IBM's social enterprise plan: Meld collaboration, processes with dash of Watson

Summary:Big Blue is quietly the leader in the social enterprise race, according to IDC. Here's a look the strategy for IBM Connections and what happens when social networking meets processes and artificial intelligence.

Amid all the talk about the social enterprise and acquisitions in the space, IBM is often overlooked. The reality is that IBM and its Connections software, which launched in 2007, is the leader in the market, according to IDC.

Given the IDC data, it's worth catching up with IBM's Jeff Schick, vice president of social software. In between working with the likes of PepsiCo, TD Bank and a bevy of others, Schick also pops up on the Howard Stern radio show on Sirius.

Whenever Stern has a tech issue, Schick is either a hero or gets thrown under the bus. Stern's 112 Inc. production company has used Notes and IBM gear to collaborate and run his Web site for about 20 years. "Howard has always been tech interested and progressive," said Schick.

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Here's a look at the key highlights of my conversation with Schick:

What do you need to set up a thriving social enterprise? According to Schick, executive sponsorship is key. Top executives need to share the vision about how social tools can affect processes, improve customer service and bolster sales and research and development. "Inside IBM, there are 70,000 communities," said Schick. "social affects processes in terms of the work people do."

The IBM Connections installed base. Schick said 75 percent of Connections customers are not Lotus Notes customer. IBM has deployed an "insertion strategy" to spread Connections through accounts. Specifically, WebSphere and Notes customers have some Connections features. All Cognos 10 customers have Connections.

How social impacts processes. Schick demonstrated a next-generation version of Connections that tied into multiple back-end systems---analytics, human resources, expense reports, inventory etc. In the demonstration, it was obvious how IBM's view is that the social stream is the employee dashboard. Some examples: An expense report that needed approval would show up in your boss' stream. One click would open a widget where it could be approved. A sales person would see RFPs and sales data. Developers in China would get widgets in their streams where they could code directly. What about integration? Schick said that Connections is based on the open social standard and public APIs. "Social is the primary interface to corporate systems," said Schick.


The future of social analytics.
Schick recently conducted a live demonstration of a version of IBM's Connections software connected to the company's Watson technology. Recall that Watson was the Jeopardy playing artificial intelligence system now being used in healthcare and other key verticals. In a social networking setting, Watson is a plug in where community members---in this case physicians and health care workers---can ask questions. Watson dutifully served up answers. Applied to other industries the social Watson connection becomes clear. "Watson will be manning the discussion forums," said Schick, who noted that Watson can become an effective corporate extension that dishes out intellectual property as well as service.

What's IBM's social acquisition strategy? Schick didn't bite when I asked him to comment on the M&A binge for social companies. He did say that social enterprise is a "table stakes discussion" in software deals. That reality would partially explain why Oracle , Microsoft and Salesforce are gobbling up social enterprise players.

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Facebook's role in the enterprise. It's not that surprising that many social enterprise tools happen to resemble Facebook. Schick acknowledged that Facebook has influenced design and user experience. "Social enterprise software can't have a user manual," he said. Facebook has also influenced how people communicate.

"Facebook is clearly important," said Schick, who noted that social enterprise tools need to integrate with back-end systems and meet compliance requirements. "Clearly Facebook has become important to the enterprise in terms of social media activities," said Schick. "There's no product or initiative we launch that doesn't have a social media plan."

The ROI case for social enterprise. Schick said almost every industry can see returns on social enterprise tools. As long as efficiency, productivity and customer service can be measured you can track social returns, said Schick. Internally, Schick said IBM was able to shut down phone support and save $110 million by moving to a social structure. IBM's services unit also used Connections to find intellectual property and experts to use on projections. "In the vast majority of cases, there's hard ROI in social enterprise," he said.

What inning is it for the social enterprise? Schick said the development of social processes changes by the company. Some companies are just testing the waters and others are pretty advanced. "There's no hard wired rule of thumb," he said.

More social enterprise:

Topics: Social Enterprise, Enterprise Software, IBM

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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