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Social software sustains collaboration

Enterprise social software has its share of hype, but that doesn't mean it can't be successful. This fast-growing market will reach $1 billion in 2012, according to Gartner. Software in the category includes blogs and wikis, communities and forums. Capabilities that let users interact on a more personal level, such as voting and rating, are often a part of social software products, as are profiles that show an individual's work activities and interests. The key components for success are clear business goals and a wise selection of software.

Increasingly, social software is becoming less of a standalone application and more a part of daily work. "In the future, we expect social software to be less of a destination where users go to collaborate, and more of a service that lets users benefit from social functionality across the applications where they logically work," says Jarrod Gingras, an analyst at Real Story Group. Although social software took root most firmly in marketing departments, it is now being productively used in many areas of business.

People-centric approach

Bayer MaterialScience (BMS) is a developer and manufacturer of polymers and high-performance plastics that are being used in products such as electric cars and touch-screen laptops. Its research activities include the development of polymers that convert underwater wave motion into electricity. With a globally dispersed work force of 14,000 individuals and production units in 30 locations, BMS wanted to enhance the ability of its employees to work together effectively by deploying a people-centric collaboration solution.

After considering a variety of options, BMS selected IBM Connections, a collaboration platform that has a strong social dimension. "We wanted to go beyond a document-centric collaboration approach," says Kurt De Ruwe, CIO of BMS. "The best way for people to share knowledge and be creative is by working closely in a community environment, so we wanted a solution that brought people together." IBM Connections provides the rich social environment that BMS wanted, including profiles, blogs, wikis and user communities. It can also be integrated tightly with Microsoft Office.

Support for R&D

Integration with the Microsoft environment turned out to be critical to BMS because the company eventually decided to migrate from Lotus Notes, which it had used for many years, to Office and Exchange. "IBM listened carefully to us regarding our need for a full integration as this migration was planned, and the outcome was what we had hoped for," De Ruwe says. When users receive e-mails in Outlook, for example, they can see interactions the sender has had in IBM Connections in the right lower corner of Outlook. Users can also search SharePoint content from within Connections and link to SharePoint team sites and workspaces.

The initial launch was done via a pilot project involving 50 employees from the R&D department. "Innovation is key to our success," De Ruwe says, "so one of our top priorities was to support the R&D community." Within just a few months, usage had expanded beyond that group to include 2,000 individuals, and now stands at about 6,000. "IBM Connections was very well accepted," De Ruwe adds. "It is easy to use, and each week we see people expanding their profiles and doing more microblogging."

The ease of use was an important factor in adoption; it also minimizes the cost of managing IBM Connections. "The IT department does not need to get involved in establishing a community or setting up controls within them," De Ruwe says. "Users define the scope of the topic and who has access." Communities can be open, moderated or closed. "Often, people are cautious initially, and they set up a closed community," he explains. "Later, they feel more comfortable and choose to open up the access."

BMS has elected to include links from Connections to external sites such as LinkedIn to extend the reach of its collaboration environment. "Although there is a risk that people will experience information overload if we provide too much input," De Ruwe says, "this is balanced by the fact people can choose their level of participation and control what they see each day."

True enterprise app

Now that the early adopters are on board, BMS is preparing to offer training to those who have not yet signed on. "It takes time to get full participation," says De Ruwe. "Not everyone is convinced at this point that it makes sense to work a different way." But the momentum is there. "We have seen cross-departmental activity and development of product applications that without Connections would most likely not have occurred, and I have seen it myself, discovering people and projects that I had not previously known about," he adds.

IBM initially developed the Connections platform for its own use with Lotus Notes. "Around 2005, we decided it was important to provide a commercially available offering to better connect people with people and people with information," says Jeff Schick, VP of social software at IBM. "One of our strengths is that this is a true enterprise application, which offers single sign-on and integration with other solutions, HR systems and so forth."

Although participation in social collaboration was originally greater in knowledge industries such as consulting, Schick now sees much more pervasive activity. "One cement company was able to develop a rapid-setting product using social collaboration provided by IBM Connections," he says. "The R&D department, product development and sales were all able to work together in a way that would have been impossible before."

Filtering the options

Given the large number of social collaboration platforms, selecting the right one can be a major challenge. In some cases, existing infrastructure tends to point organizations toward a particular choice, and in others, budget limitations narrow the field. Within those constraints, the first step, as with any software initiative, should be to look at requirements.

For many business applications of social collaboration platforms, the ability to organize and share files is essential. "Being able to organize files is often a key requirement," says Cathy Ingham, a consultant at LiquidHub, a global technology consultancy that supports customers in IT initiatives. "Social software products that are designed on a Facebook-type model often do not have the ability to handle the kinds of content that businesses need."

The permissions model is critical to setting up a well-run social collaboration platform. "It is important to think through the model at the outset," advises Ingham. "Factors such as which departments will be using the platform, how many roles are needed and what privileges are reasonable for each role should all be considered." Good candidate products allow adequate granularity in setting up the roles and associated privileges. Certain functions, such as creating a file folder, should not require administrative privileges but should be possible through the user interface.

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