by C.G. Lynch

Today’s CIO and collaboration tools: “Standing in Traffic”

Apr 02, 20075 mins
IT Leadership

Occasionally, it’s great when someone does your job for you.

This happened last Wednesday when I, along with consultants, analysts and other members of the business and technology media, visited one of IBM’s labs in Cambridge Mass. to view their latest collaboration technologies. It was around 2:30 in the afternoon and Steve Mills, Senior Vice President and Group Executive for IBM Software, had just finished discussing how IBM hoped to take social networking technologies and make them into enterprise-worthy tools with the kind of security that CIOs and heads of IT would expect. This subject had been one of the reasons I’d decided to attend, but the florescent lights, coupled with a heavy lunch, made me feel enervated and devoid of inquisitiveness. When the Q&A came around, I didn’t even think to ask a question.

But Frank Gens, a research Senior Vice President at IDC, who was sitting in the row behind me, saved me:

“I find the collaboration discussion interesting when we speak to CIOs. They are stuck in the middle. They see this flood of technology coming into their personal lives and their kids personal lives —social networking, blogs, wikis, video, you name it—and the CIOs are saying: can they really bring these technologies in [to the enterprise]? Often, they are put in the position of being the hindrance, or break in adoption, rather than the helper. Do you see that kind of balancing act, too? What is their role in these consumer driven technologies.”

Mills danced around the question for a bit, before answering:

“You’re truly playing in traffic if you’re a CIO. I think the smart CIOs know not to view this in the narrow context that this is [just] something that teenagers may be in love with, but rather how does the same paradigm apply in business? Businesses have purpose based problems of a similar nature [to consumers]. They want to connect to experts, find answers and solve problems quickly, and they’re looking for collaboration technologies to help them do that.”

Now, officially awake from my mid-afternoon malaise, I was poised to raise my hand and press Mills on this point before Gens followed up appropriately: “Does IBM, then, to be successful with these technologies in the enterprise, need to be successful first in the consumer market?”

Mills: “There is lots of freeware out there, but that’s not what businesses are looking for in terms of quality of service. Because guess what? Everything needs to be audible, everything has to be secure, and everything is subpoena-able in today’s world. If you’re manning a help desk, you don’t want ad hoc, undeterminable outcomes for what your users are doing. You’re help desk will be swamped with phone calls. There is a level of industrial strength that’s demanded in business because time is money.”

The back-and-forth here between Mills and Gens reflects what CIOs grapple with each day. As my colleague Ben Worthen’s user management story reflected—and he got some pretty passionate responses on both sides of the consumer IT argument—whether CIOs like it or not, people are going to use these web 2.0-based technologies.

So IBM (and its competitors) clearly realize this. But I have to ask: are Web 2.0-inspired tools, specifically made for an enterprise, the answer for businesses?

One of the compelling things about consumer Web 2.0 tools is that they allow you to blend both work and play effectively. And, in today’s world, this is only fair. If work follows me home (I work from home many nights a week and sometimes on the weekends), then why can’t the personal life (at least modestly and appropriately) follow me to work?

Will one of these enterprise tools allow this?

Let’s stay for a moment with the IM example. Last week, during the afternoon, I had about four different IM windows going (many windows don’t bother me, and that might admittedly be a generation gap). Three were with colleagues at work (two in the building, one working at home), and the fourth was with one of my best friends, who happens to be a computer scientist. The first 60 seconds of conversation with him was admittedly trivial chit-chat, perhaps about the weather and the upcoming baseball season. In the next several minutes, however, I got his insights in regards to a story I’m working on about IT R&D which led me to finding a key source later that afternoon. After that conversation, three things had been achieved: First, I had the opportunity to speak with a friend that, due to our work and busy lives, I’ve had little time to see privately; second, I’ve gotten some good ideas for my own work by collaborating with him over IM and three, as a result of these aforementioned achievements, I’m a happier employee.

Now, I know IT doesn’t care about my happiness, nor should it. But would an enterprise-created IM tool that narrowly allowed me to communicate with only people within the corporate boundaries (and maybe a select few outside) facilitate such levels of collaboration? For me and the industry I work in, the answer is no.

Maybe vendors will come up with tools that truly allow you to do both, and give IT that security Mills says CIOs want and desperately need.

Otherwise, as he noted, they’re standing in traffic.