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One of my favorite topics of late is unified communications and social software, and how the two are or should be coming together. Everyone’s familiar with the public social networking services such as Facebook, twitter, and LinkedIn, but there are security, productivity, privacy and other concerns with these services. More and more companies are turning to enterprise-class social software tools that provide the security and quality that enterprises need.
Many people have misconceptions about social software, assuming that it’s just about telling people what you ate for lunch, when in reality, it’s an extremely useful business tool. It’s more than just chatting with friends or letting your “followers” know what you did over the weekend. Tools such as social bookmarking, content tagging, wikis, blogs, and microblogs let workers participate in communities where they can build expertise and share knowledge.
Social networking and unified communications each have inherent value, but are even more powerful when we can blend social software nonsynchronous communication tools (such as wikis and blogs) with UC’s synchronous communications capabilities (such as click to connect). Integrating unified communications with social software lets workers better network with peers within the organization, identify and connect with experts within the company, collaborate on projects, and help workers feel connected. By identifying and connecting with experts, companies speed up business processes and improve decision making – with obvious impacts on the company’s bottom line. While the ROI is less obvious, UC integrated with social software helps workers, even in remote locations, feel connected to the organization, making it easier to retain employees and attract new employees. It’s all about sharing knowledge and finding the right resources or connections.
Two years ago I wrote that IBM seems to be ahead of most of its competitors in the area of social software (Lotus Shows Off Its Social Software and Services). My position hasn’t changed. IBM has several social software offerings, including Quickr (collaborative workspaces) and Connections (social networking for business). IBM is not the only company to offer enterprise social software capabilities, or to integrate them with their UC capabilities but it has a head start over most of its competitors, which have only recently announced such capabilities. For those of you unfamiliar with IBM’s social software offerings, here’s a brief overview.
IBM Lotus Quickr software organizes contacts and content library and brings content together in one place where team or project members can find what they need and keep everyone in the loop. Quickr gives you a place to post files, such as presentations and press releases relating to a specific project, for example, letting members check in documents and review them, and add comments. Other features include team blogs, project management templates, team calendaring features, and more.
IBM Lotus Connections software is focused on people-based collaboration, empowering users with the collective knowledge of their organization, partners and customers by dynamically building new connections between people based on their expertise and the tasks they are executing. It includes member Profiles, Blogs, Bookmarks, Communities, and Activities. Everything is integrated together so that when you click on someone’s name, you see a popup with their profile, the communities they’re in, blogs they’ve written, websites they’ve bookmarked, which activities they are in, etc.
The real bang for the buck will come from integrating IBM’s social software capabilities with its unified communications and collaboration offerings, notably Sametime. IBM provides much of this integration today. Sametime integration with Quickr helps people share the latest document in their real-time collaboration and reach out to document authors, with real time access to team members. Integration of Sametime with Connections makes it easier to find and connect with the appropriate people. One customer using Quickr, Connections, and Sametime together is Rheinmetall, a German defense and automotive company that was built through mergers and acquisitions, and whose workers can now more easily find the right person, at the right time, making them more productive. Consolidated lists of the newly created documents in the team rooms make it easier for users to gain an overview of the documents, and subscriptions can be set up in the user’s most important team rooms so they can be notified by e-mail of selected changes.
We’re starting to see lots more examples of customers integrating social software and UCC products together. One pharmaceutical company integrated these tools into its supply chain to help monitor systems remotely and find the appropriate repair people when something breaks. By having integrations to the profiles of the repair people and their presence status, the software can determine if the appropriate people are available, and if not, who else can fix the problem. Based on their Lotus Connections profile, the appropriate person to fix the equipment is identified, Sametime Unified Telephony routes the interaction to that person on the appropriate devices.
Another example is SXC, which is growing rapidly through acquisitions, and needed a way for workers to know who does what in the company. The company uses Connections’ profiles to identify people and their responsibilities, while using Sametime to let the workers interact with each other in real time. SXC was able to foster a common culture around the world, retain talent when closing sites, and differentiate its value to clients.
Companies are also using these tools to help provide context and avoid “communication dead zones,” where people get so overloaded with information that they start ignoring most of it. Using social software tools lets you establish context – who do I need to be aware of, who do I need to communicate with, who do I need to be paying attention to. This provides an additional dimension where you can learn about other people, what they’re doing, what they’ve produced, what their status is, etc., helping to address the chaotic nature and uncertainty that occurs when there’s a corporate merger and workers in one part of the organization don’t know the workers from the other part.
The UCC and social software capabilities can be integrated with custom applications such as sales force automation or contact center applications. In a contact center application, agents can access data from communities related to the problems or products the customer is calling about, and can access that data and view blogs, wikis, and FAQs about the product, or use the broadcast chat capability to get information from the community of experts, expanding the expert agent concept to the entire community. The expert agent becomes the expert community! Using the broadcast chat capability tied in with other community functions of Connections, agents can ask a question of the entire community, and people can respond in real time. Connections and Sametime Advanced share the same community structure, so when the contact center agent sees the customer information, they also see content coming from Connections, such as wikis, blogs, etc that are related to that product, and can ask the question in real time to members of that community through Sametime Advanced.
While IBM provides several integration points between Sametime and Connections and Quickr, obviously this is not entirely “plug and play,” and there will be some integration work needed to tie in UC, social software, and business applications. IBM is providing various plug ins to make the integration simpler, but there will still be professional services work involved.
With these tools, experts can be selected based on information beyond their profile using advanced social analytics, such as what communities you’re a member of, blog entries you’ve posted that have been favorably reviewed by people, papers you’ve written indicating you’re an expert on a subject, etc. This has its plusses and minuses. While it will certainly be easier for people to find and access the information they need, there will clearly be changes in corporate culture. Individuals will have to adjust to being the “available expert” to people they don’t even know. Perhaps more challenging, users will have to take care to use their time wisely and not get bogged down in the social aspects of social software. Tagging and rating articles, joining communities and reading all of the articles and posts related to that community, responding to inquiries from within the community, and so on will take up a good deal of time, and it will be important for companies to implement these tools to gain maximum benefit, without adding to anyone’s workload.
We’re still in the very early stages, and the number of companies actually implementing these capabilities is extremely small. The use of social software tools is still in its infancy, and while it is expected to grow over the next few years, it will still take time for companies to integrate them with their unified communications solutions. The big question is how will end users adjust to and accept these new ways of doing business, and what kind of learning curve will there be – especially for older workers. But it’s clear that social software – and UC – are here for the long term, and it will be exciting to see the new use cases that develop.
This paper is sponsored by IBM.
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Communications Integrated to Optimize Business Processes.
UC integrates real-time and non-real time communications with business processes and requirements.
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