Enterprise 2.0: IBM’s Social Networking Directions

I had a great opportunity today at lunch for a one-hour session with Jeff Schick, VP of social networking at IBM, and Joan DiMicco who came to IBM after doing media studies at MIT and is one of the key people behind Beehive. There were only seven of us plus these two quite technical IBM’ers in a suite upstairs in the hotel, giving us an opportunity to have an informal roundtable discussion: a sort of social networking nerd heaven.

We started out with a discussion about Beehive — a sort of enterprise Facebook that IBM has developed for internal use — which has gained 33,000 users in less than a year since internal release. That’s 10% of IBM’s workforce, which is a pretty significant adoption rate considering that it’s not required for creating any sort of work product. Beehive is purely a social platform, not a work platform, to allow IBM employees to create social and personal connections. I have friends within IBM, mostly former FileNet people who were absorbed during the acquisition, and one of them speaks glowingly of Beehive as a way to find other people with similar interests to her in order to find people whom with to collaborate.

Schick said that people are starting to be freer with the information that they share on Beehive, and we had a discussion about whether this additional degree of sharing tended to increase the camaraderie amongst co-workers. They’re seeing a blending of personal and professional information published on Beehive, which tends to enrich the communication between people since you have a more multi-faceted view of someone who you’ve met only online. He also talked about adding social concepts to business applications, for example, being able to link directly from someone’s name on a specific business transaction to other information that they have shared, such as shared files or profile information.

Jeffrey Walker of Atlassian was also in attendance, and he asked about the issue of having multiple social networks and how he really just wants a filtered version of Facebook for the enterprise, not yet another social platform. DiMicco responded that people who do external social networking in addition to Beehive tend to create very different profiles in, for example, Facebook and Beehive: they might post photos of their kids within Beehive but not in an open Facebook photo album. In other words, they use Beehive and other social networks for different reasons. Schick added that you can have links to your other social network profiles on your Beehive profile, so if you already have a lot set up elsewhere, you can link to it rather that replicate it, but that (in my opinion) devalues it somewhat since you don’t have federated searching across all of someone’s profiles if they choose to keep only a minimum in Beehive. Later, we heard about Fringe, a sort of internal FriendFeed to aggregate all of the internal and external information sources to provide some level of federated search, which does ease some of those concerns.

The interesting thing about IBM and Enterprise 2.0 is that IBM definitely eats their own dogfood; in fact, they eat it long before they consider serving it up to their customers. A few years ago, I heard about IBM’s Dogear (a social bookmarking tool, like Del.icio.us for the enterprise) at a Toronto-based Enterprise Camp; at the time, I tried to dig around and figure out when it would become available as a product, but they used it extensively internally before finally productizing it. Similarly, there are plans to productize Beehive and Fringe as behind-the-firewall social applications for enterprises under the Lotus Connections brand, now that they’ve had a chance to polish off the rough edges through their own internal use. These aren’t just for big enterprises: some smaller companies are using them as well.

The interesting opportunity is that IBM puts a stamp of credibility on the whole social networking space by offering applications to enterprises, which will undoubtedly benefit other social application vendors as the tide rises. They also see (rightly) that their social technology is far ahead of Microsoft’s, although it is being positioned against SharePoint in some cases. Schick sees content management as a key part of collaboration, and integration between the Lotus Connections products and ECM platforms such as FileNet, Documentum and SharePoint will allow them to make that even stronger.

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