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.



Solving Business Problems with Better Collaboration

Three years ago I was invited to meet with a local authority to discuss advanced collaboration. They had just been informed that the council’s head office was to be sold, so they had to find ways of enabling a workforce that was used to being “in the office” to do their jobs effectively from distributed locations or from home. This required a cultural change as well as new working practices, so new collaboration tools that can help users to make this transition would be key to success.

Recently I was invited to present on “Socialising your Intranet” at the National Communications Academy Scotland event for Scottish local authorities, so I contacted the council to discuss how their project had gone and whether I could use them as a case study. It was great to hear their excitement about the journey that had been on over the last few years. From the start, support from the Chief Executive down had stronger than they expected and they had actively engaged managers and team leaders to become agents of change in their organisations – resulting in over 50 use cases being implemented already, from better supporting community hubs, to transforming the registrar processes, to improving traffic flow on the roads. The final value was much greater than simply facilitating the move from fixed desks to remote and home working that had been their starting point.
Find the pain points that will drive the necessary investment of time and effortA colleague and good friend, Louis Richardson, likes to explain how much easier it is to sell someone a headache pill rather than a vitamin pill. Sure, vitamins are good for the body, but if you can help to get rid of someone’s headache they will be much more committed taking the medicine and making the changes needed for success. In this case, the urgent need to move to distributed working was the first reason to act, but then using middle management (so often inhibitors for change) as the driving force for a new way to work was a brilliant way of finding more headaches – and curing them.

So what are the headaches your organisation faces? Could better collaboration tools and techniques help to address them? Finding a new way to work has helped many organisations become more agile and adaptive in a changing world. Could you transform your organisation into a more satisfying, more successful place to work.

Social Collaboration in Government

A while back I wrote a blog post on Social Business in the Public Sector where I discussed a keynote presentation John Swinney, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, made at Public Sector Digital Scotland, where he:

… clearly set out the need and the promise of the digital age. To move from government programs that are what they are, and either match a citizen’s needs or don’t, to delivering the personalised services that each individual citizen requires.

I was reminded of this listening to him present the keynote at ONE Public Sector Scotland last week, where he discussed progress made, the importance of enabling public sector workers to be empowered to do the right thing for the individual in front of them, and the need to become “relentlessly person-centred”.

In my social business masterclass later in the day, I tried to visualise this concept. Pre-digital, government programs were “one size fits all”:

But in the digital world, the citizen should be able to select exactly the services they need from a menu on offer:

However, you can only go so far down this path through technology, by providing a single front end that unifies services – or even by integrating back end services to smoothly move the user from one web site to another to deliver a coherent user journey that takes the citizen to what they need without them having to understand the internal structure of the government agencies providing it. To truly deliver an exceptional citizen experience, you need the government agencies involved, or more accurately the employees within them, to collaborate seamlessly as well.


This isn’t just about coordinating applications across the government web sites. Or even simply about aligning policies and procedures across government departments. Rather the issue is that: not only does the public not care which government department, agency, or public sector body is providing the service they need, but they want to be able to access the knowledge and expertise of public sector employees without worrying about which bit of the government pays them.

The good news is that responding to this desire not only produces more effective government services, it can also create more efficient ones. Initiatives like the Government Digital Service and G-Cloud have made good progress in reducing the cost of public services while improving their effectiveness. Now it is time to take things to the next level. To move beyond common web sites and infrastructure to start to integrate government employees into a single ecosystem of public servants focussed on better servicing the needs of the citizen.

This isn’t a new concept, like it is in some commercial companies where competition not collaboration is embedded in the culture. Collaboration is natural in public services, but what is needed is a focus on exploiting the latest social collaboration technologies to create an environment where expertise can be reused instead of replicated, knowledge can be shared as a by product of users’ day to day activities, and inter-departmental collaboration can reduce the cost of delivering services.

Cross departmental collaboration, cross agency collaboration, cross public sector collaboration – and, indeed, collaboration beyond to include local government, the third sector, delivery partners and small & medium enterprises who can help to service the citizen’s needs. The first challenge for government was integrating services – the next is integrating people.

In IBM, when we think about how public services can be taken to the next level we build stories about how cross government collaboration could save costs and change the lives of citizens. Could we help departments respond to freedom of information requests faster and at lower cost? Could we make it painless for a citizen to complete their tax return? Could we make it easier to claim benefits by removing barriers while reducing the chance of fraud? Could collaboration between local government social services, the police and school teachers save the life of a child?

Now that would be something to be proud of.


Social Business in 2013

The last year has been pivotal for Social Business as organisations shift from being concerned about the issues that the new Social, Mobile, Analytics & Cloud (SMAC) technologies raise for their IT strategy, to accepting that they are irreversible and adapting strategies to accommodate them. The question is now when and how each organisation should embrace them.

There is an emerging acceptance that sharing knowledge across organisations will increase their ability to deliver more effectively on their business priorities – and that better tools than email are needed to raise users’ productivity and leverage the organisation’s talent effectively. Have you noticed that job roles with Knowledge Management in their title have suddenly started changing to say something like Social Media? The question now is which tools and platforms best address this need and how to introduce them.

Companies that would have said, only a couple of years ago, that their strategy for mobile was Blackberry, and that it wasn’t going to change any time soon (well, apart from some senior executives that were allowed to connect their iPads to the network – in an echo of the way Blackberry penetrated enterprises by winning the hearts and minds of senior managers), are now making bold statements that “Bring Your Own device is our strategy.” It’s just a question of when and how.

Similarly, Big Data and Cloud have become acceptable technology choices and organisations are working on their IT strategies to figure out how they fit and where to prioritise them.

Social Business is rapidly moving from the latest fashion fad to business as usual. But does that work? Can organisations successfully adopt collaborative ways of working without changing their command and control hierarchies, and their competitive organisational structures and employee compensation schemes? Can the commoditisation of the users access point and shift to user selected and managed devices be reconciled with traditional “locked down” IT management? How will employees and customers privacy concerns be addressed when using analytics to derive information from every fragment of content they produce and every conversation they have? How will we change traditional views of enterprise security management and confidentiality regimes when, not only is the data being stored in some Cloud service somewhere, but we are pointing powerful analytics at it specifically to find new insights while providing transparent access, as far as possible, to all employees from the privately owned devices in their pocket, so they can use it to increase company profits?

Or is it true that social business technologies are disruptive, and therefore will disrupt current enterprise structures, processes and policies as they are adopted. Is this an inevitable part of becoming a Social Business?

Here is my favourite graphic from 2013:

It makes the point that social business is primarily a cultural change, with significant organisational and operational implications, but one that can only be made if it is supported by the right technology. It’s a bit like the cultural shift from the Internet being something you used when sitting at a desk in front of a PC, to something use while walking down the street. It took the right package technology (initially the iPhone and App Store, then it’s smartphone siblings and their ecosystems) to enable that shift to “suddenly happen” – even though the 3G networks and devices with similar capabilities (for example Nokia’s Communicator range) had been around for a while without catalysing the change.

As a sweeping generalisation, I see companies that use a proper, integrated Social Business platform from the leading vendors are generating successful adoption of the cultural and process changes they are looking for, while those that think that can make this transformation with tools they already have, or legacy technologies that just offer document sharing and communications, are failing.

Proper social platforms are built from the bottom up to facilitate effective collaborative working, have deep embedded social analytics to surface the information users want and can integrate with existing business applications through open standards to add value to existing processes. They are not, primarily, a content platform (indeed they should be able to integrate with and use the content platforms an organisation already has in place), rather they are a platform for building relationships between employees (and between employees and partners or customers), and for discovering experts and knowledge (whether that knowledge is in a document internally, or externally, or exists only in someone’s head). They are people centric, not document centric, collaboration platforms.

In 2013 we also saw the start of change in the market. Social business discussions had previously been focussed in two areas: Marketing, to engage externally via social media, and IT, as a better collaborative infrastructure than email. Now there are enough proof points of the value of social business techniques to get attention from all parts of the business: from the sales force to customer support, from HR to financial planning, from procurement to catering.

So Social Business technology vendors will tell you that 2013 saw the rise of Line of Business (LoB) as the key influencer in purchases, rather than IT. Sometimes signing the cheques (especially for cloud based services) and sometimes driving IT’s procurement priorities. This has implications for how technologies are acquired, since LoB are project based whereas IT are focussed on infrastructures for use across the organisation.

Projects often are not large or important enough to justify the purchase of an entire enterprise infrastructure, and that has led to a recurring theme in discussions with IT as they discover that the company is all ready running 4, or 5, or 10, different social business platforms for different projects (some in cooperation with IT, some independent but with acquiescence of IT, and quite a few without the knowledge of IT). Not only is this causing increased financial costs, but it also creating silos of knowledge and reinforcing exactly the sorts of barriers within the organisation that social collaboration is trying to remove.

This trend is also driving one of the characteristics of the age of Social IT. Big, enterprise wide, mega-projects, fully costed (and with all the risks taken out) are no longer seen as the way to succeed. Rather the right approach is to start many, small projects and evolve them, accepting the innovation risk of failure and investing in and developing the projects that prove they can deliver real value to the business. The mantra is that of continuous proces improvement, not wholesale process reengineering.

This is leading to organisations starting to put a strategy in place of acquiring an enterprise infrastructure which can start small and grow, hosting the evolution of divergent existing social projects, and being used as the platform for new ones. It is starting to require organisations to rethink their security policies and integration architectures to allow projects run on external cloud platforms, so as to avoid large, up-front investments (even if they could afford them – simply creating a large project drives behaviours and metrics which are ill-suited to the sort of agile, collaborative organisations that innovate successfully and outpace their competition).

Integration is key here. Not just with existing content and applications, but also across different solution domains. For example, it is increasingly becoming clear that the separation of marketing’s social media activities from internal social collaboration platforms has negative consequences. Organisations are realising that they cannot get benefits from their social listening if they cannot effectively communicate the insights it generates to the employees who need to understand them (and act on them). This requires internal collaboration with the employees that can take advantage of the insight to improve the company’s products, services and processes – and who knows where in the organisation they might sit?

And anyway, enterprises are starting to realise that external social engagement isn’t just something just a skilled social media team do. More and more of their employees are present on social media already and they understand that they can use interactions through social networks with their customers, partners and suppliers to do their jobs better and deliver better business results.

Gartner calls Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud a “nexus of forces,” which encapsulates the idea of synergy between them – the sum is greater than the whole. But look back previous waves of related technologies – like the Internet, the World Wide Web, email and laptops, that enabled nomadic workers, new corporate structures and globalisation. That wave of change was also synergistic with wider trends (e.g. affordable mass air transportation, 24 hour satellite news and the dominance of free market capitalism) to drive significant business changes – and with them broader cultural changes.

All of which set the stage for what came next: social media, always on mobile employees, vast quantities of unstructured data and utility computing available at low cost in the cloud.

Today’s vision of social business won’t be frozen in time and gradually adopted by all organisations – it will continue to evolve as each organisation adopts it, as each vendor evolves their offerings, as each entrepreneur brings a new idea to the market, and as each individual user provides feedback on what they are using, to contribute collectively to innovation in the space. The rate of change shows no sign of slowing down.

In the early 1990’s I worked for a company (Soft-Switch) that had great success connecting corporations’ separate, siloed email systems together. By the end of the 90’s that business didn’t exist. Not only did most organisations run only one enterprise email platform, but SMTP integrated the remaining systems seamlessly with each other and with applications.

Social Business platforms are still at the maturity level of those early 90’s email systems. They have a lot of evolving to do. There will be a lot of consolidation I the market. So businesses need to invest at the enterprise level with a social platform that will survive (and IBM is clearly the market leader).

I asked above whether Social Business will disrupt current enterprise structures, processes and policies? I think it is starting to do this already in some companies (like IBM). The interesting question is whether it will deliver on its promise and give those companies enough of a competitve edge that the rest will have no choice but to follow their lead.

The Importance of Tagging

I was on a panel discussing Social Business at ICWSM-12 this week (they recorded a video so I hope it will be available for replay soon). We got some great questions. This led to a discussion about what features of the social collaboration platform were most important for finding and leveraging experts in an organisation.

Roja Bandari tweeted a quote from my answer:


It reminded me that I had been intending for some time to blog about some of the essential but underrated features of enterprise social collaboration platforms – and tagging is a great place to start (recommendations is another, that was highlighted by Igor Perisic of LinkedIn in his keynote at the same event – did you know that 50% of new LinkedIn connections come from recommendations?). Many companies think they can successfully implement social collaboration using previous generation collaboration platforms which do not have these essential capabilities – and then wonder why they are not adopted in the way they expect.

So, why is tagging so important? Well first, let’s make it clear what I mean by tagging in this context.

  1. The ability for users to assign free format words to objects. These are not selected from a restricted taxonomy, but rather allow users to associate words that mean most to them in their context. This allows the tags used to change over time as vocabularies, technologies or practices evolve, it makes it possible for different communities to use tags relevant to them (e.g. I might just think of something as a “Daffodil” while a biologist would label it “Narcissus” and add additional tags for its species) and gives users of different languages the opportunity to create local language tags (perhaps as well as international ones).
  2. Tags can be assigned to any object: a blog post, a shared file, a person, a community, a wiki page, an arbitrary URL, etc.
  3. Tags are not only assigned by the owner when an object is created, but also by any user who finds the object (so they can make it easy to find it again) with the effect of greatly increasing the pool of tags across the organisation (and also ranking how interesting objects are to users based on how many tag them).
  4. When tags are assigned, the system should show suggestions (based on what other users have used to tag this object), using Web 2.0 techniques for type-ahead to make suggestions as the tag is typed (because knowing what tags others have used helps the community to converge on a common set of tags without introducing lots of small variations in spelling, abbreviation, etc.)
  5. Users need to be educated that they shouldn’t try to choose one, “correct tag” but rather “more is better” and to think about the different ways they might want to find the object in the future.
  6. The system should make the tags as useful as possible to users to encourage their use. It should show tag clouds (not lists of tags) that can be easily searched by users (showing the most popular by default) and should allow easy filtering of large lists of objects or results by simply clicking in the tag cloud.
  7. Enterprise wide search of all tags should be provided (rather than having to search separately for different content types of in different repositories) and results of all kinds should be displayed (blog posts, files, people, communities, wiki pages, forum discussions, web pages, etc., etc.)

Two key points here. First, tagging people as well as content (and allowing other people to tag other people they find, rather than relying on people to tag themselves). This is one cornerstone of expertise location (knowing that X has helped other people with topic Y, even though they may not see it as their area of expertise, and providing a way to compensate for lazy people who do not tag themselves – automatic tag generation, e.g. based on courses people have taken, can also be useful here).

This allows results to show both people and content. In practice, users are often searching for a document containing the answer to their question or if that does not exist the person who can help them find it. This reminds me of another underrated capability, the business card. Whenever you see a persons name associated with content (the author, or someone who comment on it, recommended it or downloaded it) you should be able to hover over the name and immediately find out key information about that person, like who they are or how to contact them – and also what other relevant content they have shared.

The second key point is the tagging of URLs (or web page addresses). Very often you come across useful content that is not inside the enterprise social platform (e.g. a news article on a web page, a file in an enterprise content management system, a profile on LinkedIn or Facebook, perhaps even a Tweet). Most solutions call the process of tagging an arbitrary web page social bookmarking as it is similar to creating a bookmark in your browser, but you are doing it on the social platform and so contributing to the total set of bookmarks (links) available across whole the enterprise (for example, allowing me just now to quickly find the most popular of the 321 web pages that IBMers have tagged with “tagging” – the answer, inevitably, being Wordle).

Providing a simply “bookmarklet” for popular browsers that allows users to quickly and easily tag a page and save it as a public bookmark is a key capability all social collaboration solutions should provide. Users soon realise that this lets them simply tag all the web pages they come across that they might be interested in going back to in the future – and then to use the tag cloud to actually find them again with minimal effort (which I certainly couldn’t do if I tried to keep my >3,000 tagged pages as bookmarks in my browser!)

The social bookmarklet implements a couple of key requirements for essential social collaboration. Firstly it generates the maximum social capital with the minimum effort (I see this web page and I would like to tag it so I can find it again – but as a side effect I have contributed to a set of tags which provide even more value to all employees across the company). A well implemented bookmarklet takes this even further – for example by allowing the bookmark to be automatically added to one or more Community spaces the user belongs to (sharing the link more widely and helping keep the community fresh), by letting the user to provide a few lines of text and have a blog post automatically created explaining why they find this page to be interesting to all the people reading their blog, and by facilitating the creation of an activity around the link so the user can manage any follow up actions. Creating as much social content as easily as possible is key to effective transmission of discovered knowledge to other people in the organisation who need it.


In addition, the bookmarklet allows a user to generate social content from their browser when viewing a web page – without needing to go somewhere else. This is an example of the overall need of social collaboration solutions to integrate with the users’ desktop applications. If the user had to copy the bookmark, navigate to another page, open a form, paste in the bookmark and add the tags, they are far less likely to do it. In the same way they need to be able to save a file directly from their document editor into the social file sharing repository (or drag and drop an attachment from their mail client or a file from their desktop), post to their blog from their favourite word processor and post a status update from where they are working. Ease of use doesn’t just mean being able to figure out how to navigate an application, it means being able to do what the user wants from the context where they need to do it with the minimum of clicks.

I often talk of social bookmarks (or, more likely, of tagging, since I think it better reflects what we are doing here) as “Indexing the Intranet” (although, in practice, it is indexing the parts of the Internet that your colleagues find useful as well). Most users have a negative perceptions of enterprise search – and one that is historically justified since the nature of intranet content and they way it is linked does not offer the search engines the context that cross-site links in the public Internet provide to Google so it can build its page ranks so it can offer user the most relevant responses (alongside those most lucrative to Google). Tagging pages addresses this need since it can let a search engine show at the top of the list the hits that were most often tagged by all the other employees across the company (as long as the enterprise search solution is able to use this information.

That said, once the social collaboration platform is populated with a rich set of tags, many users stop using enterprise search and instead use the social search capabilities – since social bookmarks provide reach to find content outside of the social platform (including on the broader Intranet since the user searching wants the best answer, irrespective of where it can be found) which are displayed along with the blog entries, wiki pages and files shared on the intranet. Also, social search finds both people and content for the topic, and makes it easy to move between documents, web content and experts until the user has found the information they need to do their job effectively.

Finally, tags are also a key input to the social platforms recommendation engine. Not just explicitly (e.g. finding new content be recommend because its tag matches the users tag) but also explicitly (e.g. understanding that users who are tagged the same way, or who create posts with the same tags, have common interests and so are probably more interested in each others content). Meanwhile surfacing the links between users, or between users and communities, enhances other employees ability to find alternative experts when the person they want to contact is not available.

Hopefully this post has made it clear why I find tagging (both in its explicit form and as an aspect of social bookmarks) be an essential capability of social collaboration platforms. It also highlights recommendations, business cards, social bookmarking, integration with desktop applications and social search as key capabilities required to deliver not just knowledge sharing, but also knowledge discovery (which ultimately, is the real objective of a social collaboration platform). IBM Connections provides all of these capabilities – which is why I believe it delivers social collaboration more effectively than most of its competitors today.

I’ll plan on looking at a few more of its differentiating capabilities (from the perspective of the use cases they support) in future blog posts.

In the meantime, let me know what you think is the most useful feature of the social collaboration platform you use.

Social Business in 2012

As I was leaving the IBM Connect and Lotusphere conferences in January, I had a conversation with someone (wish I remember who – remind me if it was you!) who said that what impressed them most about the conference this year, over last, is that it had changed from discussing what you could do with Social Business, to what people are doing. This is supported by the amazing number of customer speakers at the conference, both in the keynotes and break-out sessions, describing their experiences putting Social Business into proactive.

A year ago, on the flight back from Lotusphere 2011, I sketched out on an aircraft napkin the key technology "mega-trends" that I saw at the conference which, I believed, would drive rapid adoption of Social Business. I used the diagram many times through 2011, with some minor changes depending on context, until it evolved into a form that seemed to resonate with most audiences.


The changes during the year first moved the Customers to the centre, where they belong, since I increasingly saw the need to serve customers better become the only reason social business projects (internal or external) were getting funded, then added empowerment of employees (expanding from exceptional web experiences to include exceptional work experiences) and partners (who are an essential part of today’s virtual enterprises).

That left space to reflect the dramatic shift in the Unified Communications market in 2011, as it became clear that UC is not just about unifying telephony with collaboration (e-mail and instant messaging) but also incorporating social collaboration into the users web or work experience. What I like to call "extending presence beyond the green dot". I don’t want to know that the person I am trying to contact is "away", I want to know that they have gone to lunch with a customer and will be back at 3pm. I don’t want to know that they are "offline", I want to know that they are on vacation for the next two weeks, or are travelling in Australia so they will only be online overnight. I don’t just want to know that they are not available, I want to be given a link to content they are sharing that might help me in their absence, or to people they work with who might be able to help in their absence.

This complements discussions I often have about the importance or putting content in the context of people . The "Business Card" represents the current state of the art in "Presence" for people, and includes whether the user is online or not; their current location (if shared); their last Status Update; direct access to ways to communicate with them (e-mail, instant messaging, click to dial, etc.); their full Profile (with more information about them, like their management structure, and connections to their colleagues); and their shared content (files, blogs, communities, wikis, etc.) This works the other way round when searching for and finding content, by placing what you find in the context of its author and people who have commented on it or recommended it – with a full Business Card available for each, allowing you to quickly ascertain the credibility and trustworthiness of the contributors and of commentators – and so of the content itself.

The power of this diagram is not the separate technology advances it describes (in social collaboration, mobile devices and cloud computing) but the way they interrelate. Two of my past managers and role models taught me lessons related to this: Mike Zisman (former CEO of Lotus) wrote a paper once called "Timing is Everything" and Jim Abbey (MD of Systems & Telecoms) used to say "if the Wright brothers had tried to build a plane that could carry 300 people at nearly the speed of sound with toilets fore and aft, they would have failed". It is the fact the Social, Mobile and Cloud are happening at the same time, and coincide with an economic crisis that is forcing every organisation to maximise the value of every single employee, that is creating a truly transformational pivot point in the way organisations work.

The important thing is not that these three trends are happening, but that they are happening at the same time.

The social networking products on the Internet that give us the model for social collaboration are all cloud based (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn). Smartphones would be completely pointless if there were no cloud services for them to access (local Apps soon get boring). We have reached the crossover point where more social networking updates are being done from mobile devices than PCs (as well as the point where more Smartphones & Tablets are being sold than PCs) and social networking really blossoms when it allows a user to record their reaction immediately and in multimedia (if you see a new billboard from your competitor you do not want to try to remember to send someone an message about it when you get back to the office – the moment is over then and you will forget – you want to send your marketing content a quick "tweet" with your thoughts at that moment – and preferably attach a photograph or video clip to it).

Now think about the implications of these technology developments. I talked to a customer last year who had launched a marketing initiative on Facebook in India. Not remarkable, you might think, but the interesting thing was that the marketing team had to do it from home, because they could not access Facebook in the office. I also met with a business team who had launched a new project using an external, cloud based collaboration platform because IT could not give them the capabilities they wanted in house. I know, from conversations in the canteen at another customer, that employees who cannot update Twitter from their desk PCs, just use their Smartphone.

The really disruptive thing about mobile devices and cloud based social collaboration is that IT can’t control them. If business units believe they can deliver better business outcomes by going round IT and using external services, they will. If those services are free, and deliver business value, then how can the company effectively control their use? It is beginning to dawn on IT organisations that if they do not deliver exceptional work experiences that enable their employees to deliver exceptional customer experiences, they will simply become irrelevant to the companies that pay their salaries and the business will start using external cloud services that help their employees to do their jobs better.

Sure, they still need the compliance team, the security team, the risk team – but those teams will be expanding their remit to manage use of external cloud services, as well as internal IT services. The more senior the person I talk to, the easier it becomes to convince them of the importance of Social Business. The Luddites are lower down in the organisation. Although they claim "management will never accept it," they are are simply wrong – senior management already "get it" and know they need to refocus middle management what their business needs to do to succeed. They are also wrong when they say "the users will never change the way they work" as those same users spend their evening on Skype talking to their grandchildren, on Twitter engaging with people who share their interests and sense of humour, on Facebook organising the team for the next pub quiz – and LinkedIn looking for their next job (perhaps with a more enlightened company that will provide them with tools that make their jobs easier).

So, my initial plan on the flight this year was to update the diagrams above for the next level of Social Business. But I decided not to do that yet. Those messages still resonate. In the words of Roy Amara (of the Institute for the Future) "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run." These trends have a way to run yet – and it will take years for many organisations to internalise them, invest in them and realise the benefits.

Of course, the ones that do it quickest will be the ones that gain competitive advantage from this transformation.

Instead, let me offer some thoughts on some additional technology shifts that will help to evolve these trends in 2012:

  • Social Analytics: I love the way IBM has added Recommendations to IBM Connections, and improved Search results by leveraging analytics, but this is just the start. IBM has a unique capability to leverage its Research organisation and deep skills in analytics, textual analysis and search to guide users to the people and knowledge that will help them to do their jobs better.

    Twenty years ago, the main problem IT was solving was giving users access to information. Today users have access to more information than they can possibly use, and the challenge is to give them just the information they need, when they need it. The answer to that challenge is not in the information, it is in the context – the relationship of information to people – and that is where IBM Connections is focussed. Further leveraging Social Analytics will increase Connections ability to deliver a Social Collaboration layer over existing content, processes and business applications that enables use cases which make employees more effective.

  • Unified Collaboration: After years of watching organisations struggle to make the investment required to deliver the clear benefits of Unified Communications to its users, it seems to me that UC is becoming a part of the social transformation. Presence is one aspect of the rich context that surrounds a user at a specific point in time. Once it is clear that someone has the expertise needed, providing an easy way to reach to them via telephony, video, audio chat or screen sharing are services that the social collaboration platform needs to provide.

    IBM achieved its market leadership in the social business because it didn’t start from the technology, it started from the business – the use cases that that help users to do their jobs better and, in the process, deliver a return on investment. Unified Communications has had limited success because organisations couldn’t articulate how it would make employees more effective. Even if there was an ROI, it could only be achieved if users changed their behaviour and companies doubted that would happen. Making UC part of the social transformation addresses this (and leverages the fact that YouTube and Skype are part of the public Internet’s social scene). For the enterprise, this combines more effective Context with the proven ROI from telephony & travel cost avoidance. But rethinking UC as a necessary component of social collaboration will only change the game if it is done from the perspective of making users’ working lives better by delivering on required use cases – rather than simply as a technology implementation to cut costs.

    UC simply isn’t about making telephone interoperate with your PC anymore. User’s don’t want to use a PC, they want a smartphone or tablet, and organisations don’t want the expense of managing complex PC workstations. An iPhone isn’t a telephone, it’s a multimedia, unified end point that allows me to communicate, collaborate and act at a distance. Sure, interoperability with the telephone network helps with adoption, but its not the point. One of the most revelatory moments of 2011 was when I sent an SMS to a neighbour on my new iPhone 4S. I suddenly realised that it had not sent an SMS. Both of us were using iPhones, and "it" figured out that iCloud could deliver the message – without me needing to pay for an SMS. Each user want all their collaborative interactions to "just work" as effectively as possible, and without worrying about the current context of the person/people they are interacting with. Smartphones are great for that. Unified Communications has changed its focus from figuring out how to make telephone work over the Internet to figuring out how to make Internet Services interoperate with Telephone Services. Now it needs to hide all that technology from the user, and just make communications and collaboration work over all media, independently of the end points of the participants. Which is great for IBM, as it is avowedly end point agnostic.

    An aside: When I wrote the Unified Communications Strategy for Lotus in the 1990s, I wanted to call it Unified Collaboration. That was a hard sell at a time when people had trouble raising their vision beyond Unified Messaging. Now its time has finally come. Users want one end point for all their communications and collaboration that integrated with the applications they use, and they want it to be device independent (across smartphones, tablets or PCs depending what device that is most convenient right now. That is an inherent part of the IBM Project Vulcan vision.

  • Video: The Internet has proven over and over again that it is easier to change the game than to evolve existing mechanisms. Skype showed us many years ago that you can dramatically increase the quality of communications by adding video to voice and instant messaging. YouTube rode the wave of video becoming a standard part of digital cameras and smartphones. Today, when an employee wants to share something that moves, or happens on their screen, they want to use video – and know that there is no reason why they should not. Enterprise Video isn’t about users going to a video-conference room to get an inferior version of being in the same room. It is about leveraging the cameras in their Smartphones and Laptops to make communication and collaboration better. The technology exists to deliver on these use cases today, and social collaboration platforms simply need to step up to using it.
  • E-mail Reduction: Not ever more e-mail, but less. As we educate users that they can find the people and information they need using the social collaboration solutions, there will be less and less need to send them information in case it is useful to them. This cultural change is the single biggest challenge facing companies adopting social transformation. How do you train users not to send e-mails unless they have a specific actionable need from a recipient who is not currently available for a real time conversation, and to use other mechanisms to communicate information in other circumstances? While making sure that necessary information flows and activities continue while the transition happens.

    This is going to take two things. The user experience we offer to employees needs to offer a coherent environment where they users can work with all of their communication and collaboration tools – e-mail, social and unified communications – on whatever device they are currently using (which is what IBM is enabling its customers to do in 2012). In addition, organisations are going to need to train their users to communicate and collaborate in a new way. Not by putting them in classrooms and giving them courses, but by educating them in every communication they send to them, by ensuring thought leaders demonstrate the appropriate behaviour, by measuring their managers based on how well their employees are making this change, and by deploying work environments, business processes and applications in a way that support this transformation. This is what we call Social Adoption, and it is not reasonable to expect every employee to figure out why it is a good idea for themselves. Organisations need to focus on explaining to their users the benefits of working this way – and removing the obstacles that exist to adopting these practices.

Today, the world is reorganising itself because of the disruptive impacts of Social, Mobile and Cloud. Organisational power structures are shifting as employees are being empowered to shape the companies they work for. The Agricultural Economy became the Industrial Economy and then the Information Economy. The 21st Century is seeing the rise of the Relationship Economy. A company is no longer about its brand(s) – it is now about its people and how they help its customers. In a social world, consumers don’t want to do business with companies, they want to interact with the individuals that comprise that company. Consumers no longer trust organisations – but they will continue to trust people. They will demand a relationship with your employees as a condition of doing business with you. It is no longer enough to make your customers feel special, you need to make each individual customer feel special, every time they interact with you.

IBM’s Social Business strategy is about enabling organisations to make the cultural shift to become Social Businesses. To let them build new relationships between their employees, new relationships with their partners, and a new type of relationship with their customers. It needs a new form of social work environment to allow employees to build and manage these relationships – but companies that achieve this cultural transformation are going to grow faster than their competition.

Social Media and Information Overload

I am about to embark on the next iteration of my e-mail reduction challenge, and in the process I’ve been thinking a bit more about the problem of information overload.

In particular, the objection that Switching to Social Media is not a solution to information overload – it just moves the problem somewhere else.

After all, if I get 200 e-mails a day to read, and those become a mix of 200 instant messages (that pop up on my screen to interrupt me), blog posts (that I feel obliged to read in my RSS reader) and community/activity updates (that I am notified about via a link in my email) … they are still the same 200 things being brought to my attention, and just as distracting as ever. But now they are in multiple different places that I have to check, and which have separate tools for filing and managing them (if any) and, even worse, which I can no longer handle when I am offline – thus reducing the amount of time I have to work on them.

What is worse, the very nature of these tools means I can easily turn 200 messages into 2,000 if I start following to all the blogs and communities I am interested in, the micro-blogs of my expanding network, etc.

The hope is that IBM Project Vulcan will address this one day by creating a new, single universal inbox that can contain all of those things, and let you respond to them and manage them in the same tool – just like an, err, e-mail inbox!

The challenge here is not moving the messages, but solving the "attention management" problem by changing when things are shown to us. Managing all of these interactions as conversations instead of as individual interruptions can help, as would a way for the system to separate messages the user "must act on urgently" from those they "must act on sometime," from those they "should act on if possible," from those that are "nice to have".

But ultimately, we are only going so solve this information overload problem if we reduce the number of messages/notifications that are sent. Ironically, I am the one person who cannot directly control that (although Luis Suarez has shown how much impact a forceful personality can have in changing the behaviour of others).

The Connections 3.0 e-mail notification digests will help a bit, since they batch up many unimportant notifications to avoid each one causing a separate interruption (and groups notifications about a whole conversation thread into one message). But we need more than that.

I am hoping, some day, to be able to tell the system that "I am working on Project X now" and have my Sametime Status change ("Concentrating on Project X – if you have something non urgent to discuss on another topic, please write on my Board or send e-mai/voicemail") and the messages I see from all my communications channel start to be filtered so I only see stuff to do with Project X (or stuff that is considered Urgent under some other rules can manage).

I think many users need help by having things hidden from me if I really don’t care about them right now. At least everyone who says they suffer from information overload (not that I would say that – I love information, the more the better, it is fascinating stuff  – but I do need help in effectively managing it all!)

Which brings me back to e-mail reduction, My first theory was that wherever possible the system should hide stuff that doesn’t need to be handled immediately (by putting it in a folder). For e-mail, that’s probably a "To Read" folder – or set of folders graded by importance. I’ve thought quite a but about how to structure those. Simplicity is best, so Important and Not Important could be enough. On the other hand, the sheer volume of message can be overwhelming, so there may be more of an incentive to go an look at messages on specific subjects. In the end, I decided on a maximum of 10 topic areas, ordered in decreasing importance, for a mini pilot. During which I learnt, once again, that I never actually go and read anything that gets put away like that!

I also had a minor technical hitch with my original approach of setting QuickRules to automatically file any message I did not need to see immediately into a folder for later. When I got to 60-odd QuickRules I started getting an error message. I am not sure if creating one rule per folder with more conditions in it will solve this – that is something I need to experiment with.

This experience led me to wonder if auto-filing is the right answer. I tried the same thing years ago by routing all public newsletters to my Gmail account – which is now unusable because of the number of messages that flood into it. The theory was that there was no way I could ever read them all, but at least I could dip in if I wanted to see the most recent, and search them all for a topic I needed to know about. But I never did any of those things.

It’s a bit like the problem I have with To Do lists – I am great at putting things on the list but useless at checking them off. I started to reread Getting Things Done recently in the hope I could come up with a better strategy for handling my to do lists (because the iPad has made it much easier to create lists, so I needed to be better at using them!) But finishing reading the book is now on a to do list somewhere 🙂

Conclusion: yes, all this rambling actually had a point! Or rather two:

  1. Everyone isn’t the same. Some people love managing to a zero inbox, while other’s prefer a less structured approach (and I have a suspicion that the latter, less disciplined types are more in need of social collaboration). Some people like to allocate time slots for everything, while others work better when interrupt driven. As Dave Allen points out, there is no one magic system that works for everyone – each user has to find a trusted process that works for them.
  2. If Social Media is the answer, it can only be because it enables us to take a radically different approach to information sharing. We need to convince everyone that the social platform will let people to find information they need when they need it, as long as it has been shared at some point. Then I no longer need to e-mail you some information that you might needs in six weeks time – I can just share it generally and be confident that you will find it if/when you need it. Only by changing this behaviour, in the people sending the messages, can we ever hope to reduce message volumes and so information overload.

There is an interesting challenge here around building trust in the social platform. We, as users, need to be confident that if we share something, it will remain available to us (and to others). This includes high enough space quotas that we are not forced to delete stuff we would rather keep sharing. Otherwise we are going to want to keep a local copy as well as a server copy, and this increases the effort required and reduces the likelihood that we will share things.

What is needed is to enable a cultural shift to information on demand when we need it, instead of information pushed when it is created.

Cooking up a Story

A couple of people have asked what my last blog post had to do with collaboration. Well, to be honest, not a lot. But it illustrates something I often discuss. The difference between knowledge and information.

To me, knowledge is something that exists in someone’s head. Its about knowing something. The term “knowledge management” irritates me, because it is usually applied to techniques for managing information that happens to be sitting in a computer somewhere.

The difference between information and knowledge is the difference between having a recipe for a dish and knowing how to cook things.

Now, one could argue that they both lead to the same thing – a hopefully delicious meal.

But the Accidental Recipe post was all about cooking when you do not have a recipe. Using the knowledge that comes from the practical application of many recipes to create a delicious meal from ingredients that don’t make up a recipe possess. Innovation, not the application of a known process.

Knowledge workers could go and read all the information in all the information repositories, then practice applying them a lot and, hey presto, they can solve the business problems they face each day.

Where social software platforms differ is that they strive to provide access to knowledge, not to information. One way they do that is by letting you discover information in the context of the people who are sharing it. So you not only have access to the information, but also the people who can answer your questions, advise you and help you to apply the knowledge. “Knowledge on Demand.”

The second difference with social platforms is that they actively encourage users to share, not just information, but also experiences.

I am not sure that this blog post contains much useful information, but hopefully it imparts some useful knowledge to those who read it.

Getting Stuff Done

I just came off a call with Rashik Parmar and a small group of IBM colleagues who are thinking about how we can make our colleagues more effective in the way they collaborate by reducing the volume of e-mail they receive and need to process. Anyone familiar with Luis Suarez and his personal project A World Without E-Mail.

Based on work Rashik has done in this area, we are starting on a personal three part exercise:

  1. Filter: Automatically categorise routine mail and place it in folders suing rules. Unsubscribe from mailing lists you do not need and switch to an RSS Reader where that is more appropriate.

    Automatic categorisation makes perfect sense for me as it mirrors what I already do – manually moving such mail to a “To Read” folder when doing my initial pass through my mail, and going and reading it later (if and when I have time) – even if I know there are many messages I will never go and read, it is simply psychologically easier to file them that to delete them. Automatic filing via a rule is often also easier than unsubscribing.

    Personally, I plan to try categorising this mail into a number of folders – since that is just as easy for the rules, but it makes it easier to differentiate mailing lists that I really should go and read (but not now) vs. lists that are interesting (but I don’t really have to read) vs. those which are on a topic I don’t care about now (but might care about at some point in the future – and may want to catch up with then).

    Note that automatic filing does not reduce mailbox size – but I don’t have a problem with that as a combination of automatic filing of attachments and automatic archiving of old mails keeps my mailbox size under control (if not the archive size!)

    I have to admit, I have never really got on with RSS Readers. Part of the problem is that they become a second inbox – and (for me) needing to check two places is worse than overloading one. The Notes inbox has lots of tools (folders, flags, rules, archiving, free text search, swiftfile, … and even a form of tagging) for handling everything that comes in, and I am dissatisfied with having to cope with another way of doing some of that. So my history is littered with RSS readers I used to subscribe to a bunch of content, and then neglected. But maybe I will try again.

  2. Learn. Think for each e-mail: is an e-mail the right way to respond to this, or should I Sametime or Phone – or Blog and answer and send a link.

    It is important to realise that different people prefer different communications mechanisms. Personally, I don’t like telephone conversations – there is no “click to add to Activity” button, and having to take notes every time just adds to the effort required (thank goodness for my headsets!) Maybe if my memory was better it would be different. But there are people (why is it mostly salesmen?) from whom I never get e-mails, just voice mails (fortunately delivered to me as e-mails!)

    I already try to prune copy lists when I Reply All (and, of course, omit the attachments), and I use Sametime a lot. I will try to increase both of those things, and also try hard to blog responses when that is possible (although it still seems to me that I spend far too much of my time working without an effective network connection – we really need to figure out how to make wireless access work effectively on trains and finally deliver access on planes).

  3. Switch. Use Activities more instead of e-mail threads. Use Connections more for Collaboration overall.

    Yes, that suffers from the Offline problem too… and even more from the “another inbox” problem. I need far better tools to manage the 75 Activities currently on my active list. So I will have another go with taking selected Activities offline (I gave up because Notes 8.0 had definite restrictions in that area – which are hopefully fixed now).

    But there is still a little voice in the back of my head reminding me that the effort required to click on the link in a notification about an updated Activity is definitely a drop in productivity compared to reading an e-mail – especially as, in many cases, it is not clear from the Activities Notification exactly what the sender expects me to do. I think we need to work on promoting best practices for use of Activities too (a reminder that I put that project on a To Do list once, but never got around to doing anything about it).

    Incidentally, if we were inventing Activities now, would we still allow the inclusion of files in Activities – shouldn’t all be in Connections Files and linked from the Activity? What is needed is a dialog to upload a file to Files from the context of Activities.

So: Phase 1, analyse how much e-mail I receive each day during this week (to define the “from” state”. Phase 2, implement the steps above. Phase 3, evangelise the success I have to colleagues and co-workers.

It was really interesting in the discussion that “Getting Things Done” is clearly a great source of ideas for steps to take – although many people (me included) would find it difficult to move over to a structured mechanism like that. It is valuable as a source of inspiration and techniques, but what we need are a series of success stories that can inspire others and role models who can educate their colleagues rather than some sort of formal process to be adopted (Phew! Let’s hope we can avoid someone deciding to build a formal process out of this!)

Maybe I can get some traction around the mre vague concept of “Getting Stuff Done”.