My Introduction to Enterprise Software at IBM Connect 2014

I’m a social consumer technologist. My daily routine includes Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Pinterest, Tumblr, Pinboard, and a fistful of other social and collaborative information-gathering tools; some of these, I use on their own (such as Pinterest), others, I manage through HootSuite, an integrated social media tool. I’ve spent little time working with enterprise-level tools and companies larger than “medium.” So I was intrigued by the opportunity to be introduced to an enterprise social software, IBM Connections, at Connect 2014, and to compare it to the consumer and SMB environments that I was accustomed to working with.

The common ground between enterprise and SMB companies is that they are all aware that they need to be doing social media now. The enterprise is waking up to the fact that social is something the majority of their employees do anyway – and that there needs to be attention given to the policies surrounding that, and that this applies across all strata in a given company – as far down as front-line, and as far up as C-level officers. The attention IBM is giving to design and its Designcamp is a pertinent example to demonstrate a pervasive business initiative, since Designcamp has been deemed so important across IBM that even C-level officers are attending to ensure everyone in the company’s on the same page. A similar initiative for external social at IBM offices could yield similarly intriguing results.

IBM Connections will be significantly easier to learn if it heads in the direction of Mail Next, announced at IBM Connect, via a similar IBM Designcamp initiative. The Mail Next dashboard is where software design has been headed for awhile – being able to see the most important things up front is better than having to dive through layers of nested contextual menus to find it. (Granted, simplification for comprehension vs. options for power users is an ongoing tension.) I found myself in the weeds a fair bit trying to absorb as much as I could regarding IBM’s existing software, but Mail Next stood out as something more modern and easy to grok.

However, some stark differences also showed up in comparing enterprise and SMB social. When you join an enterprise, there’s traditionally not a lot of sanctioned opportunity to bring your own tools. So whatever you have used at home may be very different from what you get to use in an enterprise, and frequently, enterprise tools are so complex that lengthy training sessions are recommended for their effective use. I’ve tested a large number of consumer tools, both for my workflow and for others’, and the ones that remained useful over the long term typically had a combination of great software design, concise demonstrations or explanations, and benefits so obvious that it motivated me to keep using them. If something felt too complex, it was hard to motivate myself to keep up with using the tools. Bridget van Kralingen, SVP of IBM Global Business Services, pointed out that 50% of employees would pay for better and more collaborative tools. This is revelatory.

At this point, businesses small and large need to have a social presence; it’s expected, and this point was made across the board at Connect 2014. IBM certainly knows the importance of social; they encouraged everyone to tweet and post Instagram photos (and IBM applied appropriate gamification throughout the show for fun and glory). But IBM’s software mostly doesn’t reflect that connection yet; it’s so focused on “internal social,” with “external social” feeling somewhat bolted on. Even though they mentioned that you could invite your partners and clients to participate in your internal social spaces, overall, most of the software came off as IBM-social-centric, when smaller businesses are accustomed to sorting out what types of social initiatives go in varying spaces.

The division between “internal” and “external” social isn’t nearly so vast outside the enterprise world. It’s why the IBM-HootSuite partnership will be intriguing to watch – 80 different social networks are already integrated into HootSuite, allowing you to participate in external social both as a reader and a writer. That’s a lot of third-party social integration! IBM Connections, on the other hand, is just starting to integrate third-party social, and so far, primarily as a means to bring external social data into Connections.

So despite the way social is divided into “internal” and “external” for large enterprises, there’s still a lot of common ground between SMB social and enterprise social, particularly with regards to social being a necessity for all businesses at this point. And Mail Next proves that enterprise social software doesn’t have to be complex nests of menu options to be powerful, yet easy to understand, like the most popular consumer social software out there today. I look forward to IBM Design working its way through the rest of IBM’s software; it’s key for making IBM software easier to learn and close the usability gaps between consumer and enterprise software.

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