IBM’s Charlie Hill on Social Business

by Dave Michels

[Originally appeared on December 11, 2011]

As communications technologies and uses are changing, IBM is making some big bets on social collaboration technologies. Behind some of these technologies is Charlie Hill, IBM’s CTO for Social Business.

Charlie Hill
Charlie Hill

Charlie is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and played a pivotal role in starting IBM’s social networking software, called Connections. He is the product designer for Lotus QuickPlace and a member of the Lotus Design Council and the Lotus Architecture Board. He previously worked on a number of early web collaboration applications such as Instant!Teamroom and QuickPlace. Prior to joining IBM, Charlie was a member of the Human Interface Group at Apple Computer in the mid 90s working on next generation personal computing environments.

Born and raised in England, Charlie was a researcher and visiting tutor at the Royal College of Art in London where he designed a workspace for fashion designers. Before that he spent “way too long” at various educational institutions in the UK, studying engineering and design. Charlie lives with his wife and daughter near Boston.

DM: As CTO for IBM Collaboration Solutions, what products or technologies fall into your purview?
CH: IBM Connections, our enterprise social networking product, IBM Sametime, our unified communications and collaboration product family, the IBM Customer Experience Suite for building web and mobile portals, and Lotus Notes.

DM: How do you see social tools fundamentally altering the adoption and use of collaboration technologies?
CH: What’s new about social is the way it provides an open and persistent channel for people to communicate, driven by the relationships that you have with your colleagues. This use of your social network ultimately results in a more efficient distribution of content and conversations, making it much easier for people to stay current, and also establishing a rapid feedback loop as people join the conversation–it’s much more interactive. This is particularly relevant as enterprises increasingly need to operate on a global basis, where purely local interactions are insufficient to get business done. By putting employees online with the ability to share and connect very efficiently both person-to-person and in communities, businesses can adopt a more agile management style and empower their employees to take the initiative and take full advantage of the expertise of their peers.

DM: How will social-based collaboration tools impact traditional communications-centric UC offerings?
CH: Social is being used as a new kind of communication channel. What social brings is increased ability to reach and discover people and information as well as a notion of persistent contexts around which you can interact. UC brings real-time interaction channels that provide the ability to collaborate and get things done, with stronger engagement around a shared goal and a higher quality of interaction that helps drive commitment and accountability. So yes, we see UC and social converging into a unified platform over time as very complementary capabilities that you are really going to want to use together for maximum effect.

DM: Most UC vendors include voice as a central part of their solution–IBM doesn’t offer a core call processing technology. How does IBM address voice?
CH: While voice is an important part of any UC solution, recent trends in virtualization and cloud infrastructure mean that voice is likely to be commoditized over time. What’s important is providing a “unified” communications experience that lets the user do their work without ever having to think about the underlying technology. Consider Sametime Unified Telephony. As a middleware layer, it provides advanced UC services to the user through the familiar Sametime interface. It can work with your existing PBXs and handsets, let you switch to other vendors in the future or source your voice from the cloud. Meanwhile your user is never exposed to this complexity. Never has to be retrained or figure out a new system. They can easily start a chat, jump to a meeting, start a call and leverage video as needed.

DM: Are there particular sectors or verticals that seem more open to adopting enterprise social tools?
CH: Enterprise social tools are applicable across virtually every industry and segment. One of our most aggressive adopters has been a cement company. Cement may not be as sexy as healthcare or technology, but they’ve found they can get new products to market much faster than under the old ways of doing business. Globalization is another huge driver. No one is local in a global economy. But I will say that we were surprised that highly regulated industries–such as financial services and healthcare–have been rapid adopters as well. Given their regulated natures, we expected them to move slowly. But as knowledge-driven businesses, social has had a profound impact.

DM: Is social networking inherently a cloud/hosted service, or more viable as a premises solution?
CH: While consumer services are universally offered as a cloud or hosted service, the requirements for the enterprise segment have more variation. Some enterprises will prefer to operate their own social platform on-premises for security, regulatory or compliance reasons. Others will be much more comfortable with hosted solutions. Economics will also certainly play a part in the decision. On-premises or “private” cloud solutions offer the ability to be highly customized and leverage other internal communications capabilities (like integrating with your already deployed room-based video conferencing systems). Software-as-a-service approaches can be deployed more rapidly and at a lower initial cost, but at the expense of customization.

DM: How do you see mobile devices impacting this vision? Business apps in the enterprise?
CH: In the consumer space, the majority of communications and social networking are done from the mobile device. And. more and more, smart phones and tablets are becoming the primary business communication device for many users. These are replacing desktop phones and, in many cases, laptops and PCs. This is a challenge, but also a tremendous opportunity. People become available, aware, and reachable continuously, rather than intermittently. Their devices are already communications-optimized. They are also automatically location-aware. And they contain social features such as high-resolution still and video cameras. Our strategy is to make the mobile device a first-class experience…in fact it is the design center for our future offerings. And the goal is to go beyond just accommodating the limitations of the mobile device (screen size, connection speed, battery life…), and embrace the key capabilities of this and the coming generations of mobile devices (always connected, location-aware, touch-screen, granular alerting model, built-in voice and video…) to create an exquisite social and UC experience.

DM: What about email? How important is Domino/Notes to your vision?
CH: Historically new technologies have supplemented, rather than replaced, entrenched technologies. For example, Instant Messaging has taken away some email traffic and we believe social media is doing the same. However, there is a best use of each of these that individuals adopt…e.g., email for asynchronous person-to-person or defined group communication, IM or e-meetings for real-time communication and collaboration, social medial for one-to-many updating. Of course, there are a lot of overlapping cases and user preferences. In addition, different generations tend to favor different modes of communication. But we see no indication of email going away. Rather, we are investing in making email more social and more contextual…. We are also applying the learnings from email to the UC and social spheres…learning in areas such as intelligent filtering, compliance, and optimization for mobile devices.

We are also working across email, UC, and social…so that the user has a seamless experience moving across these modes as their desires and business processes dictate. And ultimately we see these distinctions blurring and eventually disappearing…but this is still a ways off.

As to Notes/Domino, we continue to have the best, most cost-effective enterprise email solution. We also have the stated strategy and have delivered on integration between our Social and UC products and other enterprise mail systems. If you have another email system, you don’t have to switch to adopt our social technologies, but if you have Notes/Domino, you get a more integrated work environment.