IBM, particularly the Lotus division of IBM, is specifically interested in the use of social networks in the context of business; how they provide both value and return on investment in existing and new business relationships, both within the organization and externally. We expect our experience in this area can usefully inform the W3C Workshop on the Future of Social Networking, as well as any follow on activities.
IBM Lotus has two products that embed social networking in related collaboration suites. Lotus Connections (http://www-01.ibm.com/software/lotus/products/connections/) can be deployed behind the firewall to serve the enterprise itself, or hosted by the enterprise to serve external parties such as customers. Organizational structure forms the basis of the directory of profiles. This is augmented with interests and expertise, as well as geographical information, to enable ad hoc collaboration in the context of specific business needs and goals. Tagging allows others to build up information on the expertise of others and share it. Communities group people with a common interest, with community wide discussion forums and chats.
IBM “Bluehouse” (bluehouse.lotus.com) is a Software as a Service (SaaS) collaboration platform currently in open beta. The social networking features are similar to those in Connections, since they are similarly motivated by the requirement to provide value in the context of business collaboration with external parties (e.g. partners, customers). “Bluehouse” provides a directory for each member organization, with profile information that may be shared within or outside of the organization. Integrated file sharing, activities, meetings and chat provide context for business social networking, which can be structured through the members of your organization, your contacts, or group definitions.
The most obvious principle of our experience with social networking for businesses is that membership in an organization or business provides a primary natural structure for protection, scoping, and sharing. Corporate culture and rules help govern what users share within the organization. We have found that both the professional information and (most of) the personal information shared is “work appropriate”, much like pictures of the family on a work desk. Our internal studies of social networking have found that only about 10% of the content users shared is protected so that it is only seen by “friends”. The rest is shared with all users in the organization (public behind the firewall). Authentication and identification of users is the norm, with that information managed and regulated by the business or other shared centralized authority. The names used for identification are the same ones encountered in other work contexts, with the same level of security and assurance. This creates a level of trust, even in a large and diverse organization such as IBM, as well as the ability to not worry about filtering out company confidential information from discussions.
Given the proliferation of both old style social networks (contacts, buddy lists) and new style social software, any standards (or de facto standards) that solve real and pressing interoperability problems are of great interest to us. “Bluehouse” is looking at OpenID as a protocol for relaying authenticated identity from “Bluehouse” to integrated partners (since it would have to traverse DNS domains, which cookies do not). We are also interested in the aspects of OpenSocial that standardize relationships. Naming all such relationships as “friends” is not always an accurate data model. Business relationships come in several types, including colleagues, partners, customers, and competitors.