Tag Archives: feature

Lotusphere 2012: IBM Demonstrates the Power of the Platform, Simplified

This entry was cross-posted from Meanders: The Dow Brook Blog.

Software analysts and buyers have historically favored platforms over application suites and stand-alone applications. Why? Because platforms offer both a rich set of pre-integrated functionality and the ability to add or build new features and applications, some of which may be extensively customized for an organization.

IBM has long been considered a platform provider of enterprise software, particularly in the infrastructure and middleware categories. More recently, IBM has evolved from being a vendor of a collaboration suite (Quickr) to a provider of multiple integrated, extensible offerings for enterprise collaboration, social networking, messaging, content sharing and management, and customer- and employee-facing web experience management. IBM’s vision for for this confederation of offerings, codenamed ‘Project Vulcan’, was first articulated at Lotusphere 2010. Last year’s Lotusphere presented initial, limited evidence that the vision was becoming reality.

Lotusphere 2012, held last week, showcased IBM’s latest efforts at unifying its interaction platform. IBM previewed the upcoming releases of its Connections, Notes/Domino, and Customer and Intranet Web Experience offerings. As one would expect from a platform software provider, each of these products works with the others out of the box. However, IBM, has gone beyond merely providing integration between the separate offerings by embedding functionality from each into the others. For example, IBM customers who have licensed both Connections and Notes will soon be able to send and receive email from within Connections, and, conversely, consumers will be able to view and interact with the Connections activity stream from within Notes.

The increasing power of the IBM interaction platform was further underscored by demonstrations of related, integrated and embedded functional services from its Quickr collaboration, Content Manager and FileNet enterprise content management, and Cognos analytics offerings. This extended scope of the Project Vulcan vision is what sets IBM apart from other platform software vendors, and it was good to see IBM articulating and demonstrating that differentiation at Lotusphere.

Death of a Tradeoff

We, as an industry, have assumed the existence of a tradeoff between rich functionality and simple, intuitive user experiences. Conventional wisdom says that as more features are added, the resulting complexity degrades the user experience, forcing software architects and designers to find an optimal balance between functionality and usability. The tradeoff has traditionally been managed in one of two ways: 1) by creating simple, single-purpose applications that are not overloaded with functionality, or 2) by partitioning functionality into multiple, related applications in a suite. Platforms have largely not attempted to manage this tradeoff at all for developers/designers, administrators, or consumers. Not only is the platform’s complexity on full display; it is generally promoted as a benefit.

IBM’s implementation of its Project Vulcan vision has, for perhaps the first time, obviated the long-held tradeoff between functionality and ease-of-use at the platform level. The versions of Connections, Notes/Domino, and the Web Experience offerings that where announced and demonstrated at Lotusphere 2012 (and will be released over the course of this year) are both feature-rich and highly usable. Each offering has had its user interface redesigned, yielding a cleaner look that is more consistent across the interaction platform. Additionally, the new user interface designs are simpler than their predecessors and, in effect, minimize the complexity created by IBM’s extended integration and embedding of functionality from related software offerings.

This harmonious co-existence of broad, advanced functionality and a consumer-friendly computing experience is what makes IBM’s interaction platform really different and powerful. The first public glimpse of this next-generation enterprise software came during the Lotusphere 2012 Opening General Session, when Connections Next was demonstrated by its Lead Project Manager, Suzanne Livingston. My reaction, a tweet that was later displayed before the beginning of the Closing General Session, sums up the impact of IBM’s work on its interaction platform over the last year:

Dow Brook’s Point-Of-View

While there is more work to be done, IBM should be proud of the next-generation interaction platform it is bringing to market. Lotusphere 2012 demonstrated that IBM is in good position to be a provider of choice for social business software. The work that they’ve done over the last year strongly differentiates their interaction platform and should positively affect its adoption by customers. IBM’s refusal to acknowledge the old, limiting tradeoff between platform complexity and user experience should accelerate the consolidation of the Enterprise Social Software market in the second half of 2012. It may also more firmly establish IBM as a leader in the Web Experience software category and spark renewed interest in its Notes/Domino messaging and Sametime unified communications offerings.

Disclosure: IBM is a client of Dow Brook’s Insight OnDemand subscription advisory service and paid the author’s registration and hotel expenses related to Lotusphere 2012 attendance.

LinkedIn Signal Demonstrates The Power of Role-Based Activity Stream Filters

LinkedIn today announced Signal, a new feature (currently in beta) that lets members see an activity stream that combines LinkedIn status updates and Twitter posts from other members who have opted-in to the feature. LinkedIn has licensed the Twitter firehose to incorporate all of its members’ tweets into the site, not just tweets with the #in hashtag embedded, as is current practice.

While it is hard to imagine anyone other than corporate and independent talent recruiters will make LinkedIn their primary Twitter client, Signal does have an element that is worthy of emulation by other social networks and enterprise social software providers that incorporate an activity stream (and which of those does not these days!) That feature is role-specific filters.

I wrote previously in this post about the importance of providing filters with which individuals can narrow their activity stream. I also noted that the key is to understand which filters are needed by which roles in an organization. LinkedIn apparently gets this, judging by the screenshot pictured below.

LinkedIn Signal screenshot courtesty of TechCrunch

Notice the left-hand column, labeled “Filter by”. LinkedIn has most likely researched a sample of its members to determine which filters would be most useful to them. Given that recruiters are the most frequent users of LinkedIn, the set of filters displayed in the screenshot makes sense. They allow recruiters to see tweets and LinkedIn status updates pertaining to LinkedIn members in specific industries, companies, and geographic regions. Additionally, the Signal stream can be filtered by strength of connection in the LinkedIn network and by post date.

The activity stream of every enterprise social software suite (ESS) should offer such role-based filters, instead of the generic ones they currently employ. Typical ESS filtering parameters include individuals, groups or communities, and workspaces. Some vendors offer the ability to filter by status as a collaborator on an object, such as a specific document or sales opportunity. A few ESS providers allow individuals to create custom filters for their activity stream. While all of these filters are helpful, they do not go far enough in helping individuals narrow the activity stream to view updates needed in a specific work context.

The next logical step will be to create standard sets of role-based filters that can be further customized by the individuals using them. Just as LinkedIn has created a filter set that is useful to recruiters, ESS providers and deploying organizations must work together to create valuable filter sets for employees performing specific jobs and tasks. Doing so will result in increased productivity from, and effectiveness of, any organization’s greatest asset – it’s people.

Have Software Suppliers Become Too Customer-Focused?

Remember the old dictum that says “the customer is always right”? Guess what, they aren’t.

Many times during my career as a management consultant, I have heard clients articulate their business needs and wants in the form of technical solution requirements. Besides completely ignoring the important intermediary step of stating those needs and wants as business requirements, the technical requirements voiced too often reflect only what the client knows to be possible; they do not imagine new and alternative technical solutions to business challenges. In other words, customers are not always a great source for innovative ideas on software functionality, much less on entirely new products.

I mention this because, lately, I have been hearing so many software vendors saying how focused they are on use cases and requirements voiced by their customers. Platform module and individual application development seems to be highly driven by customer feedback these days. Perhaps too highly.

Please do not misunderstand; software suppliers should consult frequently with customers, absorb their feedback, and develop against their use cases and requirements. However, vendors must also proactively imagine and build new functionality that will help customers overcome real and critical business challenges in ways that that they did not realize were possible.

A few software suppliers are mindful of this need. I recently saw a position opening announcement for a Senior Product Manager at a software provider that listed the following as one of the key qualifications for a successful candidate:

A demonstrated ability to get past what customers say they want and deliver what they really need

WOW! How powerful is that? It would be difficult to say it in a more simple, clear fashion.

The point of this post is to encourage software providers to think beyond stated customer technical requirements. Those are an important part of product planning, but cannot be the sole basis on which current product development and long-term roadmap decisions are made. Think and act like a management consultant; help your customers envision previously unimagined possibilities. That is a sustainable source of product innovation and competitive advantage.

More on Microblogging: Evolution of the Enterprise Market

Following my post last week on the need for additional filters in enterprise microblogging tools and activity streams, I participated in an interesting Twitter conversation on the subject of microblogging and complexity. The spontaneous conversation began when Greg Lowe, a well-respected Enterprise 2.0 evangelist at Alcatel-Lucent, asked:

“Can stand alone micro-blogging solutions survive when platform plays introduce the feature?”

I immediately replied:

“Yes, if they innovate faster”

Greg shot back:

“is microblogging autonomy about innovation, or simple elegance? More features usually leads to lower usability?”

And, later, he asked a complementary question:

“is there a risk of Microblogging becoming “too complicated”?”

Is Greg on to something here? Do more features usually lead to lower usability? Will functional innovation be the downfall of stand-alone microblogging solutions, or will it help them stay ahead of platform vendors as they incorporate microblogging into their offerings?

One of the commonly heard complaints about software in general, and enterprise software in particular, is that it is too complicated. There are too many features and functions, and how to make use of them is not intuitive. On the other hand, usability is a hallmark of Web 2.0 software, and, if we make it too complex, it is likely that some people will abandon it in favor of simpler tools, whatever those may be.

But that dichotomy does not tell the entire story. Based on anecdotal evidence (there is no published quantitative research available), early adopters of Web 2.0 software in the enterprise appear to value simplicity in software they use. However, as a colleague, Thomas Vander Wal, pointed out to me yesterday, that may not be true for later, mainstream adopters. Ease-of-use may be desirable in microblogging (or any other) software, but having adequate features to enable effective, efficient usage is also necessary to achieve significant adoption. Later adopters need to see that a tool can help them in a significant way before they will begin to use it; marginal utility does not sway them, even if the tool is highly usable.

Simple may not be sustainable. As I wrote last week in this post, as enterprise use of microblogging and activity streams has increased and matured, so has the need for filters. Individuals, workgroups, and communities want to direct micro-messages to specific recipients, and they need to filter their activity streams to increase their ability to make sense out of the raging river of incoming information. Those needs will only increase as more workers microblog and more information sources are integrated into activity streams.

In the public microblogging sphere, Twitter provides a solid example of the need to add functionality to a simple service as adoption grows in terms of registered users and use cases. As more individuals used Twitter, in ways that were never envisioned by its creators, the service responded by adding functionality such as search, re-tweeting, and lists. Each of these features added some degree of complexity to the service, but also improved its usability and value.

In the evolution of any software, there is a trade-off between simplicity and functionality that must be carefully managed. How does one do that? One way is to continuously solicit and accept user feedback. That allows the software provider and organizations deploying it to sense when they are nearing the point where functionality begins to overwhelm ease of use in a harmful manner. Another technique is to roll out new features in small doses at reasonable intervals. Some even advocate slipping new features in unannounced and letting users discover them for themselves. Hosted deployment of software (whether on-premise or off-site) makes this easier to do, since new features are automatically switched on for people using the software.

So back to the original question; can stand-alone microblogging solutions fend off the collaboration suite and platform vendors as they incorporate microblogging and activity streams in their offerings? My definitive answer is “yes”, because there is still room for functionality to be added to microblogging before it becomes over-complicated.

Based on the historical evolution of other software types and categories, it is likely that the smaller vendors, who are  intensely focused on microblogging, will be the innovators, rather than the platform players. As long as vendors of stand-alone microblogging offerings continue to innovate quickly without confusing their customers, they will thrive. That said, a platform vendor could drive microblogging feature innovation if they so desired; think about what IBM has done with its Sametime instant messaging platform. However, I see no evidence of that happening in the microblogging sphere at this time.

The most plausible scenario is that at some point, small, focused vendors driving microblogging innovation (e.g. Socialcast, Yammer) will be acquired by larger vendors, who will integrate the acquired features into their collaboration suite or platform. My sense is that we are still 2-3 years away from that happening, because there is still room for value-producing innovation in microblogging.

What do you think?

Filtering Microblogging and Activity Streams

The use of microblogging and activity streams is maturing in the enterprise. This was demonstrated by recent announcements of enhancements to those components in two well-regarded enterprise social software suites.

On February 18th, NewsGator announced a point release to its flagship Enterprise 2.0 offering, Social Sites 3.1. According to NewsGator, this release introduces the ability for individuals using Social Sites to direct specific microblogging posts and status updates to individuals, groups, and communities. Previously, all such messages were distributed to all followers of the individual poster and to the general activity stream of the organization. Social Sites 3.1 also introduced the ability for individuals to filter their activity streams using “standard and custom filters”.

Yesterday (March 3rd), Socialtext announced a major new version of its enterprise social software suite, Socialtext 4.0. Both the microblogging component of Socialtext’s suite and its stand-along microblogging appliance now allow individuals to broadcast short messages to one or more groups (as well as to the entire organization and self-selected followers.) Socialtext 4.0 also let individuals filter their incoming activity stream to see posts from groups to which they belong (in addition to filtering the flow with the people and event filters that were present in earlier versions of the offering.)

The incorporation of these filters for outbound and incoming micro-messages are an important addition to the offerings of NewsGator and Socialtext, but they are long overdue. Socialcast has offered similar functionality for nearly two years and Yammer has included these capabilities for some time as well (and extended them to community members outside of an organization’s firewall, as announced on February 25th.) Of course, both Socialcast and Yammer will need to rapidly add additional filters and features to stay one step ahead of NewsGator and Socialtext, but that represents normal market dynamics and is not the real issue. The important question is this:

What other filters do individuals within organizations need to better direct microblogging posts and status updates to others, and to mine their activity streams?

I can easily imagine use cases for location, time/date, and job title/role filters. What other filters would be useful to you in either targeting the dissemination of a micro-message or winnowing a rushing activity stream?

One other important question that arises as the number of potential micro-messaging filters increases is what should be the default setting for views of outgoing and incoming messages? Should short bits of information be sent to everyone and activity streams show all organizational activity by default, so as to increase ambient awareness? Perhaps a job title/role filter should be the default, in order to maximize the focus and productivity of individuals?

There is no single answer other than “it depends”, because each organization is different. What matters is that the decision is taken (and not overlooked) with specific corporate objectives in mind and that individuals are given the means to easily and intuitively change the default target of their social communications and the pre-set lens through which they view those of others.

UPDATE (03/04/2010, 5:10pm Eastern): A commenter on this post at the Gilbane Group Blog made a really great point about how updates from Social CRM systems change the nature of activity streams. Here is his comment and my reply: