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I am the "IBM Collaboration & Productivity Advisor" for IBM Asia Pacific. I'm based in Singapore.
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A more actionable Connections UI

IBM Connections is a two headed beast: on one hand it is a set of rich APIs offering different services (Status, Blogs, Wiki, Text, Activities etc) on the other it provides a set of UIs on top of this APIs. Yes, not one, but a set: Browser, Android, iShiny™ and IBM Notes. I'm a big fan of the APIs. After all they stand for IBM's commitment to open standards and are build with XML, REST, ATOM and ActivityStreams compliant to the OpenSocial specifications.
I'm not so sure about the UIs, especially the browser UI. While it is fiercely backward compatible in its browser support, it doesn't take advantage of modern browser capabilities (a all to common Catch 22: the general expectation is software to be bleeding edge but to work on all runtimes. Only slowly the idea takes hold "work on all runtimes" doesn't necessarily mean "is the same" and software embraces graceful degradation instead of the least common denominator. We might see that in Connections some time in the future too.
Anyway, the API concept allows you to create your own UI without running foul of breaking the existing application. So I doodled around with my favourite mockup tool how I would enhance the existing UI:
A better Sharebox
Following the concept of progressive disclosure the entry box in the status update could be used to create any type of entry. It is quite paradoxical, that now I need to decide where (Status, Blog, Wiki, Activity etc.) to say something before I can say it. The what and where need to be more independent. By providing a single entry box this is absolutely possible.


Going social below the radar - will you come along?

This blog entry is based on my colleague Benedikt Müller's German Blog entry "Enterprise Social Software mit Guerilla-Taktik". It is a mix of translation, transcript and reflection. Here you go:

A few weeks ago Novell released their new platform for collaboration platform Vibe Cloud. VibeCloud is the phoenix from the ashes of Google Wave in an enterprise flavour. This cloud service claims to improve collaboration inside enterprises without the need to invest in on-premise or hosted own infrastructure. To drive adoption Novell uses the same interesting approach that turned into remarkable success story for Yammer, the innovative corporate micro blogging service (I always cringe on the word "micro blog", it is like "adhesive tape" - anybody would just tweet ask for a Scotch tape - or Tesa film in Germany): Yammer found their audience by creating a closed network based on the subscribers eMail Domain. Anybody can register on their website and is added to a network containing all users with the same email domain. The first user of any given domain kickstarts the network. Click on register now and the corporate social network takes flight.

Yammer and now Novell Vibe Cloud empower individual employees to introduce their services bypassing any internal processes and approvals. From the vendors point of view that constitutes an ingenious route to market. Employees love it for simplicity and speed. For the management and the IT departments however this is a nightmare coming true: loss of control and escalation of risk (not that I'm alleging that there are control freaks running IT or management, judge for yourself). How would such a stealth introduction unfold? Here's one typical sequence of events:

Frustrated bbeing limited to eMail as single collaboration tool in their corporations employees start to search for alternate approaches to improve collaboration with their peers. They are empowered by their private experience with Social Software in the Internet: Facebook and Twitter keep them up-to-date with their social sphere, file sharing is a snap using Dropbox or Ubuntu One and update shared documents in Google Docs. These applications set the benchmark any corporate solution will be measured against by users. Once they discover similar tools tailored for corporate use, which on top can be used by simply providing their eMail address, the flood gates are open for a rapid uncontrolled (and potentially undiscovered - until the CEO enters his eMail out of curiosity) proliferation inside the organisation. What happens next, after all it is corporate use, is the storage of internal and confidential information on the servers of these services: project discussions, customer related documents, draft presentations etc. are stored, shared and worked on.

After a short period of time a lot of internal corporate data gets stored with a vendor that hasn't been evaluated by the IT department and (IMHO much more critical) who has no contract and thus contractual obligation with the corporation. Once the user base has grown sufficiently large, management and IT can't block or discontinue the service without risking to be confronted with torches and pitchforks. In such cases a company is forced to upgrade to the commercial, paid for, service variation to gain access to control and security functionality (anyway: water flows downhill and simply find another way).

Capgemini adopted Yammer exactly in the sequence described above. Once the accelerating proliferation had been recognised, Capgemini decided to tolerate the new communication channel. Benedikt stated his support for this move, since stemming against the dynamic of this move would prove to be to difficult. I haven't made up my mind, but do agree with Benedikt, that communication dynamics need to be taken advantage of, moderated and empowered. Trying to stem or surpress them won't work. Since the data is stored outside the corporation, the sharing of customer related or internal information has been outlawed for Capgemini on Yammer. This restriction severely limits the usefulness - one can't share project related information or even what customer they are currently with.

Benedikt draws two conclusion (mine follow thereafter):
  • Corporations need to take their employees' needs and wants regarding modern communication and collaboration serious. Otherwise there is the risk (I would say: the certainty) that staff simply utilise consumer tools like Google Docs and Dropbox or "fly below the radar" introducing unchecked services like Yammer or Novell Vibe Cloud
  • To create real value in corporations Social Software must encompass collaborating using internal, confidential or even secret information. That works reliable with the cloud offering of a trusted partner. In larger organisations however the prefered approach still seem to be making these services available on-premises leveraging their existing data centre
  • The need for communication and collaboration will always trump the aspirations to control and prevent. Social Software is happening now, it is the management do decide how much guidance and influence they want to exercise
  • Simplicity isn't simple. The pervasiveness of eMail is (besides the fiction of ownership - MY inbox) rooted in its universality. I have one place to communicate internally and externally. If suddenly communication affords different tools for different communication (like Twitter to the outside, Yammer to the inside) adoption is impacted. Of course you could use Wildfire in your Lotus Notes 8.5 sidebar as single update location. The same sidebar that hosts IBM Activities that you can share inside and outside your organisation
  • Cross-corporate collaboration hasn't been sorted out yet. LotusLive's guest mode or IBM's public Sametime servers are a start, but compared to eMail it is just in its infancy


Lotus Greenhouse and the IBM OneUI v3

Have you paid a visit to Lotus Greenhouse lately? IBM features the upcoming Lotus Connections 3.0 there to try. There are a number of interesting observations to be made beyond the core improvements to Lotus Connections. Lotus Connections sports the upcoming IBM OneUI v3 and I expect the documentation being available at the usual spot once it is released. One interesting structure to note is the 4 basic tabs: Home, Profiles, Communities and Apps. Apps now hosts Bookmarks, Blogs, Files, Wikis, Activities and Forums (which makes the Latin speaker in me cringe: correct would be Fori, but that never made it into English grammar):
Lotus OneUI v3 Apps
There is no reason why that Apps menu couldn't host access to Quickr or your custom applications. So Lotus Connections evolves into the Lotus lead application. Looking at the OneUI you can see how it is evolving. This is one more reason to stick to OneUI for your custom applications. A simple CSS update will bring you in line with the new styles. Jeffrey Veen once taught me: Websites are about structure, layout and behaviour. Structure is provided by HTML, layout by CSS and behaviour by JavaScript. OneUI is all about structure - You don't need to agree with the CSS. Feel free to change anything inside the { }. Below you see the evolution from OneUI v2 to OneUI v3. Will we see user contributed OneUI themes anytime soon?
IBM OneUI v2
IBM OneUI v3
Can you spot the difference?
Update: The v3.0 documentation is out


I love Lotus Connections Activities

Activities are my favorite component in Lotus Connections. Firstly they let get my team (which changes from task to task) and myself things done. Secondly it is available offline. In my part of the world* "always on" is not a reality. It is more "mostly on, but with horrible latency and low network predictability or realiability". So working online is quite often frustrating. I like the model "work offline but with a background sync" much better since it fits reality. Push mail works that way and more and more apps (push apps (?)) do the same. Of course sometimes looking at the sync bar is scary.
All open action items --- aaargh

* here: all of AP. Quality differs widely.


Listing custom fields and attachments in Lotus Connections

Lotus Connections 2.x allows users to specify custom fields to be added to any item. This option is very useful together with the entry template function. Once a set of additional fields has been defined, they can be reused to capture structured information into an activity. Currently these additional fields are visible with the entry, but can't be visualized in other ways, most notably a table (It is on the list for future versions). So when a developer has an itch, it needs scratching. Connections comes with multiple entry points: the webUI, a Sametime plug-in, a Notes plug-in and a ATOM/REST API. A quick check of the ATOM XML showed, that the custom fields are in the XML and would be retrieved when loading the ATOM url. Fields are encoded as snx:field inside a feed/entry element. They come as type text, name, attachment and url. 70 lines of XSLT would transform that into a table for me. I created 2 examples: one for the list of attachments in an activity and one with a table of custom field values. The stylesheet needs to be called by something (I just downloaded the ATOM feed using wget and the command line version of DXLMagic to do that). Enjoy. As usual: YMMV.


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