At Lotusphere last month, with a great deal of fanfare, Lotus announced upgrades to its whole software portfolio and introduced two new products Lotus Quickr and Lotus Connections. The latter of these two, a collection of social networking capabilities, garnered most of the press attention – and with good reason, because it stands as a commercial validation of the various social networking techniques used embodied by web sites, like MySpace or Wikipedia.
So what does Lotus Connections actually offer? It offers all the things one associates with social networking; blogging capability, profiles (your own corporate MySpace), tagging (or book marking as Lotus prefers to call it), common interest groups (or communities if you like), a wiki capability and other capabilities that allow groups to collaborate.
The First Glance
At first glance, I confess that I wasn’t impressed with Lotus Connections. IBM assured us (the collection of analysts and journalists at Lotusphere) that it had been “eating its own dog food” (using these capabilities internally) and had gleaned significant benefits. I didn’t think that IBM was exaggerating – whenever I see an IBMer using a laptop they’re usually knee deep in one Lotus product or another and few of them complain about the technology. But I had my doubts whether these social networking techniques (or Web 2.0 techniques as they are now often called) have much application within small or medium sized organizations.
After all hundreds of thousands of people work for IBM – it has a serious population. Wikis work for large populations, because the Wikipedia clearly works wonderfully well, but it has millions of readers and thousands of contributors. So I expect social networking techniques (personal pages, blogs, wikis, tagging) to work with large groups of users. But it seemed less likely to me that it would work well with small populations of staff.
Clearly, most social networking capabilities require a critical mass (a certain number of committed users) to get going and to persist and they need to be seen to deliver value continually or they’ll simply gather cobwebs. While the Lotus Connection staff assured me that it had done successful beta tests in small companies, I was skeptical.
A day later I changed my mind about Connections – not because I took another look at the product, but because Kapil Gupta, one of IBM’s Innovation Strategists, gave me a demonstration of a related IBM prototype product called ThinkPlace. This impressed me on its own terms, but also convinced me that the social networking techniques could work for small populations.
ThinkPlace started out as an internal IBM project aimed at encouraging staff to float new ideas and suggest improvements in any area of IBM’s activities – and also to assist in subsequently implementing some of them. It makes use of tagging, personal profiles, group activities and collaborative communication to do this. But, most importantly, it also manages every suggestion made, from submission through the process of feedback and refinement (or rejection) to creating a project and eventually implementing the idea.
IBM’s internal experience with ThinkPlace has been extremely positive. It estimates that the value ThinkPlace has delivered, since its inception about 18 months ago, is in the region of $400 million. Most of the $400 million corresponds to direct cost reduction, but some is based on the valuation of quality improvements in business processes. This is real payback for a system that cost only a small fraction of that figure to implement – but that isn’t what changed my mind about Lotus Connections. It was Kapil’s description of the impact of ThinkPlace on new IBM recruits that did that.
ThinkPlace is popular with IBM recruits because it quickly gives them a view of many things that are going on within IBM, from research through to consultancy. So it serves as a kind of informal induction course into IBM and the social networking aspects of the system help new joiners to get to know other staff outside their own area in a useful context.
Strangely, this had me thinking about a tour I was once given of a Dell manufacturing plant. I was told by Dell that everyone at the site, no matter what they did, was on one or more “improvement projects” that were aimed at increasing efficiency in the factory. This type of project was self-contained within the factory unit. Aside from the financial pay-off this activity brought (evident in the costs that Dell has historically managed to cut within its operation), it was regarded by Dell as a strong staff motivator – and it clearly was.
Dell factories do not have vast numbers of staff. So, pondering that, I became convinced that social networking techniques can work on relatively small populations of staff, as long as they are introduced within a sensible framework and are aimed at serving a specific goal. They can, quite clearly, be used to automate staff participation. Dell’s “improvement projects” could probably make good use of ThinkPlace.