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Business Report

Social Tools for Businesses

In a business world where people meet face to face less often, social software can foster collaboration.

With social tools such as Facebook and Twitter ballooning in both numbers and cultural impact, businesses are looking to adapt these consumer technologies to the security and etiquette needs of the workplace. IBM in particular has experimented with using social software to promote collaboration within its own workforce of 400,000. Now it has distilled the resulting insights to create Lotus Connections, the first enterprise social software suite to reach the market.

Business class: IBM’s Lotus Connections software, shown above, offers versions of consumer social technologies that are appropriate for business use.

Connections, which is three years old, is founded on what IBM has learned about applying consumer social technologies in the business world, both from its formal research arm and from informal projects driven by its employees.

Suzanne Livingston, lead product manager for the project, says the features offered in Connections were shaped by the company’s own experiences. The suite’s components include Profiles, which allows employees to get to know each other’s interests and expertise; Blogs; Wikis, a way for employees to work together on repositories of information; Bookmarks, a social bookmarking tool similar to Delicious; Communities, which facilitates connections between groups within an organization; Files, for file sharing; and Activities, which helps employees organize and plan together.

IBM started experimenting with social tools in an effort to help employees work together more effectively, especially if they were geographically far apart. Livingston says that many other companies have similar needs, even when they’re not as large or as global as IBM. “There are some common situations that arise irrespective of size,” she says.

For example, Livingston says, many companies want to improve cross-cultural collaboration between employees living and working in different regions. They may want to find better ways to communicate with customers and partners. They may want to make it easier for employees to find experts and share knowledge within the organization. They might also want to preserve company culture while growing, or make it easier for new hires to get acclimated.

She says that IBM helps customers figure out which aspects of Connections work best for them, how they can use the software, and whether it’s meeting their company’s needs.

Over the past couple of years, IBM has been working with BASF SE, a huge chemical company based in Ludwigshafen, Germany, to deploy a customized version of Lotus Connections called connect.BASF. Cordelia Krooss, who is responsible for the collaboration platform, says the company wanted to support the informal networks that arise within an organization, help employees share knowledge, and make it easier for the younger generation, which is comfortable with consumer social software, to fit in. “A lot of our work happens online via e-mail, which is not the ideal collaboration tool,” she says. That’s because using e-mail reinforces people’s tendency to communicate only with those they already know; it doesn’t facilitate getting feedback from unexpected sources, even if they might be helpful.

BASF started its pilot program in 2009 and officially rolled out the platform in May 2010. Krooss says the pilot introduced content that made the platform more useful when it officially launched and helped illustrate how the software could be used.

Less than a year after the launch, the company is pleased with the early results. Krooss says there are more than 19,000 registered users—more than 21 percent of the potential users in the company. Of these, 45 percent have joined a community.

BASF has found that users of connect.BASF are distributed fairly evenly among its regions, which also suggests that the software is helping accomplish the goal of fostering cross-cultural collaboration. In a user survey it conducted, the company found that 82 percent of people who had tried the software said they understood its purpose. Of those who used it a couple of times a week, 70 percent said they thought it was useful for work. Of those who used it daily, 90 percent said the same.

Krooss says there are other early signs that the software is effective. In particular, she’s pleased that so many employees are using it when doing so is entirely voluntary. Many teams have approached her office asking for training so they can use connect.BASF more effectively, which she takes as a sign that they see the software as valuable. So far, she says, Connections has given BASF a social foundation that the company can build on and develop.

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