The Lotus IBM Collaboration Solutions space is an incredible demonstration of what online communities can become through the truly altruistic efforts of its members. I’ve always known that, but stepping away somewhat over the past year has allowed me to observe the relationships, events and online activities through a new and less obscured lens. A little distance and independence has done nothing but confirm the wonderfully inclusive family-like nature of this community.
A little background
Looking all the way back to the nascent days of groupware created by the Lotus company itself, through the glory years of Notes and Domino, and onto the current focus around Connections, so many of the technologists that took to these products were also the ones that truly understood the nature of online community. Perhaps that should not have been a surprise to anyone (as the products were nothing without connected and committed individuals to utilise them) but it has always been remarkable that the ever-changing and dynamic group of individuals that met at Lotusphere each January, then stayed in touch via personal websites/blogs, forums and IM chats, bonded in a way that never seemed to happen with the same compelling force around other products.
As I’ve taken my own steps into the wider digital transformation space over the past 8 years or so, and thus connected with hundreds of thought leaders and change agents around the world, it has become evident to me that a significant majority of movers and shakers in this industry have Lotus products in their backgrounds. Given how widely Notes and Domino were used in large enterprises back in the late 90s and early 2000s, perhaps this is inevitable, but I personally believe that there is a deeper and more powerful reason – that the potential of collaboration unleashed by these products lit the spark within so many of us.
What makes this even more remarkable is that the support for the community from the vendor whose products we advocate has been somewhat inconsistent over the years. This isn’t meant to be a dig at IBM, it is a commercial organisation for whom quarterly sales results and ‘shareholder value’ are at the core of all that it does. For some, the effort of sustaining the community-facing support has been too much, whereas for others, the occasional raging fire that needed to be extinguished was simply too controversial and difficult to defend. That said, many of those IBMers that have been at the coalface over the years have absolutely understood the nature of the community, and the value it offers to IBM itself, to partners and most of all, to customers – amongst many others, I’m looking at Mary-Beth, Alan, Ed, Louis, Niklas, Suzie, Luis, Debora, Joyce, Colleen, Susan, Wes, Oli, Amanda and Mat.
What those remarkable individuals have understood is that the community has a tone, culture and internal organisation all of its own.
Whilst ’the Yellowverse’ has been (mostly) loyal to IBM and its technology over all these years, it is fiercely independent, cares deeply about its members and wants to do its absolute best for the wider community of customer organisations and those that build and use the products. That passion and commitment has most vividly shone through the independent user groups that have sprung up over the past decade or more. A few years ago, these were typically named using a acronym that included ‘LUG’ (Lotus User Group), and now tend toward verbs such as Inform and Engage! However, whatever the name, the user groups were typically inspired by one or more deeply committed individuals, most commonly self-employed or working for independent business partners. From small monthly afternoon gatherings in a defined geography, through to vast multi-national multi-day events that boast internationally renown speakers, these user groups have in my opinion been the engine that has enabled the IBM collaboration community to remain a force over so many years, even as the success of the products has ebbed and flowed.
Why this post?
Back in 2011, it was clear that social software (and specifically Connections) was one of the significant bright spots in the Lotus product set, and yet the majority of the user groups were still very Notes/Domino-focused. Two good friends (Sharon and Simon) and I chatted about this and how the lack of regular in-person Connections-focused events was hindering the growth of the community, and thus how prospective customers might be scared by the lack of case studies from customers that had delivered successful projects and initiates on the platform. From this spark, we founded Social Connections, and to cut a very long story just a little shorter, we’ve just hosted our 9th major international event, each held in a different nation and on both sides of the Atlantic. Well over 1000 individuals have attended (many have been at multiple events), and our awesome speakers have delivered more than 300 sessions. Amazing stats!
As with most of the other user groups, the growth of Social Connections was built on my own initial investment in the idea, and then bankrolled through a combination of support from IBM, amazing ISV and business partner sponsors, and then more lately, via tickets sold to attendees. There have been times when we’ve turned a small profit, and others when we’ve made a big loss. I now know far far more than I ever wanted to learn about international tax, insurance and data protection laws! All of this was managed through my own small company, and we’ve been blessed to have made it so far.
One of the most significant reasons why Social Connections has been a success has been the incredible willingness of community members to step up and to join the volunteer organisation team. Members have come and gone as their own circumstances have changed, but we’ve never wanted for individuals that have been willing to give their time and resources to plan and deliver the events. This shouldn’t be taken lightly, as I’d estimate that each team member gives up at least 100 hours free-of-charge to make an event happen. That’s a massive commitment alongside their own careers and family lives. I owe a great debt to Simon, Sharon, Lisa, Femke, Janneke, Brian, Sandra, Luis, Martin, Jan, Wannes, Maria, Lars, Doug and Christoph (and of course to their companies and their families).
As members of the team have given up their own time and resources, so the event has also taken a toll on my own situation. Finances, risk, admin and accounting, the events themselves. All of this has eaten into my own time, or more accurately my time with my beautiful family. In effect, I’ve used my own holiday allocation every year plus many evenings and weekends to run these events. At the same time, what little direct benefit to my own career as been reduced as I’ve moved away from direct involvement with IBM Connections.
Running Social Connections has been tremendously rewarding from a personal perspective – hosting and speaking at the events, plus the social side has been hugely enjoyable. That said, it has slowly dawned on me that this does not justify the cost involved.
Something had to give, and I’m determined that it shouldn’t be my family.
Following many discussions amongst the team during 2015, we’ve taken a series of steps to ensure the future of Social Connections without my direct involvement. The details have been shared over on the Social Connections site, but be reassured that the organisation is now in a stronger position than ever to deliver bigger and better events in 2016 and beyond.
With this in mind, as of 31st December 2015, I have resigned from the Social Connections team, and handed over my responsibilities to Wannes, Simon and the rest of the team. There are a few loose ends to tie up, but I am delighted that planning for the next event is already well underway, and that the team are doing this independently of my own input.
I will of course stay in touch, and will always be proud of what we achieved, but at the same time I am so sure that the time is right to hand over the reins.
Thank you to everyone that has helped with Social Connections over the past 5 years – whether you have organised, spoken, sponsored, attended or supported the event in any way. It has truly been a ball, some of the absolute highlights of my professional life, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way…
I know that Social Connections will continue to thrive, and in fact, will likely be larger and more successful without my own time constraints.
Go well, team!