IBM Workplace: More than Just Notes on Steroids

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In a recent interview I had with Dirk Nicol, program director of IBM Workplace Application Platform, I asked him how IBM's Workplace brand was positioned against the Microsoft Office brand in the areas of collaboration and how it differs from the positioning of the Lotus Notes/Domino suite of tools. Nicol's response was insightful, not only for the appreciation of the power that MS Office has offered over the years, but for his understanding of how organizations will leverage the infrastructure of past and present Lotus software tools to achieve success in the realm of collaboration.

Understanding the Future of Collaboration with IBM Workplace

According to Nicol, IBM Workplace started as a concept that identified a new locus where individuals will interact with technology. This new locus is in the area of collaboration, across boundaries of space and time and computing platform, in a virtual environment typified by a completely secure Internet-like connection. In a way, it is a new business frontier, as organizations continue to explore supply chain management and customer relationship management applications and as new Internet applications are developed to solve business problems.

In other ways, however, this new locus in business collaboration is the same as it's always been: People are interacting with other individuals, sharing information and documents, and attempting to carry forward a business plan or a business strategy through a series of evolving business tasks.

What has changed in this new locus of collaboration is the problem facing separate organizations that are starting to work together. It's not merely a problem of providing adequate tools to perform the work, but of providing a complete collaborative environment in which workers can orchestrate individual tools with maximum power and performance across a variety of computing platforms.

Beyond Individual Tool Suites

For instance, constructing a memorandum or a spreadsheet can be easily performed using standard products like MS Word or MS Excel. Distributing those items is another task, requiring MS Outlook or Lotus Notes email or some other means. Coordinating a meeting to discuss the memorandum and the spreadsheet may require scheduling and coordinating calendars among multiple people across time zones, and this too can be done with MS Outlook--using MS Exchange Server--or Lotus Notes. Locating a conferencing environment may be accomplished using telephone resources, Webcasting services, or other tools provided by differing vendors. Conducting the meeting has its own challenges, and establishing follow-ups and project management measurements can be quite difficult as well.

Right now, the task of orchestrating this kind of collaboration rests firmly upon the abilities of individuals to understand not only their own unique toolsets, but the toolsets of every other person who is collaborating. This is an impossible amount of technical detail, yet, more and more, this is precisely the environment in which people are conducting their business today. They are remote to one another, their ability to collaborate and share information is a bottleneck, and their capacity to expand their collaboration to newer areas is restricted by the complexity of heterogeneous tools.

Driven to the Lowest Common Denominator

In the above example, all of the separate, heterogeneous tools (or combinations of tools) needed to be orchestrated by each individual involved in the process in order to participate and move the business function along. As long as everyone is in the same physical workplace, coordination is relatively easily. However, when an organization moves into the virtual environment for collaboration, the demand upon the tools becomes highly complex. The tools available may lend themselves toward a single corporate-wide solution--for instance, the standardization of email around Lotus Notes or Microsoft Outlook or a Web conferencing service--but more and more that ability to provide a standard toolset of applications is lost as soon as individuals from different organizations--using different IT infrastructures--start to collaborate. As soon as two different infrastructures try to work together, both organizations are driven to using the lowest common denominator for collaboration: email and HTML Web browsers.

This is the new locus of interaction that IBM Workplace is designed to address: It is designed to function not only as a collaboration platform, but as a collaborative application development platform in which new solutions from the entire range of tools can be forged.

IBM Workplace and the LOB Manager

IBM Workplace--as a brand of products--is designed to pull together a constellation of standards-based collaborative tools onto a platform or into a framework where the users themselves can begin to fashion their own environments within this virtual collaborative space, a place where the users will be responsible for tailoring and developing the solutions to their unique work problems.

This means not only providing customizable infrastructural services--like instant messaging or conferencing capabilities--but actually providing tools that will enable the line-of-business (LOB) managers to construct extensible tools to codify how the workflow of their businesses should progress.

This may be a little difficult for some of our management to comprehend at first. The idea of a LOB manager--the manager of a department or the person in charge of a line of business--defining and actually constructing collaboration tools for use by a team of workers is... Well, let's just say that's not how it's been done in the past!

Solving Business Problems

Most small and medium businesses have evolved their IT infrastructure through a variety of productivity tools like MS Office. For instance, a LOB manager might identify a business problem and design a solution using the MS Office tools at his disposal: Excel, Word, Outlook, Access, etc.

However, if he can't figure out a solution--or if he comes up with a model that works on paper but still has some bugs--he might then foist it off onto the IT department. IT then might either purchase a packaged solution from a vendor or begin the design and construction of a custom application solution according to the specifications of the LOB manager. After all, that's what IT is supposed to be about, right?

However, it's noteworthy to remember that not too long ago IT was also responsible for developing the custom reports from which LOB managers developed all their business decisions. Remember how, in those days, extracting information from the databases constructed by IT required considerable expertise? IT used compilers like RPG and advanced tools like Query to open the doors to the data. That changed with the arrival of the PC and packaged PC products.

Evolving LOB Manager Skills

Products like Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel came on the market, and LOB managers themselves began to learn how to manipulate data electronically. Next came ODBC drivers and MS Query, and suddenly LOB managers were directly accessing data and developing their own spreadsheets. These spreadsheets, in turn, often became information systems in and of themselves, often in competition with the mission-critical IT infrastructure. Then IT was called in to "secure" these spreadsheets--bringing them back into the IT fold of services.

The point I'm trying to make is that LOB managers do, indeed, pick up new tools if the tools have been specifically designed to increase their dexterity and power.

And from IBM Lotus' perspective, this is exactly the new kind of collaborative tool environment that IBM Workplace is aiming to create. In fact, IBM Lotus foresees Workplace-like skills as a prerequisite for knowledge workers in the future, with the power of defining workflow applications and collaborative work spaces sitting squarely in the hands of the LOB managers. This may even include the ability to write program scripts.

How Deep Will LOB Managers Go?

Is this a realistic expectation to be placed upon LOB managers? Well, if a manager can learn cell formulas for MS Excel, IBM believes he can learn @Functions for IBM Workplace: After all, MS Excel cell formulas are a direct descendant of the Lotus 1-2-3 @Function cell formulas. In addition, Workplace is offering enhanced LotusScript and JavaScript capabilities, too.

But nobody at IBM anticipates that a LOB manager is going to sit down and start crafting code. That's where the architecture of Workplace is designed to play.

Workplace Designer for Component Creation

To write code for Workplace, IBM has created the Workplace Designer, due for release in the second quarter of this year. There is no current public beta of the IBM Workplace Designer, but IBM says that it is built upon the Eclipse IDE, with capabilities for plug-ins from the entire array of IBM products. IBM Workplace Designer will be the standards-based IDE that will enable the LOB manager or a script developer to create actual components for the IBM Workplace environment. Then, after the components have been built, the LOB manager can use another tool called the IBM Workplace Builder to assemble the components into the virtual Workplace Environment.

Component architecture is what IBM Workplace is about: widgets that can be plugged into the Workplace environment using the IBM Workplace Builder. Using the advanced functionality of Web Services, the concept is that the person designing the workflow or application can build the required workflow applications for this environment using custom-designed components and/or standardized components coming from other platforms. The Workplace Builder essentially compiles them all into a functioning environment, which can then be distributed as a template for future development or use.

Leveraging Workplace Templates

In this regard, IBM Workplace picks up the valuable template models that Lotus developed for the Notes/Domino products. Templates in Notes/Domino are fully formed applications--such as workflow or email applications--that are written in combination with @Functions, LotusScript, and JavaScript. Lotus Notes customers have been successfully using these templates right out of the box for years, and the templates have built-in change-management capabilities for Lotus administrators. Templates can be modified and customized using a variety of means and then replicated through the Domino network to other desktops in a completely secure and controlled fashion.

IBM says that Workplace too will use this template architecture to enable Workplace users to build upon templates and distribute applications in a controlled fashion. This template architecture would enable LOB managers to develop a custom solution by customizing a pre-programmed template using Workplace Designer and then creating the new environment using the Workplace Builder.

In addition, the resulting customized Workplace environment itself can be used as a template and can be further modified by other LOB managers. Notes/Domino programmers have been using this technique for years. IBM Lotus anticipates that it will be used even more efficiently by LOB managers using Workplace and advanced Web Services components.

Extending the Architecture

This brings me to one of the announcements that IBM made about Workplace in January at LotusSphere: the availability of an API Toolkit.

In the world of collaboration where IBM wants Workplace to play, standards-based software is not an option, but a crucial part of the environment. For instance, if large organizations like government departments are to collaborate, they must have a completely clear pathway to interact between their legacy or non-IBM-supplied software components and the IBM Workplace. The IBM Workplace Collaboration Services API Toolkit V2.5 is IBM's solution to enabling third parties to build standards-based components that will directly interface to the Workplace environment. IBM is making a free trial download available to spur the developer community to address the need for Workplace components.

Unfurling the Future of Collaboration

My interview with IBM's Dirk Nicol was extremely useful for helping me come to terms with IBM Workplace. Nicol said that the brand name Lotus Workplace will soon be fading from use on IBM Web sites and in IBM literature, to be replaced by the IBM Workplace brand. Nicol said that the main advantage of IBM Workplace over Lotus Notes/Domino R7 will be the extent of the infrastructure that Workplace will be able to leverage in a collaborative environment. Whereas Lotus Notes/Domino will be able to be extended into the IBM Workplace environment, it will by comparison have more limited ease-of-use capabilities for LOB managers and somewhat more limited cross-infrastructure collaborative capabilities.

At this juncture, with both products still waiting to be released in the second quarter of 2005, it's still difficult to fully comprehend what this will mean in the real world. But one thing is clear: IBM is bringing forth aggressive and visionary technology for the future of collaborative services in its IBM Workplace brand of products.

Thomas M. Stockwell is editor in chief of MC Press Online LP.