IBM launches Connect conference to drive 'social business'

IBM is set to launch its first-ever Connect conference next week in an effort to bring the technology and business worlds together to discuss a social business initiative on which the company is betting big.

These days, IBM's collaboration software Lotus Notes has become a shadow of its former self, and the Lotusphere conference doesn't have the same pull it once did - so this year, Lotusphere will have to share the spotlight with a brand-new conference called IBM Connect.

The inaugural IBM Connect conference will be held Jan. 16-17 amid the regular Lotusphere gathering, which runs Jan. 15-19 at Walt Disney World's Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando.

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The way Connect is intended to fit in with Lotusphere serves as a model for how IBM expects social business technology, which involves the use of social networking tools in internal corporate communications, to align with traditional enterprise collaboration technology. According to Sandy Carter, vice president, Social Business and Collaboration Solutions Sales and Evangelism, IBM, Connect is an attempt to bring both the technology and business sides of the enterprise together to understand not only how to become a social business, but also why.

"If you look at the success of social, it kind of makes the dream of business and IT working together come true, because in order to be successful here you really must have business and IT," Carter says. "It's not an option as it has been in the past, where the best companies do it together and they're successful, but you didn't have to do it. With social, you essentially have to do it. There'll be a lot of great interaction between the two groups."

High-profile attendees appear to be responding well to Connect's message. Alan Lepofsky, research group vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research Group, has 15 years of experience working with IBM's Lotus brand as a senior strategist. Having attended Lotusphere consistently over the past decade, and with experience ranging from organizing the conference to speaking to the audience to working as an outside analyst, Lepofsky believes the Connect conference will accomplish its new goals in fostering collaboration both at the conference and in the workplace.

"They're shifting towards this phase of social business. This is one of the biggest changes this year," Lepofsky says. "The people that are going to go to Lotusphere are more administrators, developers, people who are going to be learning about the products. IBM Connect is going to be more about higher-level - more managers or CXO-level people who are learning about why they should be doing this."

The continued development of IBM's social business tools will not necessarily save Lotus Notes, Lepofsky says, but will instead drive more users to its collaboration-centric social software called IBM Connections. According to Lepofsky, this is where IBM will be able to get in on a market that has fundamentally evolved in the age of social media.

IBM introduced Connections in 2007 to address the need for bringing social networking functions into businesses. It plugs not only into Notes, but also into Microsoft products such as Outlook and SharePoint, among others.

"I think Connections is what they're doing a lot more work on now. I don't think you're going to see a huge increase in adoption of Lotus Notes. I think people are moving towards more agile, web-based, lighter-weight collaboration tools," Lepofsky says. "It's not just who you put in the 'to' field, it's asking a question to the entire marketing team at once and being able to get feedback and get an answer. That's the big change."

For IBM, this change represents an opportunity at a fresh start in a messaging market in which their previous products have fallen behind. At Connect, the company is announcing its new line of programs and services aimed at developing more intensive social business skills within its customers and business partners, ranging from online courses and live support services to one-on-one consultancy with the company's social business experts. It's a skill set that IBM is pushing at San Jose State University, where the company has sent mentors to help the school's already social-savvy students direct their experience toward the business world.

Such programs will prepare college students on the cusp of the competitive job market for the new frontier of enterprise communications, which Lepofsky believes may be already upon us.

"As we become a more diverse workforce, geographically, age-wise, etc., I think the tools also have to enable collaboration to be much more open," Lepofsky says. "So I think we're so accustomed to these tools in our personal lives - Twitter and Facebook and Google+ and LinkedIn. The style in which we work with our family and friends and sports teams, and just the way we communicate with people these days, is different than it was just a few years ago. So that naturally has to evolve in the way you work with your colleagues."

This trend has grown so rapidly, according to Carter, that many people may soon begin replacing their email practices with more social forms of finding and sharing information.

"The way that businesses work is changing. I think that people are getting so much mail but it's very passive, and I think that people use email in the wrong way because they don't have other tools," Carter says. "If I want to ask somebody a quick question, I could do that in a quick message or a microblog, but because I don't have that tool available for me I send them an email and they send me an email and vice versa. Or you get caught in email hell where you are copying the world on something because you want them to know, but then every response copies everybody again, and you get to the point where you think email is ineffective."

Lotus Notes, for many reasons, is one email client that has been deemed ineffective by its users and competitors alike. In the days leading up to last year's Lotusphere conference, Microsoft went on the offensive, claiming that internal research found Lotus Notes' share in the market of businesses with 500 or more computers stood at 7%, compared to Exchange's 73%. Microsoft's blog post sent a clear message with its title "Don't be the last company on Notes," and appeared to be an attempt at wiping Notes out of the enterprise email market altogether.

However, what Microsoft's attack did not address was Lotusphere's first foray into the social business field last year. Now, IBM appears to be heading full-steam into a burgeoning social business market that Forrester Research predicts will grow 61% through 2016 to reach $6.4 billion, up from $600 million in 2011.

Rather than get tangled up in yet another email quarrel with Microsoft or any of its other competitors, IBM has set its sights on leveraging a trend that has latched on in the enterprise, and that Lepofsky believes will only grow from here.

"The way a person working at a company now engages with their customer is totally different," he says. "The way they share a presentation, the way they get feedback on a product, the way they announce something that's coming up, it's much more about the community now than it is about speaking to individual people. And that is going to increase."

Colin Neagle covers Microsoft security and network management for Network World. Keep up with his blog: Rated Critical, follow him on Twitter: @ntwrkwrldneagle. Colin's email is cneagle@nww.com.

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