LOTUSPHERE - IBM's bet on social networking faces scrutiny

IBM/Lotus sees Web 2.0 technologies as the wave of the future for collaboration, but how will enterprises respond?

IBM/Lotus is betting heavily that social networking software will be a boon to corporate productivity, and while many observers agree, they caution that features such as access and management controls and training issues could be a major hurdle toward adoption.

At its annual Lotusphere conference last week, IBM/Lotus made no bones about the fact that it sees Web 2.0 technologies as the wave of the future for collaboration. The company's focus is on developing social software with business users and business requirements, such as directory integration, in mind, rather than the free-for-all attitude of consumer implementations of blogs, wikis and file and photo sharing.

To make its point, the company unveiled Lotus Connections, its first integrated bundle of social networking tools that is slated to ship later this year. Connections includes blogging, bookmark sharing, user profiles and software to track activities and build online communities. In addition, IBM showcased in the conference's Innovation Lab its next wave of tools with a "social software" pedigree that target business intelligence, real-time communications and development of Web 2.0 applications.

"Connections can create mashups of humans, and the benefits of that are huge," says Jeff Schick, vice president of social computing for IBM. "Think what it can do for product development. It means fewer repeated errors."

While users and observers were captivated by the possibilities, they were also questioning the challenges corporations may face in rolling out such tools.

"The question is how you sell this to the enterprise," says Irwin Lazar, principal analyst and program director for convergence and collaboration at Nemertes Research. "The enterprise manager will say, how do I manage this, how can I control it, how can I cost justify the implementation, how do I support it and what are the training issues."

Lazar says the model around Web 2.0 tools is decentralization -- the tools get pushed out to users, who then figure out how to use them -- as opposed to the way software has been deployed for years as a big, feature-laden package that required user training.

"You have a younger generation that has grown up on MySpace and social bookmarking, and an older generation that really does not have any concept of how these tools work," Lazar says.

He agrees with IBM's take on the future of collaboration, but he says the challenge will be educating customers on the business benefits.

Indeed, customers seem to be intrigued and inquisitive.

"Having tools to manage content, subscribe to content, and organize and share content, it's very powerful," says Scott Burt, president of Integro, a consulting firm based in Denver. "That stuff should not be done in e-mail."

But Burt questions where the tools might be the most effective. "For smaller shops, they might not be worthwhile. But for firms big on knowledge, consulting, or anytime you have over 100 employees I think you need this," says Burt, who has 30 employees distributed over four time zones.

IBM/Lotus plans to release Connections as an integrated suite that pulls together IBM's BluePages, an end-user directory for profiles; Dogear, a bookmark sharing application; Activities, a sophisticated to-do list; Communities, for pulling together groups of users; and Roller, a blog server developed within the Apache Software Foundation .

IBM has been using many of these tools internally for years, so such issues as scalability and reliability have been put to the test, company officials say.

"The challenge will be getting people to move to this way of working," acknowledges Alan Lepofsky, senior manager for strategy and evangelism for Lotus software. "People adopt technology when they find that it benefits them."

Within corporations, however, that benefit will have to include both end users and IT.

Connections is a set of server-based services, so it is not a new platform to install, but one that can be added to existing tools through integration with the forthcoming Notes 8 and Sametime 7.5.1 clients that are based on the Lotus Expeditor and Eclipse client frameworks. The services also can be accessed via a browser as part of a portal deployment, integrated with Microsoft Office and with Notes 7.

In addition, IBM/Lotus is pushing integration with its new Quickr file sharing and team workspace software and with its real-time communications platform as a way to create an entry ramp to the new social software tools.

Observers says IBM/Lotus will face another hurdle to adoption: convincing users it is serious this time after scrapping its Workplace initiative after four years of hype.

"They will have to build confidence in the market," says Erica Driver, principal analyst at Forrester.

Driver says that confidence will have to span, not only IBM's commitment but also how a company's existing security tools can control the new software.

"Wikis and blogs have to adhere to archiving and compliance requirements," Driver says. "You can use some existing security, but some new things such as tagging are very organic and fluid, and people are not sure how that will work [with security requirements]."

Driver says IT better find answers to these questions, because she thinks IBM is headed in the right direction. "This is how [younger workers] interact, this is how they live. Shortly it will be a disadvantage for companies that don't put social networking in place, because these tools can improve information worker productivity."

And Driver says other vendors should be on notice. "IBM is claiming a window of opportunity to use this to their advantage," she says.

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