At IBM Connect, IT execs talk about betting on enterprise social

Executives from 3M, Taco Bell, Flour and other companies have launched projects to improve collaboration and communication

Unused intranets. Siloed departmental portals. Excessive email use.

Those are some of the problems that IT and business leaders at large organizations continue to face with their enterprise collaboration and communication platforms, although these systems have been around for more than 20 years.

However, with ESN (enterprise social networking) software, which attempts to adapt consumer social media capabilities for workplace settings, some companies are hoping to sharpen their collaboration systems and make it simpler and more effective for employees to work together.

At the IBM Connect conference this week, officials from a number of large organizations talked about their ongoing projects in this area, and about their goals for improved productivity, higher employee engagement and sharper innovation.

But not everyone is convinced that the ills affecting enterprise collaboration will be easily cured with ESN products, which let employees create profiles, microblog, set up wikis, participate in discussion forums, share documents, build online communities, and rate, tag and review content.

While IBM was holding its conference touting the benefits of enterprise social technologies, Gartner released a prediction that through 2015, a whopping 80 percent of social business efforts will fail to achieve their intended benefits, hampered by "inadequate leadership and an overemphasis on technology."

To avoid failure, organizations need to first identify how these enterprise social projects will enhance work practices, which requires a deep understanding -- and in many cases a transformation -- of the way people work and interact, according to Gartner.

Still, Gartner also said that by 2016, 50 percent of large organizations will have internal ESNs, of which 30 percent will be considered "as essential as email and telephones are today."

Alan Lepofsky, a Constellation Research analyst, is optimistic about the potential for ESN tools to significantly improve collaboration in workplaces.

Legacy collaboration systems from vendors like IBM Lotus, Microsoft and Novell weren't particularly friendly for end users, and were expensive and complex to install and maintain for IT departments, but ESN software attempts to mimic consumer social media services, with which users are familiar and comfortable, he said.

It also helps that most are Web-based and accessible via mobile devices, and that ESN tools are increasingly being integrated with line-of-business applications, like ERP (enterprise resource planning) and CRM (customer relationship management) products, shifting from being stand-alone to what Lepofsky calls "purposeful collaboration" tools.

This is happening from the side of the application vendors, like Salesforce.com and SAP, which both have ESN components in their stacks, and from the side of the ESN vendors like IBM, Microsoft and Jive Software, he said.

"I'm encouraged. We're at a good stage," he said in an interview.

Threading its ESN tool into its overall workflow is something 3M is currently engaged in. At the giant multinational, which has about 84,000 employees and more than US$30 billion in annual revenue, the IT department is working to tie a variety of collaboration tools with the activity stream of its IBM Connections ESN system.

Departments and units across the company use products like Microsoft's SharePoint, custom applications, Yammer, Salesforce.com's Chatter, SAP's Jam and VMware's SocialCast.

However, they aren't integrated companywide, so often employees resort to the Notes email system, which isn't designed for collaboration in the way these other tools are.

"Instead of trying to stop that proliferation of collaboration tools, what we want to do is gather the information and funnel it into a unified repository," Jeffrey R. Berg, IT eBusiness manager of architecture and development at 3M, said during a presentation.

The plan is to hook up these tools with IBM Connections, so that its activity stream becomes a common container for event notifications generated by the other applications, Berg said.

The goal? To get the right information at the right time to the right person and let the recipient act on it. 3M is clear that it won't ever achieve a perfect solution, but it trusts that its effort will make the process much better than it is today, he said.

Meanwhile, at Taco Bell the IT department is engaged in a project to revitalize the company's intranet for its restaurant employees by making it easier to use and more effective.

First rolled out about five years ago, the intranet had two portals -- one for restaurant personnel and another one for franchisees, and they weren't integrated, leading to much duplication of efforts and lack of content consistency.

In addition, the system was architected in such a way that the IT department had to be involved in the posting and changing of content, due to technical complexities. As a result, it could take three days to publish something new.

"It was very difficult to maintain, and it was very cumbersome to roll out content," said Christian Klein, a Taco Bell senior manager, in a presentation.

Coupled with limited personalization capabilities, engagement with the intranet was very low -- most restaurant employees limited themselves to glancing at whatever was new on the home page.

"They had a big challenge: They had a portal that wasn't much of a portal. It was a website," said Rafael Trujillo from consultancy Base22, which Taco Bell hired to help with the revamping of the intranet.

The user interface and the navigation scheme have been simplified and made more intuitive, and a content classification, taxonomy and metadata architecture was put in place, improving the search experience.

The back-end system has been reworked with IBM WebSphere Portal 8 and Base 22 widget applications to allow non-IT users to modify content with minimal IT intervention. The new intranet will go live soon, Klein said.

For the restaurant employees, it was decided that at this point they wouldn't be given a full enterprise social toolset, since the nature of their work is in making food and serving patrons.

"When we rebuilt the portal site, a question was: Can we introduce social to the company, and what does this mean in the restaurants?" Klein said.

The decision was to give them access to a commenting system, so that they can provide input, suggest ideas and express opinions about the content on the intranet, such as articles about new products or procedures.

Employees can post their comments, and remove them if they want, as well as rate and flag content and other comments. Later on, Taco Bell may consider rolling out more enterprise social capabilities to these employees via a tool like IBM Connections, he said.

Fluor, an engineering, construction and project management company, decided in mid-2011 that it had to revamp its aging intranet, which over the course of about 10 years had become fragmented and ineffective.

"It wasn't a single platform, and everyone did their own thing locally using different tools to create different websites," said Say Lim, vice president of IT at Fluor, in an interview.

"From a corporate communications standpoint, it was very difficult to present a cohesive communications channel to our 40,000-plus employees," he said.

The company also realized that its over-reliance on email for collaboration was not only counterproductive but also a turnoff for younger employees who are social media-savvy.

It decided that offering enterprise social networking is important not only to improve staff interaction but also to attract and retain this type of employee, he said.

Fluor also realized that in the absence of an enterprise social networking system, employee groups were taking matters into their own hands and setting up systems in an ad-hoc manner from various vendors.

"We decided we had to offer a well-governed, controlled, corporatewide social business platform," Lim said.

Since its corporate email system is Notes, the company decided to stick with IBM and has adopted Connections and WebSphere Portal, he said. It is still in the process of migrating about 200 legacy collaboration sites.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

Tags applicationsIBMsoftwarecollaboration

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