David Tebbutt, SmallBizPod Blog

Last week saw IBM’s annual Lotusphere shindig in Orlando. I was there, suffering the usual headaches and lack of sleep caused by a combination of the time-zone change and information overload. Much of the event was way off the SMB radar although IBM is putting together a really nice set of online services which will all go out under the LotusLive brand. You may recall that I mentioned the ‘Bluehouse‘ collaborative software last year, this has now been formally named LotusLive Engage.

It’s unlikely that you will be buying your services directly from IBM/Lotus. It would be physically impossible for the company to reach the huge potential market for these online services. It is more likely to come from a systems integrator or value added reseller, especially if you’d like it to be integrated to your existing systems. Or it might come from an internet service provider or, maybe, a telco. I think that reaching out to an unfamiliar part of the market is probably one of IBM/Lotus’ primary challenges at the moment.

The other, which is faced by all sellers of social/collaboration software or services, is to get across the point of the stuff in the first place. This is probably an even bigger challenge, although we are all helped (?) by the fact that many people participate in their private lives. The question mark is there because a lot of private social networking is rather different to what you’d expect to see in the office.

A rather strange actor delivered an opening address. His name is Dan Aykroyd and, for someone who knows nothing about Beldar Conehead, his grand entrance was somewhat less than grand. The (largely US) audience thought it was a hoot. For me, he got more interesting when he narrated the tale of a very famous actor who thought that he should question the minutiae of the filming process. He challenged the director, the cameraman, the dolly operator – you name it, he whinged about it. What should have been done in one or two takes, stretched out, costing everyone time and the studio a fortune. He wasn’t popular. He didn’t even bother to learn anything about the production crew. (They might have filmed some of the greatest movies ever made for all he knew.)

Morale was sagging and Aykroyd decided (for the only time in his life) to deliver a homily to the actor, in private. He explained that all these people were interested in only one thing; to make the actors look good. That’s what their craft was all about. So, in terms of importance, in a production sense, the actors were almost the least important. Aykroyd’s punchline related to the fact that collaboration was way more effective than confrontation.

Later, Bob Picciano, Lotus’ newish boss expanded on the theme by relating it to the way many forward-thinking companies are now being run. Employees used to be just cogs in the machine. Decisions were made at the top and executed by employees, no matter how self-evidently daft. To question authority was to put your job in peril. Now, more and more companies realise that the intellectual capital of the employees (my words, by the way, not his) is what needs to be supported, so the tables are turning. The bosses and the infrastructure exist to support the employees. The hierarchical pyramid is being stood on its head.

This is where the social stuff provides leverage. And it can apply beyond the organisation, even more important to the smaller business which quite often collaborates with outside organisations to achieve its objectives. If people with common cause can find each other and share information then they can accelerate their work. Instant messaging and presence can enable contact and eliminate wasted effort. Blogging is a kind of ‘narrating your work’ so that people can pick up on what others have worked on without disrupting them. Wikis are good for team collaboration. And so on. I’m sure you’ve heard justifications for all the elements before.

One of the nice things about an approach like Lotus/IBM’s is that secure communities can be created which can be internal or include external participants such as suppliers. And everything that takes place is work-focused. The company has another system in the laboratory, called Beehive, which adds a personal dimension to the proceedings. It strengthens the bonds between people who have probably already discovered each other through the more formal system. We know from real world social networks such as Twitter or Facebook that personal bonds strengthen more quickly and defy time-zone and geographic barriers.

I’m not saying that IBM/Lotus is the only game in town, but if it can reach the SMB market effectively, it has a lot going for it, not least the sense of security that comes from knowing that it would be hosting your services.

Of course, you have to be the sort of organisation that sees employees as your source of power, rather than the bosses…

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