Q&A with IBM

ORLANDO—Alistair Rennie, the Canadian-born general manager of Lotus software and WebSphere middleware, sat down with ComputerWorld Canada at IBM’s Lotusphere 2011. Now one year into his current role, Rennie shared his thoughts on Lotus’s image, the role of collaboration in transforming business processes, and why Microsoft and Cisco just don’t get collaboration in the enterprise

ComputerWorld Canada: The term social networking has a twang of consumer to it. Did IBM choose this year’s Lotusphere theme of social business because it projects enterprise credibility that will ultimately drive adoption in the business?

Alistair Rennie: I think a lot of the ideas of social have certainly come out of what’s happening to the consumer space. It’s an incredible environment for innovation and people finding new ways to collaborate. We were very intentional about social business, though, because our job is helping businesses apply these ideas to how they compete, innovate on products, do customer care, account management. So social business is, in fact, very deliberate.

CWC: Some Lotus attendees this year noted less mention of the word “Lotus” and more about “IBM Collaboration Software” as well as a little less yellow and a lot more blue in the branding. Is it IBM’s intention to rebrand Lotus given the platform has been polarizing?

AR: What we’re realizing is the skills, knowledge and capabilities in the Lotus community have very broad applicability to big business problems. Many people know Lotus from an e-mail perspective, which is great. But the challenge that customers have right now are far beyond that. E-mail is an important tool but it’s not necessarily transformational. We’re intentionally trying to amplify the capabilities of Lotus and we’re intentionally trying to make sure they’re understood in the context of a very broad solution space.

CWC: Is IBM fighting against negative perceptions about the Lotus platform based on negative experiences with earlier versions of Lotus software?

AR: We have an interesting opportunity because some people may have thought they made an e-mail decision ten years ago and not re-engage with the brand. So we’re intentionally trying to reach out and say the capability we have broadly whether it be messaging, mail, social, customer experience suites, is relevant to people of all kinds. We’re are hearing more and more from customers on a Microsoft base that Microsoft hasn’t figured out how to transcend beyond documents, mail and team works. And there’s a pent up desire for people to fundamentally change their infrastructure toward social.

CWC: IBM has described its approach to collaboration as top-down, as opposed to merely gluing a collaboration functionality atop an existing application. Does this mean IBM is building collaboration along the business process, horizontally across the enterprise?

AR: That’s exactly right. As people approach social business, they’ll come at it from various perspectives. They may start with making the network visible, going through directories to much more of a social way to find people with profiles and links. Then people move into a richer set of tools like microblogging. I think the dialogue is shifting to how do those tools then become integral to a business process. It’s a progression. How do you leverage a social business model to change an actual process? That’s what businesses have always done at these inflection points. They re-think the business process 

A social business platform will emerge in organizations and it needs to be open to all sorts of different business systems. So you need to be able to integrate information from lots of different CRM systems or customer care systems, document management systems and to external social networks. I think the approach is where people start out with a particular vertical application and then try to wrap collaboration around only that application are incredibly limited and is the wrong starting point. So what are you going to do? Wrap a social network around CRM, and then a different one around your HR processes, and a different social network around your customer care? It’s crazy. 

CWC: IBM has recently partnered with unified communications vendors to further push collaboration. How does IBM view the convergence of collaboration and UC in the enterprise?

AR: It starts from the idea that when you think of social business, so much of the intersection is around the person as opposed to the actual content. But people still need to have a physical conversation like voice and video. Social will drive people to understand more use cases for unified communications. So I want to be able to go from my community to a Web meeting with that community, but I don’t want all the hassle of it being an entirely separate thing. UC has in many cases been about changing a legacy phone system to voice over IP and then they end up with a phone system again. I think there are a lot more valuable use cases. (Our integration with) Polycom is a terrific example of going from a social network to a video network. It’s got to be easy and it’s got to be open. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in customer offices where there is a video conference infrastructure and it’s the equivalent of the stair master in the bedroom, where, after a week they become clothes closets. 

CWC: IBM announced at Lotusphere the Social Business Toolkit to provide developer APIs for integrating collaboration into enterprise apps in support of its belief that integration will drive collaboration in the business. What can enterprises expect in the next 12-18 months with respect to integration tools?  

AR: This goes back to a commitment we made last year and that I’m really passionate about. As much as we do in social business, the real value is going to be people creating solutions for businesses. That’s an incredibly important role for developers. With the Social Collaboration Toolkit, we intentionally shipped a set of interfaces and standards early so we can get feedback from the developer community. You’ll start to see a new set of integration standards in the social space that are going to matter. And I think the standards will mature. There will be a next level of conversation that enterprises have about such as how do you pass identity, how do you manage authentication.  

CWC: Where do you see IBM sitting amid other vendors in the collaboration space? For instance, there is SAP’s StreamWork, Novell’s Vibe, Cisco’s Quad.  

AR: We were early to the party. Social is not something we woke up to a year ago. We’ve been becoming a social business ourselves over the last decade. We made some of the first and by far some of the earliest enterprise commitments to social platforms for business. I think we’re going to differentiate because we come at this from the perspective of business transformation. Cisco comes at this from how do we sell more video. Cisco’s perspective of the world is fairly centred on unified communications. Our perspective is how do you apply technologies from many different origins to change the way businesses work. 

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