Monday, August 17, 2009

IBM Lotus Connections, in plain English

In my opinion, IBM Lotus Connections is primarily social networking software, not collaboration software. The social task management bit, however, is all about collaboration. And arguably, collaboration has spontaneously occurred in the blogs bit more than a few times (e.g., a problem with our internal intranet search was fixed because of a blog entry). And ok, the same could be said for forums inside the communities bit.
But still – it’s about networking, I swear.
There are two ways to use social networking software.
First, I’m not collaborating with you when I look up your past projects or shared bookmarks, or read your blog or your community forum posts. Instead, I’m trying to decide if I should collaborate with you. Are you really competent in what you say you are? Are you nice to work with, or are you a jerk? Usually, you do this by asking people you already trust for recommendations. “Hey, d’you know anybody who…?” But, when you don’t find someone that way, a social networking online environment is the next best thing.
Second, if I participate in the stuff you post – comment on your blog, watchlist your shared bookmarks, respond to your forum posts – you learn that I exist, and hopefully, you’ll look up my stuff and learn more about me. So, why does this matter? I’m trying to develop a trusted working relationship with you. Because I know that all your really good stuff is inside your head, and you’ll probably never blog about it, bookmark it, put it in a file, a wiki, a forum, a profile, a teamsite, or anything else.
But I know that if you trust me, you’ll tell me what you know over the phone, in an email, instant message, or face-to-face. These, by the way, are the four most common collaboration tools on the planet.
The other way to use social networking software is to lurk-n-learn. I’m just absorbing your stuff, but will never contact you, never comment on your blog. Maybe I’ll just use what I learn from your stuff to do my job better (try to measure that ROI). Maybe you’ll never know I exist. By the way, this is the most common use of social networking software inside IBM, judging from the number of social contributions vs. the number of reads.
Ok, got it. So, what is Lotus Connections?
First, my own personal marketing blurb. There are more sophisticated marketing blurbs and a cool video if you’re so inclined.
Lotus Connections helps you:
Find the ‘good’ people with whom to collaborate, whether they’ve filled out their profile or not.
Find information that your trusted colleagues think is good, without relying on unsatisfactory search solutions.
Find the knowledge “crowds” that are locked up and hidden away in your company, so that you can lurk-n-learn, or connect-n-collaborate.
Lotus Connections includes five main components:
Community directory
Shared bookmarks (known as Dogear)
Social task management (known as Activities)
There is an additional component, Homepage, that lets people (I used to call them ‘users’) decide how to view the content from the other five components, plus anything else your IT folks put in a widget:
Cross-component searching
Within the Homepage, a person can search across all components. This search finds the following:
Content – blog entries, community posts, bookmarks, activity entries, and profiles. Natch.
Most Active Tags – a cloud of the most active tags from across all components.
Most Active People – a list of the most active people over a period of time.
This is my preferred search method for both people and information. For example, if I’m looking for someone with experience in financial law, or any information about same, I simply search for “financial law”. The beautiful thing is that I’ll get a list of the most active people, even if they’ve never even touched their own profile. Oh, and relevant content, of course.
Find people and their stuff from any application
There is a sub-component available if Profiles is installed, called the Person Card. It is designed to be added to any application in your company that shows a person’s name. When you hover over that name, you’ll see the card:
Person Card
This Person Card can be customized and extended by IT. For example, you could add a sixth link at the top to a person’s shared files wherever they are (Lotus Quickr, SharePoint, whatever), or perhaps you want to add a link to a person’s teamsites. Or patents. Or shared pictures.
The point is that people will be able to quickly find a person’s information and social content, no matter where they find that person’s name, in any application in your organization.
There is also a Community Card that functions similarly:
Out-of-box access from multiple clients
To help folks naturally discover people and their knowledge from the tools they use everyday, some or all of the Lotus Connections components are accessible out of the box from the following clients:
*RIM Blackberry (Profiles, Dogear) – this is built by and supported by RIM. Check their website.
IBM Lotus Notes (Activities, Profiles Person Card, Dogear)
IBM Lotus Sametime (Profiles Person Card, Activities)
IBM WebSphere Portal (all)
IBM Lotus Quickr (Person Card)
Microsoft Office (Activities, Activities To-Do List, Profiles Person Card, Blog using Word)
Microsoft Windows Explorer (Activities)
* available in the next few weeks
And of course, we have rich Web experiences for Firefox and Explorer, for Windows and Mac.
[youtube=]Profiles demo
[youtube=]Activities demo
“I just took a new position in my company, and I don’t know how to get plugged in to the people and information relevant to this job. I need to get up to speed ASAP.”
One of my customers has a program that requires each MBA grad to do a “tour of duty” in each of their business units. Another customer follows Six Sigma practices and rotates their black belt folks through different divisions every two years. And then there are the thousands of new hires and current employees moving into new positions every day in every organization.
It’s hard to do your new job with your old network, so you need to get plugged into a new network ASAP.
You could search across all of Connections for your job’s main focus. Let’s say you’ve just joined corporate marketing’s Web team, responsible for all online marketing efforts for your organization’s website. Search Connections for “marketing web”. Find a list of the most active people, most active tags, and the most relevant content (along with the contents’ authors, tags, and descriptions).
Next, pick the first most active person in the list, and see where she sits in the organization by reviewing her profiles. See how others view her contributions by reading the tags they’ve added to her profile. Read her most recommended blog entries and comment on them, skim the sites that she’s bookmarked and copy them into your own shared bookmark area, then find the communities she’s active in and join them. You now have a good idea of what’s going on in her head.
And that’s just in the first two hours in your new job. Coffee break, do it all again with the next most active person (who may not even be on your team). Or, maybe you just reach out to that first person and ask to meet with her.
By the way, this is also a great way to shop for a new position inside your organization.
“I have an idea for one of our products, but I don’t know who the product manager is, or if they will even talk to me.”
True story. I started blogging inside IBM in October 2006, before I had my current job. I blogged about a soon-to-be-announced new product (it was Lotus Connections, obviously). I also found all of the developers by searching for the product’s codename in Dogear, and found and read all their bookmarked sites. Emboldened, I sent them an enthusiastic email about how excited I was about this new product. Not sure if any development team has ever received fan mail before at IBM. In any case, they now knew who I was, and welcomed my enthusiasm.
Anyway. Early in 2007, I received an email from an IBM Research person in Israel, telling me he was working on a research project that would make a great fit for the product I blogged about. He asked if I could introduce him to the developers, who were based in the U.S.
I did, they talked, and his research project is currently in plan for a future release. Would they have found each other without my blog? Perhaps. Did they get connected faster because of it? Absolutely.
“We need to find all the Chinese speakers in our company.”
I spoke to a global retailing company who needed to find all the Chinese speakers in their gigantic organization. They were worried about how to get employees to log into Profiles and add that they could speak Chinese. I explained that they’d probably get greater participation if they simply created a community called “Chinese Speakers”. Why? Because many people perceive that they’ll get more out of joining a group of like-minded people versus filling out a profile. The beauty of this is that this public community is really just a group that anyone could send email to, or engage via the community forum, or whatever other tools the community decides to use.
“I need to find the person who originally created this training video a year ago and have them update it.”
One customer decided to compare what worklife was like before and after Lotus Connections. Their goal was to find the person who created a training video for end users about how to change their intranet password, because the video needed to be updated. The only information they had was that this person worked for the User Experience team. And this wasn’t a department name.
Before Connections, they would search their intranet for “user experience video” and get a bunch of links to “Usability Lab” stuff, which was not the same group. Nothing turned up about the video in question, either.
With Connections, they did the same search, and found the “User Experience Community.” They looked at the Members list, and started hovering over each name to view their Person Card information. They looked at a few profiles, and found one tagged with “video”. A ha! A quick instant message to that person confirmed that they were the person who could update the training video.
A bit hit-and-miss, but isn’t it the same when you use your network the old school way? “Jeri, d’you know who to contact to get this video updated?”… “Um, try Heather.”… “Heather, d’you know…”… “Um, I think Nguyen used to do that.”… “Nguyen…” and so on.
“I’ve got to plan a local ‘how to use power tools’ seminar, but I’m not sure how to go about it.”
Home improvement stores are all over the place, and many of them conduct ‘how to’ seminars for their customers. Let’s say you’ve just been promoted to Lead Associate in the power tools department, and one of your tasks is to plan and execute a how-to seminar. But, you’ve never done one before, and the guy who used to do them is long gone.
You’ve got two choices: Either figure it out from scratch with the help of your local co-workers (not a bad way to go), or find someone else in another store somewhere who does them in their sleep.
You search Lotus Connections for “how-to seminar”, and since it’s the weekend, the busiest part of the retail week, you know better than to try to talk to someone directly. But, there’s an Activity template written by someone from Store #386 (you checked out his profile and found that he’s been with the company for years) in the results page that catches your eye. Click.
This template, or “recipe”, lists step-by-step how to plan for and execute a how-to seminar. It includes to-do’s that you can assign to others and check off when they’re completed; website links to caterers who give your company a discount; PDF sign-in sheet to capture customers’ email addresses; a list of lessons learned so that you can avoid the big “oops” moments; and so on. It’s all arranged by when you do what. And, you discover that you can edit the template to provide your own tips and tricks.
You create a new activity from this template and get to work. You invite a couple folks to the Activity and assign them a couple of to-do’s. They invite a few more people (you can do that in an Activity) to help with the planning. The eventual result is a well-planned, well-executed how-to seminar, with fewer emails zooming around, fewer “what’rewegonnado?” meetings.
“We just acquired a company, but I have no idea who their local sales reps are. We need to coordinate our customer activities ASAP.”
Another true story. IBM acquired Cognos recently. Right away, many Cognos employees started blogging inside IBM. I stumbled upon David’s blog one day, and added a comment, welcoming him to the IBM family. A few days of mutual commenting, and we felt like we really knew each other. He’s a senior software engineer in the UK.
Anyway, a week later, I’m in Texas presenting to a customer, and I overhear the IBM sales guy lament that he has no idea how to find his local Cognos counterparts. They’re all in our Profiles application, but there are no Cognos-identifying marks anywhere.
That night, I pinged (IM’ed) David and asked him to start tagging all his Cognos peeps’ profiles with “cognos”. Word spread, and as of the writing of this post, there are 73 IBMers tagged with “cognos”. Now, I’ve just got to tell that sales guy to search for “cognos”. If he doesn’t find his local rep, he now knows of 73 people who could probably get him connected.
The technicalities
The five components are .ear files that run on IBM WebSphere Application Server (WAS) 6.1. None of them require any of the others, but if they’re installed in the same WAS cell, they are loosely integrated via configuration files. Many languages, hardware platforms, and operating systems, LDAPs and RDBMSs are supported.
A REST-style API using Atom Publishing Protocol (Atompub) and Atom Synchronization Format (ASF) is available for every component.
Lucene search engine is included with every component. There is a separate engine for each component so that you can deploy one, some, or all of them without dependencies on anything else.
The cross-component search feature uses a unified search engine (or, “heterogeneous interrelated entity search”, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing).
Application architecture
Lotus Connections Application Architecture
The directory is usually an LDAP. It is used for authentication to all components, and can be used as a datasource to populate the Profiles database. We support Lotus Domino, Tivoli Directory Server, Microsoft Active Directory, and Sun Java System Directory Server. We also support CA SiteMinder and Tivoli Access Manager for single sign-on purposes. Also, check out how to integrate Lotus Connections (well, WebSphere, really) with Windows SSO using the SPNEGO TAI.
Tivoli Directory Integrator (TDI) is included in the Connections license. It is the data synchronization tool used to populate and update the Profiles database.
Each component maintains a separate database. We support DB2, Oracle, and SQL Server.
The file system – either on the application server or a SAN or some other location – is used to store various things, including full-text indexes, favicons, content from Activities (optional), images uploaded to blogs, etc.
The “Other Enterprise Services” box depicts the optional integration points that IT can configure. For example, if you want to use the notification features throughout Connections, you’ll need to configure an SMTP mail server. If you want to use the integration between Connections Communities and Atlassian Confluence, SocialText, and/or Lotus Sametime broadcast tools, you’ll need to configure that.
All administration is done via the WebSphere administration capabilities, using JMX management beans. Additionally, the Blogs component offers a Web UI for some of the administration options.
The Person Card is in hCard microformat using Javlin (Javascript Live Names).
The navigational header is the banner across the top. It is customizable.
More about Profiles
You can aggregate people data from HR databases, skills databases, LDAP, employee directory, Excel spreadsheets, Microsoft Access and Lotus Notes databases – you name it – into Profiles. This is accomplished with Tivoli Directory Integrator, which is included in the Connections license. You can lock down which fields can be edited by people, and have Directory Integrator write back any updates to the master datastore, if you want.
You can add additional fields to Profiles and customize the Web UI look and feel.
You can also include Atlas for Lotus Connections, an add-on asset not included in the license, that does the following:
Visualize and analyze social networks in an organization
Identify the shortest social path to reach someone
Find expertise across extended networks
Visualize and manage personal networks
Useful links
Customer’s experience with Lotus Connections pilot: Imerys
A blog written by one of our customers
A blog written by our product team
Lotus Greenhouse: Check out Lotus Connections 2.0 Beta 1 (requires registration, and the email of an IBM business contact)
Lotus Connections for Business Partners
Lotus Connections deployment wiki
If you’d like details about deploying Lotus Connections, check out the IBM developerWorks article series written for version 1.x. I recommend starting with Planning and architecture considerations.
Fifty ways to leave your bookmark: An experiment in social authoring: Check out how to add Dogear bookmarking features to just about any application, using just about any programming language.