expect to see in 3-5 years.  To some extent, that is because the tools don’t exist in the right forms today – whilst Connections, Domino, Quickr and Sametime are all ‘Social’ in one form or another, none of them fulfills all the aspects of Social Business.  Plus, of course, there is cultural change that needs to be embraced alongside the technology.  However, besides ‘buy Connections’ (and yes, we’d be happy to deploy it for you!), and watch out for the ‘Next’ versions of the products, I never really felt that IBM outlined a clear methodology or roadmap for businesses to transition to Social Business.  Perhaps that kind of content was delivered at the Social Business Symposium over at the Y&B, but it certainly wasn’t on display in the keynotes or the session presentations I’ve seen.

‘Social Business’ as a brand

IBM has clearly begun an effort to own the term “Social Business’.  Whilst many vendors are talking about “Enterprise 2.0”, “Social Media” or “Social Computing”, IBM has put a marker in the sand around “Social Business” and “Get Social. Do Business.”  If this is subsequently backed up by real marketing and TV advertising (yes I know!), then it could build a real brand around the terminology and use it for a significant period of time (much as it did with ‘eBusiness’ and ‘onDemand’).

However, there’s work to do… Looking at the results to a Google or Bing search for “Social Business’, none of the first 10 results I found were for IBM sites, nor even for coverage of Lotusphere.  IBM doesn’t own either the socialbusiness.com or getsocialdobusiness.com domains that could be leveraged for this campaign, and as far as I can tell, it hasn’t trademarked either term.

Inside & outside…

The other major issue as it stands is that there is no obvious means of enabling social ‘through the firewall’ in the Lotus portfolio either as it stands or as outlined for the ‘Next’ versions.  Quickr does this but in a relative formal project-based way, whereas Connections doesn’t play at all well in this space right now.  LotusLive could provide a way forward, but even then, many organisations are not yet ready for cloud, and it is yet another silo to manage.  This needs to be addressed ASAP.

Drinking one’s own champagne

Much was made of IBM’s own transition to being a Social Business – this has been picked up in many areas of the tech media.  I definitely applaud this move and evidence of the move was available throughout Lotusphere.  Whilst there is still much work to do, this is inevitable in an organisation the size of IBM (or even just the size of the IBM Collaboration Solutions business unit).

However, this again raises a concern for me, which stands for almost every IBM solution – IBM is not the same as 99.9% of organisations I meet.  The tools and techniques that IBM uses internally will not work for all organisations, particularly for the massive majority of organisations – those with less than 1,000 employees.  Whilst ‘drinking one’s own champagne’ is definitely a good thing, I would love IBM to also sample other tipples once in a while, and to also recognise that others will have different beverage tastes!  As I raised at the ‘Ask the Product Managers’ session at Lotusphere, in some areas freemium tools such as DropBox are absolutely killing products in the Lotus portfolio, and IBM must start using and understanding these tools and technologies to ensure that they understand why for smaller businesses (and the consumers that run them), they fit the bill so brilliantly.  For products such as Quickr and Connections to make inroads in these areas, they much be made more small-business-friendly…

In summary

I think IBM made a great start of launching Social Business as a strategy at Lotusphere 2011.  I just hope that we will see this start being built upon, every week through 2011.  There is much work to be done!

The series:
1) The Stats and the take-aways
2) The Social Business message
3) The Keynotes
4) The people of Lotusphere
5) The social side
6) The future of Lotusphere
7) Where do we go from here?

Stuart McIntyre is a Senior Strategist at Fostering Community Limited. He curates a number of product-focused news sites, is a lapsed podcaster, founded the Social Connections user group and regularly speaks at conferences and events. This blog represents his own slightly-eccentric and usually-controversial opinions!