The social graph–an image of a person’s connections to friends, family, and colleagues–has been in the news since Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg suggested earlier this year that this information could be invaluable to businesses looking to spread their products to a large audience. (See “Building onto Facebook’s Platform.”) Now IBM is exploring how different visualizations of the social graph could be useful within businesses, as a way of helping people work more efficiently and make better connections. Last week the company, which launched its social-software platform, Lotus Connections, earlier this year, released a tool called Atlas that uses the data in Connections to help users analyze their relationships with business contacts.
“As people start using social software and expanding their professional networks, there’s actually a lot of value in the relationships that you can determine from statistical analysis of that data,” says Chris Lamb, senior product manager for Connections.
Atlas and other Connections tools are based on IBM research into social computing that began in 2002, says product manager Suzanne Minassian. Aimed at helping workers organize around common goals, the research focused on adapting popular social tools such as bookmarking and blogging for business purposes, and integrating them with each other. The larger Connections suite allows workers to create profiles, blog, form communities around common interests, share bookmarks, and plan and track projects as a group. Each component of Connections is integrated with the others, so a user can move seamlessly between tools. IBM has been using features included in Connections for several years internally, and Minassian says that there are more than 400,000 profiles in the system.
Atlas’s most powerful features rely on the data available through Connections, Lamb explains. It collects information about professional relationships based not only on job descriptions and information readily available through the corporate directory, but also through blog tags, bookmarks, and group membership. Atlas can be configured to look at e-mail and instant-message patterns, and to weigh different types of information more or less heavily. The result, Lamb says, is a set of tools that go beyond the simple networks that are clear from a corporation’s structure.
Atlas’s four features are Find, Reach, Net, and My Net. Find and Reach are both focused on finding experts in particular fields. Through Find, a user enters search terms and receives a list of experts, ranked based on information gleaned from social data, the level of the expert’s activity in the community, and any connections he may have to trusted associates of the user. Reach then helps the user plot the shortest path to make the connection, suggesting people the user already knows who could put him in touch with an expert. Net and My Net are primarily meant to help people analyze their existing networks. Net shows patterns of relationships within particular topic areas at a company-wide level. For example, it might analyze data on people interested in social computing and produce a map of how those people connect with each other through blog readership and community involvement. My Net allows individuals to analyze their own networks, showing them who they are connected to and how frequently they stay in touch with those people.
Lamb says that executives might want to use Atlas’s Net component to see, for example, how well two companies are integrating after a merger. Alternatively, he says, a salesperson might want to use My Net to make sure that she has good connections across the company to people familiar with the products it sells.
Rob Koplowitz, an analyst with Forrester Research, says that employing social-computing features within a business is as important as using these tools for informal relationships. One key feature of social software designed particularly for businesses is its ability to protect sensitive data, he says: “I’m able to generate relationships and content that might not be appropriate outside of my enterprise. In the consumer space, you assume that the information is public, and that’s what you have access to.” But with software designed for large corporations, he says companies can assume that access is more secure, and they have the option to make more information available. While Koplowitz thinks that companies will have to be careful about how they choose to configure Atlas and what information they choose to use to build the social graphs, he also says that Connections’ integration of social tools is potentially very useful, and something that might eventually become part of more casual networking tools.
Atlas is now being sold through IBM Software Services for Lotus, in part because it requires configuration based on how a business wants to access and analyze information.