IBM hopes to make imitation profitable through a newly created business unit that will sell to customers the same corporate collaboration systems it designed and uses in-house to keep executives and employees in touch.
The new Dynamic Workplaces unit, with about 2000 employees and 300 researchers working to help clients improve their employee collaboration, was formed within IBM's Global Services practice. Dynamic Workplaces includes an umbrella suite of interlinked Web-based portal tools, including e-mail, conferencing, instant messaging, message boards and more to help employees communicate wherever they are around the globe.
IBM's new offering is based on intranet systems it created internally over the past 10 years to help its own 320,000 staff communicate and improve their business systems, said Ralph Senst, IBM vice president of Dynamic Workplaces. Once IBM began using its own intranet as a model in talks with clients, more than 300 customers asked for briefings to learn how the systems worked, he said. When Big Blue found that customers wanted to build similar systems, IBM decided to begin packaging and selling it, Senst said.
"We thought that everyone had this, that this was fairly common," he said. Instead, what IBM learnt was that customers wanted similar systems to make their businesses more efficient -- systems they were willing to pay for. "People want it, so we have now made what we made for ourselves available to the general public."
Under the system, users see a customised Web-based portal on their PC screens that has been designed to meet their specific needs. The custom WebSphere Portal provides tools for workers to communicate through real-time "team rooms", which are essentially controlled-access chat rooms for projects or organisations. Using bulletin board postings, instant messaging clients, integrated e-mail and other communications tools, companies can keep their employees in contact and increase their productivity, he said.
The portals also provide places for online learning, human resources and other corporate communications.
Some of the benefits IBM is touting for its e-Workplace offering include reduced costs, boosted employee productivity, and faster time to market with Web-based initiatives.
Specifically, e-Workplace enables businesses to streamline hundreds of existing intranet sites into single portal initiative, provide employee self-service for benefits and superannuation, improve access to e-learning, bolster collaboration, and give better support to mobile and remote workers, according to IBM.
Andrew Giunta, IBM practice executive for Dynamic Workplaces Asia Pacific South, said the service solves businesses' challenge of becoming more responsive to customers, and closer to partners and suppliers. More important, IT managers through the e-workplace products can help their organisation achieve more intimate business relationships because it allows them to implement an enterprise portal infrastructure in a quick, customised and low-cost way.
Meanwhile, because there are a number of different technologies in IBM's e-Workplace vision, bringing services into the mix is a good move, according to Giga Information Group research director Laura Ramos. Combining portal and application server technologies means there is less code to write for deployment.
"So it really becomes an ideal platform for services people to go in and implement portals for specific business functions, like workplaces for example, rapidly," she said.
In a similar move, PwC Consulting in December launched a service designed to help businesses deploy a comprehensive portal infrastructure. PwC's B2E (business-to-extended enterprise) Solution Set combines consulting systems integration, IT services, and partner products to address portal deployment from strategy formation through implementation, according to officials at PwC Consulting, the management consulting arm of global consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
However, IBM's Guinta claimed PwC's offering was no match for IBM's because it was "not an end to end service" covering implementation as well as hosting.
Dynamic Workplaces will use IBM technologies from other corporate units, including Lotus Domino Extended Search, Lotus Sametime and Quickplace, Tivoli security management software, DB2 Universal Database and WebSphere Application Server.
Also included are tools to move employee expense reporting to the online portal to speed processing and reimbursements.
Most Australian demand in for the e-workplace offering comes from the finance, government, distribution and consumer goods sectors -- industries now evolving by moving away from B2C transactions to B2B activity.
IBM partners in the rollout of the new offering include PeopleSoft, Cisco Systems and Alcatel.