IBM's Legacy World

I attended a regional 'Lotus Collaboration Summit' yesterday - a very helpful road show style event IBM put on to help flesh out the state of the Lotus universe and give partners a chance to demo their products to the customers in attendance.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

Early Office

I attended a regional 'Lotus Collaboration Summit' yesterday - a very helpful road show style event IBM put on to help flesh out the state of the Lotus universe and give partners a chance to demo their products to the customers in attendance.

The big annual international event for Lotus is January's LotusSphere in Orlando, but this 'driven by collaboration, fuelled by innovation' show and tell did a great job of rolling out information and roadmaps for those not able to attend that event, or as an interim briefing.

The reality of the Lotus installed base is inevitably one of legacy integrations and point release installations in large institutions - the idea that Lotus Notes drives collaboration will produce a dry chuckle from those currently using past iterations of the product.

Pre version 8.0, the c++ email client releases still in use in a large percentage of Lotus's client base are pretty creaky; searching a well laden mailbox will allow you to go and collaborate with your colleagues offline for a good few minutes until the search results finally appear, and some of the earlier Domino database 'customizations' are holding companies hostage to any upgrades.

In Lotus Notes defense they are historically one of very few stable enterprise email systems that can handle large numbers of corporate employees; this reliability is paramount in the large institution and vastly preferable to systems with bells and whistles that aren't working today because the whole system choked. Their services to the legal community in enabling email discovery are often underestimated also.

Lotus are making giant strides with their Collaboration Suite. Spurred on by the Web 2.0/Enterprise 2.0 revolution (and arguably feeding off innovations by nimbler competitors) The post 8.0 generation of Lotus Collaboration products are built on an Eclipse platform designed to fit the platform agnostic browser based paradigm, and great efforts have been made to move with the times by providing a complimentary suite of collaboration tools.

The challenge for all large vendors with legacy installations is effectively serving their installed base.

Large companies (insurance for example) have a huge need for keeping vast clerical armies productive processing email, snail mail, telephone calls, CRM (customer relationship Management)and other alphabet soup TLA's.

Operating Lotus Notes email client is a result of historical workforce training investment. The email and single seat Microsoft Office license document culture is entrenched in a huge part of the workforce, and introduction of new ways of working and new tools can incite major fear and stress.

It's easy for 2.0 mavens to roar with laughter at this idea, but to give a sense of the task ahead unfortunately named Lotus partner Ephox are promoting a product called 'EditLive! for IBM Quickr' (a Lotus Collaboration suite component) to convert the scary new web interface back into something resembling a 'traditional' desktop client...

...using the familiar interface of Word that includes advanced features such as track changes, tables, and lists. EditLive! for Quickr takes the pain out of online publishing and gives authors a familiar editing environment - ensuring widespread user adoption.

This reverse engineering of a browser based application for people probably using an early Pentium powered workstation with MS Office is arguably the lions share of the clientele to be trained in future collaboration techniques and tools.

Innovation is typically practiced by a relatively small segment of corporate culture: like an army most staff are marching to orders. Today innovators (R&D, sales for example) typically utilize modern collaboration technology, often in an ad hoc way, or their departments have a 'special install' of a Jive Clearspace, Mindtouch Deki, SocialText or similar product.

Regardless of the size of the install, the people processes and usage model are critical to successful uptake and effective utility.

IBM are grappling with supertanker sized steering issues in an admirable way, and their sophisticated collaboration suite, which is visible on the distant horizon, is a terrific package, very well thought out with a consistent user interface across products. The headline on IBM's Notes page 'The Desktop of the Future' says it all though - it's going to be several years before most customers start to begin to see 'beta testing' installs of the Lotus Collaboration Suite.

I have to feel for the IBM sales teams attempting to sell a sophisticated collaboration package to techie IT staff focused on testing integration of 'the next version of Notes'. There is a huge perception gap of who collaboration technology is aimed at inside organizations - historically IT have hooked up email, which is viewed like telephone service: one needed on every desk.

IBM employ great minds like Luis Suarez who has very publically given up email and proved great value to the community by discussing practicality of alternatives, but they also have discombobulated communication efforts such as this oddity 'Welcome to the age of Information Overload'.

Getting your arms around collaboration strategy inside large organizations is so much more than musing on 'climbing out of the communications chasm': belated email usage tactical recommendations are a band aid on a huge problem with questionable results.

Collaboration strategy and tactics needs to be planned on a holistic business unit level in this era before going anywhere near technology. The silo busting ability of collaboration doesn't happen by installing software, it can link business units by thinking through people processes, which are then enabled by the technology.

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