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6/6/2011
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IBM: From Networked Business To Social Media

As Big Blue’s centennial approaches, CIO Jeanette Horan reviews company's roots in collaboration and communication technologies.

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When IBM CIO Jeanette Horan works to improve communication and collaboration within her company, she is continuing a tradition that stretches back nearly half of IBM's 100-year history.

With its centennial approaching, IBM is celebrating the role it has played in the creation of networked business, starting with early mainframe systems for sending messages between offices. One of the most fascinating parts of that history is "how the early collaboration tools evolved and morphed into social business tools," Horan said in an interview.

IBM has a birthday coming up on June 16, which will be 100 years since the company that became International Business Machines was founded, initially to manufacture mechanical tabulators, scales, and other business equipment. In an article that will be published Tuesday on the IBM centennial page, the company traces the beginning of its participation in networked business to the IBM Internal Tele-Processing System created in 1963. This early office automation system used the new IBM 7740 as its hub and leased communications lines to transmit data and administrative messages between offices around the world.

The state of the art took a leap forward once personal computers appeared on the scene in the 1980s. That's when IBM created its Professional Office System, or PROFS, which used IBM mainframes to coordinate communications and office processes between PC users. PROFS included primitive forms of email and instant messaging and also allowed users to keep their calendars online, get reminders of important events, track news feeds, and search full-text databases. Internally, IBM employees used that capability to search the company's growing product catalog. In 1982, the year IBM first introduced the system, PROFS was adopted by the White House for use by National Security Council staff.

PROFS was eventually replaced by a new IBM office software product, OfficeVision, that was a bit less mainframe-centric, also encompassing minicomputers and local-area networks. With the emergence of the World Wide Web as a business tool in the mid-1990s, IBM recognized that the PROFS technology had become obsolete and migrated to a corporate intranet called W3 based on open Internet standards, according to this history. Today, W3 has evolved into an enterprise social network, and IBM actively encourages employee use of public social networks for "responsible engagement in open dialogue and the exchange of ideas," according to the article.

Horan joined IBM in 1998, going to work at Lotus, which IBM had purchased in 1995 but had not yet fully assimilated, and spent eight years working on product development there. "Five years ago, when I came into the CIO organization, it felt like coming home to see the things I had worked on in the software organization being deployed within IBM," he said.

Lotus is a big name in the history of online collaboration, thanks to Lotus Notes, the email and document sharing system introduced in 1989, but it didn't rate a mention in the draft of the IBM article on the history of networked business I reviewed, which jumps straight from PROFS to W3.

Horan noted that IBM purchased Lotus at a transitional moment in the history of online collaboration, meaning that the move from mainframe to client-server collaboration Lotus was meant to facilitate was rapidly overtaken by the need for another transition to the Web. From there, she said, it was "fast forward to Web 2.0, social media, and social business."

The nature of collaboration has changed along with the technologies, Horan said. Collaboration in the Notes era, was much more about pre-defined groups of people coming together to collaborate on a task, with heavy security and authentication. "People would establish Notes databases, there were clearly defined rules about who could view what information in that database," she said. "With social business, the whole paradigm shifted. We moved away from the notion that access to information is on a need-to-know basis to one where information is pervasive and people can find and access information in lots of different ways."

Although some types of information still need to be more closely controlled, IBM and other businesses have learned the value of more agile collaboration, she said.

Horan said her top recommendation for other CIOs is to "embrace the technologies, embrace the tools," rather than brushing off social media as a fad. "It was not too long ago that a lot of CIOs thought instant messaging was a distraction, that it was not a useful business tool. In fact, it's an extremely useful business tool! If someone is not online, in meeting, or cannot talk right now, I can see that immediately. But it took a lot of companies quite a while to come around to that point of view."

IBM has come to the same realization about social media, which it provides for the enterprise through its IBM Connections product. Connections has been integrated into W3 as a personalized page within the intranet portal that provides activity streams and access to a directory of member profiles. Over time, the social experience is likely to become even more central to W3, Horan said.

With 400,000 employees distributed around the world, IBM needs all the collaboration technology at its disposal to stay on track, Horan said. "If you go back 20 or 25 years, the norm was to work in the same building with everyone you're working with on a project. Now, I don't think I have a meeting without someone being on the phone."

Social media interaction is particularly important when projects must be coordinated across time zones with participants in India or China, who can't always be available for calls or instant messages with colleagues meeting at mid-day in the U.S., Horan said. "The ability to exchange information with someone who is 12 hours displaced from you is very powerful."

Employees have more ways to communicate than ever, but until the mishmash of tools gets integrated, productivity will suffer. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek: A buyer's guide to enterprise social networking. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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