Those that were at IBM Connect or on recent partner calls may have seen versions of this presentation from Jason Roy Gary of IBM. However, I am thrilled to find a video version recorded at last week’s FOSSASIA 2017 event held in Singapore.
Jason is a Distinguished Engineer and since last year has lead the IBM Connections engineering team. It’s fair to say that his arrival has resulted in a dramatic revolution in the way that IBM is approaching the Connections product, infrastructure and development process. The plans for Connections Pink demonstrate this in an emphatic way.
In this presentation, Jason outlines his beliefs, the challenges that vendors face in 2017, and why an open approach is essential for enterprise software. It is a fascinating hour’s worth of listening, and I’d recommend it to any IBM customer or partner.
They told us at Connect that IBM Connections 6.0 would be made available in Q1, and here’s the announcement that they’ll be sneaking it across the line on the 31st March…
Connections V6.0 adds new capabilities for creating and customizing engaging Communities, and offers users increased flexibility in syncing and managing their online and offline Files folders.
Community customization capabilities can help to make a Community more useful and engaging for the Community members.
Doing so can lead to greater Community participation and provides a more effective collaboration experience for the Community members.
File folders can be taken offline to a PC for local work and then synchronized with the online folders.
Advanced analytics provide an optional personalized and prioritized home page that will surface information that is most relevant for the individual.
The significant new features are highlighted in the announcement letter, along with some of the implementation details:
Communities are more customizable
Advanced Community customization capabilities provide Community owners additional options for designing their custom Community. These changes allow a Community to be more useful and engaging, leading to increased community vitality. As Community owners build these vibrant communities, they can copy the existing layouts and designs from one Community into a new one.
Community owners can:
Create Community experiences with enhanced rich text content editing, so that Community members can enjoy an engaging experience.
Choose from new modern layouts with a horizontal navigation bar to better use space on Community pages and match the Community’s purpose more effectively.
Create new Communities faster by choosing from existing layouts, which can help to save time and establish guidelines for Community design.
Reduce clutter on Community pages by hiding a widget while retaining its link in the navigation menu.
Files delivers added flexibility
Files users can select a top-level folder in their Files and mark it for sync. This permits the users to take the content of entire folders offline to their desktop and keep them synchronized with the files on the server.
Relevant updates are brought front and center
A new optional program, IBM Connections Orient Me, can be used with Connections V6.0 to provide new home page capabilities that apply advanced analytics to surface information and people that are most relevant to an individual.
Individuals can take advantage of new capabilities provided by Connections Orient Me:
See, at a glance, the updates and information most relevant to users, displayed in a new visual layout and prioritized based on their interaction with content and people.
Apply new content and people filters to better control what users see.
More easily view updates grouped by a person, a Community, or content.
Receive suggestions about the people most likely to be important and relevant to their work.
See a snapshot of their day in the Action Center, accessible throughout Connections.
Connections Orient Me is planned for availability on the availability date of Connections V6.0. Connections Orient Me is planned to be made available for download from the Fix Central website by organizations with entitlement to Connections V6.0
As previously blogged, this is set to be the final on-premises release of Connections built the run wholly on the traditional platform of WebSphere/DB2/IHS/TDI etc. Connections Pink will start to arrive in pieces from later this year, running on an entirely more dynamic and easier-to-manage infrastructure. You will need to be running 6.0 to make that transition, so start the planning process now to get there as soon as you can.
Connections 6.0 will be available to download from Passport Advantage or Partnerworld as usual.
Earlier this week IBM published a press release previewing the headline features of the upcoming new on-premises release of Connections:
IBM today announced it is bringing new capabilities to enterprise social networks for a simpler collaboration across the workforce and employee onboarding experience. The latest version of IBM Connections also integrates with IBM Cloud Object Storage, providing companies an ability to scale their storage needs with their employee’s usage while improving storage costs.
The press release most notably included the GA date for Connections 6:
The newest version of IBM Connections will be available on March 28.
Some of the key new features are mentioned in the press release:
A new Homepage experience (known as called ‘Orient Me’) designed to do a better job of surfacing topical and relevant content from across the individual user’s network. This new feature makes use of a new containerised, API-driven architecture to select and display the most relevant information for the user, providing a more interactive experience that the old activity-stream Homepage ever offered.
Connections 6 also provides a “Touchpoint” onboarding experience for new users, offering a a more helpful and intuitive introductory process for new users, with easy login, ability to follow colleagues and join communities to begin working more efficiently. (A few years ago I discussed a previous iteration of the Touchpoint technology back when it was a paid asset offered by IBM Services.)
The ability to copy designs and layouts from existing communities enables more effective and standardised community management, as well as saving time when setting up new use cases.
An improved user experience for file access provides a simple to use interface and desktop sync for easier access to files, providing large file uploads, rich text editor, new preview/editing features in File Viewer and search improvements.
Integration with IBM Cloud Object Storage enables a hybrid option for Connections, storing the ever-increasing volumes of social data and allowing companies easy access to that information for analytics and new learning.
All these enhancements are valuable for loyal Connections customers and their employees, particularly the new Orient Me feature which has been needed for as long as I can remember. It’s similarity to the Verse user experience is pleasing for those that run both Verse and Connections, and I look forward to testing the effectiveness of the filters and AI-driven content selection when it becomes available. (I would still like to have seen more options for pushed Corporate Communications-style content, rather than what seems to be a sole focus on content from the user’s network, but we can’t have everything…)
However, in my mind there is no doubt that the single most important enhancement contained in Connections 6 is not mentioned at all in IBM’s communication, and so it is that which I want to explore here.
It’s all about the Use Case…
My methodology for deploying effective and engaging online communities is based on a foundation of well-defined use cases, developed by understanding the immediate needs of employees and community members within a specific context, the issues they face in their current workflows and business processes, and the cast and audience that are (or should be) engaged within the activity being analysed.
Some (very high-level) sample use cases could be:
A marketing team creating promotional campaign materials and delivering them to the sales channels
A sales team working together and working with supporting teams to respond to a tender with a proposal for products and services
A customer service team taking customer questions, finding the answers and responding to the customer
A corporate communications team communicating the strategy of the company to all employees
A research & development team creating new products and delivering them to the market
Once the use case is defined in detail, we move on to the containers, content types and interaction methods that will best support an improved approach within the online community. Lastly, we develop and publish wireframes that specify how use case content, calls to action and navigation will be surfaced within the community. Finally we build the defined use case within the technology, seed content and invite pilot users.
In this way, each and every use case has its own definition, interaction model, layout and flavour. Sure, common patterns are often a starting point (for example, communities of practice often follow a similar design and structure, no matter what the practice might be), but the look and feel of the use case will be different – the content types, calls to action, navigation and surfaced information will be specific and relevant to the use case supported.
This approach has always been difficult to implement in Connections. The definition phases could be undertaken, but when it came to delivering a customised experience for each use case that reflected the requirements of the audience, the process or workflow to be undertaken there, and the actions that users are being called to engage with, the static nature and feature-driven of the Connections community model was always a hindrance.
Here’s a relatively positive and visually appealing experience within a Connections community, taken from an IBM marketing screenshot:
Whilst the order of the widgets in the centre column can be customised, a graphical overview pane created, and a few of the community’s options tweaked, really every Connections ‘place’ will follow the same structure. Most critically, the various content types (blog posts, wiki articles, forum discussions etc.) can only be displayed in their specific widget, and with no real context as to how those content types should be used or when they are relevant. In addition, most follow a strict sort order, versus allowing curation by the community manager.
Look at how this differs from a similar Sales ‘place’ within a demo Jive environment:
The place owner gets to choose the column layout, the banner, the tile selection and placement, a variety of dynamic and static display options, including a number that allow curation of specific content, people, places and links.
In addition, each of the first four tabs on the place header (Overview, Sales Development, Field Sales and Sales Engineering) are different layouts surfacing content within this place and from around the community:
[Please note that I don’t hold the above Sales place up as a particularly great example of design or configuration in a Jive context, it’s just a pre-seeded place that I have available to screenshot, and is somewhat similar in purpose to the IBM example.]
This isn’t meant to bash Connections, both that product and Jive-n/x have their own advantages and disadvantages, but it’s always been apparent to me that if we want to encourage specific groups of users (say Sales) to adopt our platform, or wish to support their specific use cases (a need to onboard new salespeople more quickly and effectively), then we have to have a means to create a user experience that is relevant, engaging and carefully considered. This needs to be easier to create
So what’s the killer enhancement in Connections 6?
In Connections 6, place owners will finally get the ability to create truly modern communities that better support a wider variety of use cases:
With new widget layouts, greater levels of customisation at the menu and design level, and a fresh new look, Connections 6 will allow community managers to create engaging places that suit the needs of their community members.
Whilst Connections communities still have some way to go to match the level of place customisation, navigation and curation available in Jive, these new features do bring Connections much closer, and more importantly allow existing on-prem customers and community managers to immediately improve the user experience for their users.
As IBM continues forward towards the vision that is Connections Pink, I would love to see them continue to further develop the community layout model, allowing more visual widget options (for those vital Calls to Action) and widgets that enable selection of multiple content types (all content tagged ‘project’, or all content created in the past 7 days, or featured content as selected by the community manager etc.).
However, this is definitely a step in the right direction, and I look forward to working with the new functionality!
IBM Sametime is a robust communications offering designed to accelerate your social business by driving faster decisions, with more complete information powered by the business experts in your organization. The suite of tools in Sametime helps unlock the value in your underutilized communications systems by integrating them into a more intuitive system. Sametime tools and services can be accessed from within the applications and business processes that you use every day.
Support for Sametime V9.0.1 is extended to September 2021.
Support for the following associated entitlements is also extended to September 2021:
It has been obvious for a while that the future for the IBM Sametime brand and product set is not overwhelmingly positive.
As I see it, there are several key drivers for this situation:
The marketplace has shifted away from heavyweight on-prem unified communications platforms towards more nimble, lighter-weight cloud-based social communications tools such as Slack, Vidyo, Hangouts and Zoom. I’m hearing from increasing numbers of customers that they’ve either migrated away from Sametime or Lync/Skype for Business, or else are no longer considering such solutions in their budgeted plans.
IBM’s partnership with Cisco suggests that it will rely on Cisco’s well-regarded tools and services in this area in the future.
Sametime’s long-time need for on huge (1GB+) client installs and clunky Java-based browser plugins means that continued restructuring would need to be undertaken to keep it relevant in the modern world of mobile devices, apps and constant software delivery of new features.
The future of some of the underlying components, most notably Domino, but also the WebSphere stack is no longer guaranteed. We’ve seen a previous announcement of extended support for Domino (to the same September 2021 date), but there’s little doubt that further investment in unified communications solutions built on Domino is extremely unlikely.
All that said, I think IBM is making a good decision to very clearly commit to supporting both Domino and Sametime for the next 4.5 years. This gives its customers a decent runway to plan for the future and to consider their options. Many customers have been using both platforms for a decade or more, and shifting away will not be straightforward.
The challenge for IBM is to develop alternative solutions, whether home-brewed (such as Watson Workspace) or in partnership with Cisco or other similar vendors, that are both forward-looking and also of a quality and scale that can support both medium-sized and enterprise customers.
I’ve been impressed with the Connections Pink announcement in terms of plans to build a dynamic new infrastructure based on modern open-source components and services, with a clear migration path from the old developed-at-IBM heavy duty frameworks. If IBM wants to stay active in the UC space and keep those customers, I fear it would need an effort of similar size and cost to replace Sametime (or at least the components and features that are still relevant today).
Worryingly, IBM is now 2-3 years behind the curve in the area of social and video communications platforms and so those new solutions are needed now, not in a year or two’s time…
I was expecting to hear more of their plans announced (or at least intimated) at the recent IBM Connect conference, but as far as I have seen communicated, nothing has been forthcoming beyond a cementing of the relationship with Cisco and maintaining a holding pattern in terms of detailing plans for the future of Sametime’s feature set. (This extended support announcement is at least helpful in giving reassurance that support will not be withdrawn sooner than 2021.)
If you’re an IBM Sametime customer (or partner), I’d love to hear from you… What are your plans for the future? Do you remain loyal to Sametime for the time being? Are you already in the process of migrating to other solutions? Do let me know via a comment or email!