Even though they seem apprehensive about it, many companies seem fairly sure that social networking will play a key role in their business moving forward. More than 60 percent of respondents to a recent survey said that social networking is the "next major step" in collaborative activities and business technology.
At least some of the apprehension, I think, is because many of the vendors pushing social networking as a business tool are startups with nonsensical names, rather than known entities like IBM and Microsoft. Business folks, many of whom are naturally risk-averse, often prefer to work with incumbent technology vendors.
So it's not surprising that IBM is moving to pump up its already considerable Web 2.0 cred by creating a Center for Social Software in Cambridge, Mass., where it has some 5,000 staffers and its Lotus software business unit is based. According to Boston.com, IBM scientists from around the world will visit the center. The facility is also establishing relationships with nearby Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Cambridge-based Thomas Reuters Healthcare has already signed on to work with IBM. Says William Marder, the company's senior VP:
The folks at this IBM center have some very interesting tools to support collaborative views of what's going on. The nice part of this center is the potential to interact with some world-class smart people.
Marder isn't the only one who thinks IBM has some smart people working on coming up with a Web 2.0 vision that will excite companies more than it will scare them. Writing in InformationWeek, David Berlind says Big Blue's proposed combination of unified communications (a set of technologies that's almost as nebulous as Web 2.0, as IT Business Edge blogger Carl Weinschenk points out) and social networking "is probably the closest thing I've seen to a cohesive strategy around how the two infrastructures can strip out the inefficiencies in collaborative business process."
Naturally IBM already has many of the building blocks for this approach in place, including Lotus Sametime (unified communications), Lotus Notes (messaging and calendaring) and Lotus Connections (social networking).
The largest chunk of remaining work may involve linking this software for a more seamless approach to Web 2.0. As Tony Byrne, founder of CMS Watch, told me in our July interview, few tools successfully link social networking with actual collaborative activities. Using IBM software as an example (and noting that the issue is hardly exclusive to IBM), he said:
Connections is very networking-oriented with a little bit of collaboration. Quickr is very collaboration-oriented with a little bit of networking. So at a certain point, through the evolution of these things, you're probably going to want to take a thing that germinated in Connections and put it into Quickr to formalize it. Yet the whole point of Enterprise 2.0 is, "Let's keep the discussion going." But at that point, you're back in Connections.