S McRaeIn 1973 I arrived at Imperial College, London, as part of their first ever Computer Science undergraduate intake. I soon discovered a couple of departmental teletypes connected to the university CDC 6400 that I could use to send messages to other users of the mainframe.

The following year the department acquired an IBM 370 model 135 mainframe for its own use, and I spent my evenings helping the staff set up VM/370 (thus kick starting a systems programming career). It had a built in email application, which would soon be extended to (via RSCS) to enable networked mail between mainframes and around the world.

SEASAfter graduating, I stayed on at Imperial to support the use of the mainframe for teaching, and got involved with the VM User Group in the UK, SEAS in Europe and SHARE in the US – IBM user associations that helped me to understand Enterprise IT and build a personal network of contacts inside and outside of IBM. By the end of the 70s, we had dial up access to a mainframe in the US running VMShare, a group collaboration system accessed by companies and universities around the world – not dissimilar in capability to the bulletin boards of the 90s and what Facebook then Slack deliver in this century.

Through my network of contacts, in 1983 I joined a UK startup in Reading, UK, called Systell (later renamed Systems & Telecoms), as employee number eight. They had built a solution to connect the Telex machines (the global business network of the day) to Unix systems and my task (after some contract systems programming to fund purchasing an IBM 4331) was as part of a team developing a Telex Solution (VMTelex) for the IBM mainframe. Out first customer was a County Council in the UK, but it was really the oil companies with their extensive Telex networks that drove our business, and led us to an international market.Logos - 1

Our business got a great boost when IBM announced PROFS, the Professional Office System, running on VM, as it was the first recognisable business collaboration solution. We added Fax support to extended the business communication market (creating VMMessenger) and I became Technical Director, on the Board, and helped launch our US subsidiary. Soon we had customers around the world, and IBM became a reseller.

Logos - 2Then in 1990 we sold the company to Soft•Switch, a US vendor of email interoperability software  running on the mainframe (and later as a Unix appliance). As first Product Architect and then Product Manager for the integration of the product lines, I was involved in the evolution of employee collaboration from file sharing based PC email systems (like cc:Mail), to client/server groupware solutions (pioneered by Lotus Notes), and finally, with the emergence of the Internet and SMTP, email switching became redundant (though not before some of our customers were interconnecting twenty-plus different email systems and directories via Soft•Switch).

lotusibmI continued to be focussed on enabling employee collaboration through IT after Lotus acquired Soft•Switch and then IBM acquired Lotus – ending up as the fax/telex Product Line Manager, Shortly after which, we decided that Computer Fax was no longer a growth area and shut the business down! After taking a 6 week sabbatical in the South Pacific, I returned to join the Lotus Notes Worldwide Product Management team, looking for a new emerging technology area. As a result I became responsible for Unified Communications, working closely with the emerging Mobile & Wireless solutions group. That was followed by a return to the European team to manage the technical relationship with Nokia and Ericsson around WAP and their new, emerging Smartphones.

IBM Workplace SplashWhen IBM then announced their re-imagined collaboration portfolio, IBM Workplace, it was natural for me to lead the launch in Europe. Always focussed on the emerging technology! When that ambitious initiative finally closed down, as IBM refocused its collaboration efforts on IBM Connections which fit better with the emerging enterprise social networking market, I was a founder member of the worldwide Tiger Team which was responsible for articulating the business value of this new way to work, helping clients create a business case for their use, and then working with them on technology adoption programs. What we were really doing was enabling the people side of digital transformation, though the phrase wasn’t yet being used. And that’s what I did for the last 10 years of my time with IBM.

Throughout it all, my career was often powered by my user group involvement. I ended up as Chairman of the UK VM User Group and Treasurer on the Board of SHARE Europe (as we rebranded SEAS, before merging it with GUIDE Europe to create Guide Share Europe, GSE). This continued with our heavy involvement in the Electronic Messaging Association in the US, which led to participation in the IETF, where I helped to define Internet standards and became an author of RFC 4239 for Internet Voice Messaging. It also naturally led to participation in EEMA (the European Electronic Messaging Association), where I joined the Board (and remain Vice Chair today, although over the years its focus has moved on from Messaging and Directories to the Identity Management, Trust, Privacy and Security aspects of IT).

During my time with IBM the whole collaboration world has evolved, from email to groupware to knowledge management to enterprise social networking. Meanwhile Enterprise IT struggled to evolve with it – or to cope with the move from PCs to mobile devices as the way people communicate. Technology adoption is hard. I had dinner with Dave Crocker in the late 1990’s. His name is on RFC 822, one of the core standards for Internet mail. He described how people kept saying to him how amazing it was that email had suddenly grown from nothing to dominate enterprise communications in the mid 1990s – whereas he knew that he published that standard at the start of the 1980s.

Looking back, it is interesting how external, inter-company collaboration has been both the holy grail of enterprise collaboration and at the trailing edge of technology adoption by businesses. First telex/fax, and then SMTP, were about the only solutions used until the emergence of internet-based business social networks provided a way for employees to go round the IT department and collaborate externally by themselves. As the digital revolution finally starts to change the shape and structure of enterprises – and, with Cloud, rewrite the definition of enterprise IT – it seems clear that the next generation of enterprises will have a very different attitude to how their employees collaborate.

In the words of Amara’s Law, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”. I like to adapt this thought as “We tend to overestimate enterprise IT’s ability to adopt disruptive technology in the short term and underestimate the change it causes to how enterprise IT works in the long term”.

One thing is clear: change will continue. My last two external events were the ISSE conference in Brussels, where I chaired a panel on Quantum Cryptography, and the EEMA Fireside Debate on Cognitive Machine and Artificial Intelligence, where I led a discussion about the impact of AI on the world of work.

Today I retire from IBM. Reflecting on my career it has been all about the sue of different emerging technologies to improve the way employees work: helping them collaborate, network and influence; and helping the organisation they work for to optimise their processes, motivate their staff, align their activities and gain insight from their conversations.

During those 34 years since I joined that startup in Reading I have been trying to help employees to work together when they are not physically together (separated by time and distance). It’s been quite a journey, from Teletypes & Telex to Quantum Computing & Artificial Intelligence. But its always been about people – who are at the heart of any organisation – and the way they use technology to do their jobs.



Team Collaboration and Employee Engagement

Over the last few years I’ve been spending a lot of time talking to HR people about the way employees use technology to do their jobs. As someone with an IT background, who is often frustrated that conversations around the technology used to communicate and collaborate are too focused on cost of ownership and richness of functionality, rather than on whether the tools actually help employees to do their jobs more effectively, it has been refreshing. As an expert in HR said to me recently, “I don’t care what tools people use, I only care about what they do with them”.

Of course, such discussions also have their frustration – especially when business people say “don’t talk to me about choice of collaboration tools, in this organisation collaboration technology is something that is inflicted on us,” or IT pipe up in a meeting and say “so we’ll do that with Sharepoint as it is our strategic collaboration platform” even though it is not suited to the use case being discussed and so will end up not being adopted by the users.

I really don’t think this can go on. I see business people actively promoting Shadow IT to their teams because the solutions IT are providing are not fit for purpose, sometimes with IT turning a selective blind eye as they have no budget to address the need, and I see HR teams wanting to reinvent their workforce and the way they work, but knowing that they will fail if employees continue using last generation technology.

What is clear to me is the IT must become actively involved in the design and capabilities of the digital workplace if they are going to create a workforce that can respond to the consequences of digital transformation and the business disruption it brings. I’ve been talking for a while about the fact that business need to move from a “tools outward” model (deploy the platform and see how people use it) to an “employee inward” model (design employee journeys to maximise productivity and the value that employee brings to the organisation). It is time for HR to start thinking about the entire employee experience (not just they way they engage with HR processes) as leaving the tool choice to IT is going to become a drag on the organisation transformation required for the digital age.

One of the areas where we have failed to help with this change is in the way we use the term “collaboration” to encompass all forms of employee to employee interaction, resulting in a “one tool fits all” mentality which doesn’t match reality – and certainly doesn’t fit with the way the Mobile, Social, Cloud, Analytics and Cognitive enables tools that people use in the private lives have evolved.

To illustrate this, I’ve been using the contrast between team collaboration and enterprise wide employee engagement. No-one can doubt the need for good team collaboration tools – and, indeed, the tools in this area are finally improving significantly as team start to move from email, Sharepoint and Skype towards platforms like Slack, Box, Cisco Spark and Watson Workspace.

However when organisations try to use those same tools for organisation-wide engagement, they hit a problem. Team collaboration tools are all about focusing on the current activities and not getting “distracted” by things outside. These activities are limited to those directly involved or with a need to know. By default they keep content private, only sharing final team deliverables.

Lack of Engagement

The solution is an enterprise engagement platform.

Engagement Platform

The benefits of enterprise wide employee engagement are manifold. The best known exponent of this is John Stepper with his Working Out Loud movement – building relationships that matter to create a collaborative, innovative culture. Opening up to engage with the rest of the organisation (and beyond!) provides easier access to expertise and knowledge, enabling better decisions and helping get work done faster. But I believe the benefits go far beyond improving individual productivity.

Engagment Platform Benefits

When conversations happen beyond the team, they enable ideas and insight to flow up and across organisations – the most obvious benefit being increased innovation, more effective management and less nasty surprises. Similarly these conversations help understanding flow down an organisation, so every employee can make every decision in the context of the organisations goals and strategy as well as their tactical needs. They spread awareness across different business units, departments and teams so that the actions employees take every day are aligned with the strategy at the top and the actions being taken in other parts of the organisation.

This requires the opposite to silos – it requires open, transparent behaviours. It is what enables agile, outcome focussed teams to coordinate what they do instead of creating potential conflict. It helps avoid unintended consequences and provides early warning of an approaching crisis.

That is not to say that an enterprise wide engagement platform can replace a team collaboration platform. It can’t. But the same is true the other way round. Trying to use a team collaboration platform for enterprise wide engagement simply will not deliver the desired results.

Of course, deploying an engagement platform will not, of itself, deliver these benefits. People have to use it in the right way. That requires a cultural shift, supportive leadership that truly leads and personal change of behaviour. But we know that behaviour change is hard, so it requires well designed tools that support and encourage this change.

Fortunately, we already have engagement platforms that have been proven to support this way of working: enterprise social networking tools like IBM Connections – although we have traditionally done them a disservice by calling them collaboration tools. They deliver a very different user experience to team collaboration tools but, because their scope is the whole enterprise not just a single team, they require a level of commitment and organisational change that goes far beyond something IT can deliver alone.

But it is exactly this change that HR must think seriously about as it tries to build a workforce fit for the future.

Catching up with Social & Other Media in 2016

Looking back, I realised that I failed to publicise several of the other social media posts I published in 2016, so here is a summary (the headings are links to the content):

Collaborative Ecosystems – You are not alone

Was a guest post for the European Union’s FutureEnterprise project, funded by the European Commission to opening new avenues for Internet-based Enterprise Innovation in Europe, for which I was a Subject Matter Expert. The blog post looks at how social networking can provide mutually supporting ecosystems to enable innovation.

Digital and Social Media Opportunities for HR and Employee Engagement

In an interview with Jo Dodds for DSMLF Radio (a podcast series for the Digital & Social Media Leadership Forum, which is available on SoundCloud), I discussed how use of a social collaboration platform in businesses can encourage employee engagement and help HR to better achieve their objectives organisations to better leverage the diversity of their workforce.

A New Way to Collaborate

This webinar looks at IBM’s cloud collaboration service (IBM Connections CloudIBM Connections Cloud), explaining how its social networking and engagement capabilities take collaboration to a new level, and enterprise-wide level, and allow it to outperform alternatives like Microsoft Office 365 and Google G Suite.

From Collaboration to Engagement

My presentation at ICON UK 2016 on how social collaboration technologies can be applied to improving employee engagement and hence business results is available on SlideShare.

Cognitive and the Office of the Future

This webcast from IT Pro features a conversation hosted by journalist Stephen Prichard in which Clive Longbottom, of analyst firm Quocirca, and myself discuss Cognitive Computing and how it is going to impact employees and the way we work in the future.


As usual, the theme of all of these is how digital transformation is changing the way employees collaborate, engage and work . Expect more on this topic as 2017 continues.

As always, discussion on this topic is welcomed in the comments…