"Social business" is the term IBM has coined for the latest trend in collaborative solutions that today involve voice, text, data, video, and now even radio communications.
One of the most profound changes that computers have facilitated in the past five years lies in the area of collaborative communications. Having an application like Facebook available on the Web is creating huge shifts in political power, even inspiring revolutions in the Mideast. Such shifts are the result of people being able to share ideas and come together with single purpose. Similar changes are occurring in business. Starting slowly at first, the momentum is accelerating today as young, educated people move into the workforce and assume junior management positions. They expect to have the same tools at work that they have come to rely on for personal social networking.
A friend recently confided to me that she was frustrated because she could never have a talk with her daughter over the telephone. The only means of communication the young woman would agree to with her mother was text messaging. Young people today have vastly different ways of communicating and collaborating than the middle-aged management to whom they report. And managers might take note that their younger counterparts' ability to multitask using today's technologies offers significant cost and time savings to the corporations for whom they work compared to the embedded technologies currently in use.
Collaborative software, also referred to as groupware, or workgroup support systems, has been around for a long time. Its origins probably started back in the mid-to-late 1970s with online gaming: think Colossal Cave Adventure and Multi-User Dungeon. The U.S. Government realized the potential of collaborative applications in the early 1990s, and the Navy's COMPASS system permitted six users to create point-to-point connections. Later, GTE and General Dynamics refined other systems for the military. In the early 1990s, the first commercial groupware began being adopted by large companies such as Boeing and IBM, and Lotus Notes was an early example of an application that allowed remote group collaboration. Since then, IBM has been on the leading edge of collaborative software, although with the advent of Web 2.0, the consumer use of collaborative solutions, such as Facebook, has surpassed anything that business has implemented. That appears to be changing, and one driving force behind widespread adoption of cloud technologies appears to be the potential for low-cost collaborative solutions.
IBM recently introduced the term "social business" to describe its current brand of collaborative software solutions highlighted by IBM Lotus Sametime, the cornerstone of its united communications and collaboration software. Offering a core set of real-time communications services, Sametime provides a simple, unified interface for voice, data, and video that can help workers find, reach, and collaborate with others.
One of the problems slowing adoption of unified communications—the convergence of voice, video, and data—is the investment businesses made not that long ago in separate voice and data infrastructures. Trashing a $100,000 PBX system that may not even be paid for yet doesn't sit well with bean counters, regardless of the promised efficiencies of yet another new technology. The erosion of consumer and business land-line use, however, is a fact that isn't going away, and the transition will be quite expensive not only for corporations, but the public sector as well as they ponder the ramifications of rebuilding the nation's 911 system to integrate location-aware technologies. What is the point of calling 911 on a cell phone if the operator has no idea where you are and, consequently, can't dispatch local emergency personnel to help you?
While collaborative management tools go well beyond simple instant messaging—and really should include such solutions as project management, workflow, and knowledge management systems—getting basic communications down is a first step. And what the vast majority of workers seem to want is not a highly structured system used by management and business experts but a more intuitive and socially interactive solution that will allow them to multitask, find the people with the answers (and do it quickly), access the information they need in a hurry, and allow them to accomplish more in less time. There is an urgency behind today's workforce that is part impatience borne of a habit of instant gratification and part the unconscious knowledge that competition is keener than any of us want to admit and the subliminal realization that we all could be out of work in the not too distant future if we don't improve our collective efficiency.
Human latency, or the built-in delays that people have become accustomed to in conducting day-to-day business, is one major target of today's collaborative software. Playing telephone tag, waiting for the expert you need an opinion from to call you back, having to wait for a contract to arrive in the mail or even overnight express—all are becoming unacceptable in today's business climate as the technologies to eliminate these delays are now widely available. The speed of human thought is today's sound barrier, and most capable people like to move at their own fast pace. It feels good, and it suggests rewards in the form of more responsibility, which usually translates into more money. With home foreclosures at an all-time high, businesses routinely going bankrupt and shutting their doors, and the federal and many state governments mired in debt, people realize that something has to be done to revolutionize the way we accomplish goals, or we're all likely to sink under a mountain of red ink.
Solutions are available for those institutions and people who are willing to change. Not everyone who has been doing the same thing the same way for 30 years is ready to adapt, and it may take a new generation of workers to reinvent the business processes that are slowing things down. Certainly, technology is one key ingredient, and collaborative software holds as much promise of reducing costs and improving efficiencies as anything currently on the horizon. Improved worker health and stamina may be beyond the scope of this article but could also play a major role in the effort to heightened productivity.
There are recent promising signs that business and government are becoming more efficient. IBM likes to tout the fact that its internal use of its own collaborative software is saving an estimated $100 million a year in telephone and other costs. Its deployment of internal communication technologies blending the best of its IBM Lotus products, including its Web 2.0 social application, Lotus Connections, has resulted in an astounding use by employees with more than a million hits a day. Imagine a workforce that has generated no fewer than 15 million podcasts and videos and sends 50 million text messages a day. Externally, IBM's strategy to improve collaboration is clearly catching on. As of a year ago, more than 22 million people worldwide, including employees at over half of the 20 most profitable companies in the world and 28 of the Global Fortune 50, were using IBM Lotus Sametime, and the figure no doubt is even higher today.
MC Press Online spoke with Caleb Barlow, director of Unified Communications and Collaboration at IBM, who outlined his view of the future of collaborative solutions. Pointing to a recent success story with the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, Texas, Barlow noted the trend toward collaboration between not only people but different communication channels as well. Most cities today have a problem dealing with widespread disasters because multiple agencies are called upon to help, and as often as not, they each have different communication systems that often don't communicate with each other. It was documented that Los Angeles emergency personnel resorted to common cell phones during one large emergency several years ago because the different agencies couldn't communicate by radio.
Fort Worth and Tarrant County also had a mix of emergency department communications systems and used various frequencies to communicate but decided to do something about the problem. The newly converged joint emergency operations center (JEOC) went online just in time to handle a weather and public works crisis prior to last February's Super Bowl with its attendant traffic snarls. Employing something known as RadioConnect for Sametime, the center is now able to bridge radio calls between frequencies and find the right agency personnel quickly to resolve inter-agency challenges. The radio-over-IP solution, implemented by IBM and Business Partner UnifiedEdge, has turned a once chaotic emergency center characterized by numerous radio conversations going on at once into a calm office environment where the right people are contacted in a timely fashion to accomplish the various aspects of a complex emergency.
Barlow hopes and expects the creative collaborative solution to be replicated at cities around the world once the news of Fort Worth's success is shared at conferences and through public agency news channels. While the present solution involving voice, video, instant messaging, profiling, and land mobile radio is state of the art, Barlow envisions further enhancements as workers become acclimated and conceive ever new ways to streamline operations further.
"Video and location-based systems will emerge in the future as leading players in the collaborative environment of social business," Barlow says. "A 911 operator who can actually see what is going on can work far more effectively than one relying on the vocal descriptions of an upset caller," he says. Employing a mashup that includes not only location-based information about a caller, but details of resources and conditions nearby could be a big help to emergency personnel responding to a crisis situation, he says.
Managing the types of unstructured information that emerge in the context of social business will present challenges, and businesses and organizations that move in this direction will have to consider permanence and access to the information in their planning.
For now, recognizing the cost benefits to collaborative solutions and highlighting the relatively fast return on investment these solutions can offer is a track that most IT managers may wish to follow in keeping their companies competitive in a fast-changing technology environment.