Monday, January 21, 2008

IBM: the era of social networks

Right now, in Orlando, Florida, IBM Lotus has it's yearly party/conference: LotuSphere. A big reunion for IBM Lotus aficionados from all over the world, who happen to form a very active community with many online discussion forums, blogs, RL conferences etcetera. I have been at 'Sphere once; a terrific experience. But, this year I didn't get to go unfortunately.

The formal opening of LotuSphere is the General Opening Session, traditionally featuring IBM Lotus' General Manager, currently Mike Rhodin. I didn't get to see it live, but well known IBM blogger Alan Lepofsky liveblogged Mike's speech here.

Mike said something interesting, and for followers of virtual worlds relevant, about how people collaborate online: first there was document centric collaboration, then we saw people centric, but now there's community centric.

Let me expand briefly on that thought.

At first, online collaboration was document centric. The typewriter and overhead projector got replaced by the word processor and powerpoint, but the document is, in this paradigm, still central to collaboration, storing knowledge and exchanging it.

The next generation of collaboration put people at the center: email and instant messaging are the tools which let people work together. In my opinion, the document is still a strong presence here; it's just that people centric tools emerged, to help people deal more efficient with (document centered) collaboration.

But both these styles of collaboration are now eclipsed by the third style, community centric collaboration: social networks, and social networking software enable people to exchange knowledge, locate expertise, find and provide answers. Knowledge is stored in wikis, on blogs, in profiles, and yes maybe in documents too.

This fits in with the emergence of all the well known networking sites: LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, Hyves (the dominant social network site for The Netherlands), plaxo etcetera.
But, it also fits in with the emergence of virtual, 3D worlds like Second Life: these are social environments, where people (ok, avatars..) and communities are central. These worlds largely revolve around meeting new or likeminded people, sharing activities and experiences, talking, meeting, discussing, doing stuff together, like shopping, visiting a concert, or having a dogfight using WW1 era airplanes.

It's not an accident that IBM is investigating ways to integrate this third dimension into it's existing collaboration software, most notably IBM Lotus Connections. This is the era of social software, of open networks where knowledge is easily accessible and shared by people, and IBM Lotus is actively trying to integrate those values (which are at the heart of what Lotus has advocated for years) into business computing. I wonder if IBM's own Metaverse software will play a role in this, and wether it will interoperate with Second Life.

As an aside: I get to witness all these stages at once, at one customer of ours.
At their Systems Administration department, management is struggling with how to store and index operational knowledge, how to use it efficiently. Some people still think all that knowledge should be stored in Word documents, according to a strictly determined structure (chapters which should be covered etc) and those documents should reside on a shared network drive. But many younger employees percieve these digital documents on a shared network drive as too static and too inflexible to store knowledge that should be readily accessible and easily editable in a browser. Among many professionals working at this department, the wiki is now the preferred way of storing the departments' operational knowledge. Management is still at the first stage of collaboration; instant messaging has only been turned on recently; but most of the workforce is at the third stage, and would rather see wikis and blogs. Too bad they are a Microsoft shop; these are always a bit behind when in comes to innovation and collaboration.

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