IBM Lotusphere 2012: The Old Lotus Has Wilted


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+1 for Social Business. IBM is in. Whole hog.

6000+ faithful Lotus attendees and 100s of Lotus Partners got fed IBM’s ebusiness equivalent play for the 21st century. Simply put, that they are betting their entire portfolio of collaboration solutions, both old and new on Social Business.

One fat caveat before I put my thoughts here. Connections Next, IBM’s enterprise social software offering that was the star of its presentation won’t be here until later this summer. But given the play it got at Lotusphere 2012 and IBMConnect, it’s too large a bet on IBM’s Collaboration portfolio to not consider seriously.

I was kindly invited to IBMConnect, the section of this conference for IBM’s business customers, to speak about what customer relationship building truly entails in the 21st century. It was great speaking to an outside-the-beltway audience about tectonic changes in customer expectations thanks to the social web and how we need to wire our customers, employees and partners together to deliver on these new expectations. In insider baseball lingo – how Social CRM and Employee Collaboration are interdependent. The deck is here on Slideshare.

There are some great posts out there that have that covered feature rundowns very well. Take a look at excellent reviews by Mike Fauscette,  Daryl K TaftDavid Carr and Steve Lohr for starters. And Luis Benitez has a comprehensive list, here.

These are my key takeaways on the business viability of IBM’s social and collaborative offerings.

Connections Next embraces the “me-web”: Fundamentally, it all boils down to this: IBM in my opinion has made great strides towards understanding access to and the interplay between content, data, process and human connection that gets us on the path of social finally meaning business. The workplace has long been imprisoned in a systems-web where you have to work separately with a bunch of disconnected data, process, content and interaction platforms and to top it off, no clear way of assessing the knowledge depth and breadth of an organization. The significant overhead that comes from orchestrating these disparate value points into even a rudimentary symphony would make Zubin Mehta‘s job look like a walk in the park. That’s the world or work we’ve lived in thus far and IBM is proposing to change that. The demos of Connections Next illustrated read-write capabilities with a set of native and external sources of content and documents and business intelligence – be that finding and editing documents, consuming and contributing to workflow from ERP, social and private interactions with people, and finally basic unified communications capabilities. Arguably this is one of the more comprehensive offerings in the social software space.

Contextual Collaboration: Connections Next isn’t just another grab bag of social networking features. Instead, IBM has done a commendable job of rationalizing native assets and ISV relationships to foster contextual collaboration that’s missing in many social business programs and a design that doesn’t impedes process and task facilitation. Whether that’s email and calendaring or content management, Connections pulls in relevant IBM technology assets to provide a more comprehensive collaboration suite, as opposed to just social networking. In addition, long standing relationships with technology providers such as SAP promise to bring read-write capabilities to and from business systems, ultimately casting ‘social’ as a pivotal enabler of get-work-done systems.

Finding needles in the social haystack: Moving conversations from email to a social network doesn’t really do much when it comes to reducing information overload or making you more efficient necessarily. In fact it just amplifies the problem as we listen to what everyone has to say.

Credit: Brendan Farnand

Add customer conversations to the mix and you really have a headache on your hands. Many social business software powered programs today suffer from this today and I suspect 2012 will find many organizations looking for good standalone filtering and analytics technology or an outright replacement of the social platform in favor of one that enables meaningful discovery, business and event context, consumption and participation. With a comprehensive analytics offering that spans customer and employee conversations and combines both Cognos based analytics and Social insight from the Lotus environment, IBM becomes one of the few serious providers (not the only one to be clear) that can help discover people, content and data, all in context of the specific job at hand. IBM’s Brendan Fernand has more, here.

Research: When you have a $6 billion dollar research budget and the smarts of people like Marie Wallace and others on the research team pushing the limits of how to marry process and social data, it’s a very powerful differentiator. With its new Social Business focus (and an outright name change for the research group to reflect this), we saw a good chunk of the lab efforts now focused on making social networking more meaningful — both by making sense of shared data and conversations, and also by surfacing social insight right inside system of record applications. For instance, Marie demoed how social network analysis could recommend the most qualified sales rep for a new lead that just dropped into SugarCRMs CRM application. I introduced a concept I’ve been spending time on recently called Network Attached Value in my presentation at IBMConnect that basically aims to identify how process and task activity is accelerated when you can attached the value of your business network to workflow. Coincidently, Marie presented a sandbox version of this and it was great to see how the work of structured process can be enriched by analyzed employee data. It’s clear that IBM can cement its competitive position with this sort of leadership, as opposed to a social networking feature shoot out.

A few things that IBM needs to pay attention to, in my opinion:

Brand: IBM needs to brutally assess the future of the Lotus brand. For better or for worse, there are a lot of passionate feelings in the market for Lotus as a brand and as long as it’s alive, even disconnected collaboration offerings such as Connections will get lumped into the same basket. You saw early signs of the Lotus brand taking a back seat at the event. For instance, Lotus Live has already become IBM Smart Cloud for Social Business.

Distribution: Lots and lots of attention played to the Partner landscape at Lotusphere. The good news is that thousands of IBM Lotus and UC partners now get to play in the social business game. But when you look at the comprehensive offering that is Connections Next, with tie-ins into content management, messaging, and business process, I wonder if the typical Lotus and other  CMS partner base can immediately deliver on the needed business transformation. I suspect IBM Global Business Services (GBS) will have to lead the way for sometime until a more mature market of partners surface who know as much about messaging, collaboration, process and industry knowledge. And it seems like a slam dunk to me to leverage people such as Luis Suarez and Rawn Shah to communicate the nitty gritty benefits and value points of using social software to customers once the air cover marketing on social business has run its course for a prospect and when its time to convert. And I wrote last year about where the hidden domain smarts around communicating and executing social business lies inside IBM. After attending IBMConnect, things are no doubt moving in the right direction, but I still stand by that line of thinking.

Can it Rip and Replace? I asked why IBM thinks it can replace incumbent (free, cheap, open source) social offerings that have penetrated organizations thus far in one of the briefing sessions. The answer I got was IBM has better security. Ah – I expected to be treated to a slew of answers such as distribution strength, product superiority, industry focus, research commitment, process knowledge and the like. Connections Next has the goods to replace many sub optimal offerings in the market but organizations don’t buy best; they buy good enough. And so it’s going to take a lot more than security to unhinge a social business program that already has momentum.

Closing thoughts:

All up, IBM’s advancements with Connections is fantastic and given the play it got on the main stage, it would be shocking if the application doesn’t deliver as advertised later this year. The disciplined approach to rationalizing its technology assets, providing a bridge between the old and new by folding in email and calendaring and a concerted effort to provide one dashboard where collaboration can happen with people around unstructured and structured events is really good. And at an infrastructure level, Project Vulcan promises to help customers make a move from their existing systems to more efficient innovation at a palatable pace. And the customers such as TD Canada Trust who spoke at the event were solving gnarly business problems with collaboration. Whilst I think there are multiple pathways to infusing social software into the enterprise stack, “IBM shops” out there will be pleased to see that they don’t have to endure more spaghetti integration between disparate systems as Connections offers a serious platform. Huge kudos to Alistair Rennie and team for making this a CIO-friendly solution.

The event itself was executed very well and the events team brought heavy weights to the keynote stage with Alistair, Mike Rhodin, Jeff Schick, Bridget van Kralingen, Sandy Carter and others to enforce that. The one thing that did strike me was that given the massive pivot push around Social Business and the expected impact on the IBM mothership, it would have been a nice touch if CEO Ginni Rometty made a surprise appearance, even if for just 60 seconds via telepresence. Not that they needed any more muscle but that would have put a bow on it.

There’s no doubt that its game on from IBMs perspective and any older perceptions of Lotus is a thing of the past. Given my strand of collaboration and social business (as illustrated on this blog), I feel that this is one incarnation of social business that has a shot at making social, truly mean business.

Sameer Patel
Sameer Patel is a founding partner at the Sovos Group, a consulting firm that helps leading organizations accelerate employee, customer and partner performance via the strategic use of social and collaborative approaches and technology.


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