BLUG, the unknown gem on my doorstep

BLUG, the annual Belgium/Luxembourg user group held in Antwerp was a great success and although Antwerp literally is only 45 minutes from where I live this was only my first BLUG.  It has left a big impression! We are more then a week on but I’m still going over it in my head.

It was a great event. The organization was excellent, the venue catered exactly to the needs of the event, the sessions, the speakers, the food, the socializing, the people, …. I could go on and on. Simplest to say: it just came together. Theo & staff did an amazing job and deserve all the credits (and MORE) everyone has been sending them!

BLUG to me was about learning, meeting people and discussing ideas. Being able to talk to and exchange ideas with so many that are right there in the trenches, implementing Social Business, learning as they go and muddling through all the caveats and problems that they, as true pioneers, encounter on their way. Because lets face it. Although we all talk about it it is still a relatively small contingent of modern businesses that are actually doing it.

That is the funny aspect with things like this. If you focus so much on it you start to lose sight on the larger picture and to be frankly, the larger picture is that a lot of our customers really haven’t seriously thought about implementing Social Business yet. So we try to show them the benefits, take them by the hand and help them grasp this great new concept of….what?

Social?!?“Well what is social, and more important why should I?!?

So I talked and I listened and I discussed. Debating ‘social’ on the social panel with Paul Mooney and Luis Suarez, listening to the Belastingdienst with their amazing business case (truly, if you get a chance to go see one of their sessions: DO! It’s worth it), IBM’s own business case as presented by Laurent Boes, talking to partners, community members and others during intermissions and delivering my own session…

It was all just one big roller coaster of impressions and ideas. And the one thing I found was that although the basic principles are more or less the same to everyone: Respect for the role of the individual within the business Eco-system and empowerment of the employee to participate and connect – the way people envision how it should be implemented still differs greatly.

Do you control, or not? Do you steer or do you let it evolve in itself? Do you need to change your corporate culture first or do you let the social process change your corporate culture? It all just depends on the people, the business and the situation. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to Social Business and although I already knew this, BLUG has certainly reinforced that to me.

I learned so much from so many these two days. Information I will be taking along to customers, in projects and to my own corporate social environment. So yes, my head is still spinning from two days of BLUG. It is sparking new thoughts, it is exciting and it is daunting. I still know so little and can learn so much. Thank god for events like BLUG, Social Connections, NLLUG, AUSLUG and many others like it for offering this to all those that want to improve their knowledge! Because let’s face it isn’t that what ‘social’ is all about? Connecting, sharing and collaborating!

Yammer: a wolf in sheep's clothing?

Last week I talked about visiting the Yammer on Tour (YoT) event in Amsterdam. Somehow it is still playing my mind. Not that I changed my mind about it but mostly because I’m wondering why it is so popular among the Dutch. If the announced number of 500.000 payed Yammer accounts in The Netherlands is right that would mean Yammer has a more than substantial penetration of the Dutch labor market of about 8.5 million… A penetration most software providers would kill for and more importantly one obtained without much marketing.

So why is Yammer so popular here?

First of all I think the Dutch are very outgoing and adopt social tools at an incredible speed because of that. Having an opinion and speaking your mind is something that is embedded in Dutch culture and taught from a very young age. The whole social revolution just taps into that. Something that is clearly visible with the adoption of all social platforms, not just Yammer.

But there are other factors here too I think.

The Back-door-factor:

  • As Yammer doesn’t really need any IT department involvement to be kick started within an organization (anyone can just start a company community free of charge) you see a lot of instances where adoption is done bottom up. IT is not involved until a large part of the organization is already using it and is therefore put on the spot. Seeing it being used and accepted and not having had any time to investigate the need or workings for such an application they simply go with it and more or less accept it as is. All the factors and barriers that would otherwise have had to be passed in a software platform acquisition process are suddenly completely bypassed.

The gullibility factor:

  • Yep, it isn’t nice to say about my own fellow country men but I feel gullibility plays a big role here too. I don’t know how it came to be but at a certain point some government institutions started using Yammer for their internal social communications. It didn’t take long for more to join, and more and now several really big and important governmental institutions are using it. Institutions that are handling highly sensitive personal and financial information. The Dutch in general put a lot of trust in their government so other companies seeing this and thinking “Well if they use it it must be safe” joined in and before you know it you’ve got a lot of companies seeing this as a perfectly safe option.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it isn’t or that non of the organizations really investigated it. But I do get the impression a number of them really didn’t look into it too hard.

The idea of information, in this case possibly even my personal information being discussed and shared over Yammer servers located in the US with the US data security regulations – regulations we all know do not necessarily comply with EU legislation – makes me twitchy at best. And as Yammer stated themselves, they are not planning to open any EU data center for the foreseeable future….

How delicate this is was demonstrated when at YoT someone, working for one of the these government institutions got up and asked “How do we control that information shared on the Yammer network stays compliant with the information in our regulatory systems, as we want to make sure our people are consistent in their communications to the outside world when using information obtained through Yammer?“. The answer was (correctly) “Yammer is not for sharing the information but only sharing the location where it could be found“.
The fact this question was asked though already shows that this really is an utopia.

I do believe that most people at all these institutions are probably using it responsible, but at the same time I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t just a short way out for a lot of these companies and institutions. They see the need (and yes, there definitely is a need for social business here in The Netherlands) and jump in at the first option they see swimming by.
If that really is a feasible option though remains to be seen. Yammer seems to be mostly a Facebook like tool and doesn’t offer much more then a really nice way to start the internal conversation. Social business though is about more than that and gets its real value from collaboration. Something Yammer in my eyes still falls short at.
Not to mention the problems they could get themselves in for not complying with EU privacy act regulations…..

Not surprisingly thus that some of these major institutions, recognizing the sensitivities and lack of collaboration, are now turning to other tools like IBM Connections to handle their social business needs. How the smaller ones will fare though remains to be seen. It isn’t easy changing social platforms once you’ve chosen one.

Yammer on Tour – Ehh…yeah….ehh

Yesterday I attended the Yammer on Tour business event in Amsterdam. Advertised as “an interactive, educational and fun event to learn how to harness the power of Enterprise Social Networks“. As my knowledge about Yammer was fairly limited and I’m always interested in anything having to do with Social Business I saw it as a perfect opportunity to see what Yammer is and what it can do for an organization.

They definitely got the buzz right. Over 300 people attended and there was a definite vibe.

Some observations….

Trying to find out what Yammer can do it all kept going back to the main focus; the message feed. Now I’ve got to hand it to them, they’ve got that part right. It’s easy to navigate, has algorithms to surface important and relevant conversations and allows for things like @-mentioning. Something I think is really very important for making real and collaborative conversation possible.
The one thing I was missing though was collaboration. Yes they have ‘Files’ where you can share files, have some versioning and comments, but it almost seems to hang on….not knowing what it’s position is in the overall configuration.

Similarly they’ve got Pages. Text documents that you can work on simultaneously with groups of people, co-authoring it on the fly. Again, nice but very limited and the result is not an actual document but a page posted to Yammer.So using it to work on a real project proposal or a spread sheet is out of the question as it’s only basic text with some very limited formatting (bold, underline, italic,indent, strike-through and bulleted lists).

Yammer to me, is all about the conversation but still has a long way to go for the collaboration.

Privacy & Data:
One of the slides shown was that of actual registered users.Apparently Yammer right now has about 4 million paying users, half a million of which are located in The Netherlands alone. Making it their top market right after the US. Still they do not support, or have plans in the foreseeable future, to host data centers in Europe (as stated by David Sacks,CEO of Yammer on being questioned about this). Something I think could really hurt them in the end as EU data&privacy laws are increasingly bogging down on privacy data security.

Partner integration:
As part of the event a showcase floor was set up  with stations around the room for people to see what Yammer & partners can do. Out of approximately 15 stations only 3were from partners selling software that connects with Yammer and all of those were more or less just pushing notifications into the activity stream. All other stations were desks manned by Yammer employees. It did make me wonder how well connected it really is.
On asking I got told that up till now there is no interaction model. It’s simply feed updates that are being pushed into a object model. So even though the notification gets into the activity stream, any actions with that data (even a simple workflow) will still take the user out of Yammer.

Right at the start of the event I was sitting next to someone who has been advising Yammer to customers and training them. He told me quite frankly he loved Yammer, but not on his mobile as the mobile apps were crap. Low and behold, one of the presenters asks the audience to participate in an little demonstration by life editing a page he has up. Of course I try thisin the iPad app but simply can’t find the page. It turns out the mobile apps don’t support any of the other features apart from showing the feed. For other functionalities one has to rely on a browser.
Now that’s mildly ok on an iPad, but on a phone…. I was not surprised to see no more than 4 people out of a 300+ audience actually partake in that little demonstration. Yammer clearly has a long way to go there to fully leverage the ‘Mobile’ idea.

Business Model:
Another interesting discussion I had was with a Sales representative who I asked about the sales model. Apparently an enterprise license is $15 a month a user. Now for that privilege you get the right to setup an unlimited amount of premium external facing communities (based on a mail domain or general) with up to 100 users each. So when I asked him: “Ok, so when I set up a mail domain with 2 users, register that for an enterprise license a30$ a month, I then have the ability to set up a community for my 100 man strong company for free?”.… ‘ehh..yes’. “And will it do the same as the registered community?”.… ‘yeah’. “So why would I buy a full license at 1500$ a month then if I have less then 100users?!?”…. ‘ehh’.

I can’t really get my head around that business model yet.

Overall I can say, I liked what I saw. They’ve got the interface spot on. Clean, very ‘Facebooky’. Easy to navigate and understandable to users with limited knowledge of social networks. They’ve really build an impressive internal social stream system. But to me that is it. As a collaboration tool it still has a long way to go.

The thing that really impressed me though about Yammer is the way it is penetrating the market. Their idea of offering anyone the freedom to set it up, free of cost and without requiring or assuming any ‘managing’ responsibility means that it is penetrating organizations from the bottom up and with an ease that is unprecedented. Instead of having to go through IT or management, employees can now initiate this completely on their own….. and they are doing it. Inviting and enticing co-workers as they go.

I talked to or heard of at least 5 Line of Business managers at the event that were introduced to Yammer not by their IT department or management but by their staff who had already started using it and then simply invited them. All of them felt they couldn’t ignore it and where there to learn more about it.

So interesting tool and certainly one to keep an eye on!

Bye bye email?!?

The Social Business revolution is here. We are living in a new world and one of the ‘old’ relics being under attack is email. Email a relic?? Yes in the eyes of some, it is outdated and in need of retirement. Nowadays it’s all about new forms of communication. more direct, more interactive, less static…and all kinds of initiatives like ‘Global No Email Day‘ and IBM’s ‘OutsideTheInbox‘ are started to get people to realize this.
I can totally relate to this idea. Mainly because it seems that lately it isn’t us that is consuming mail but the mail that is consuming us. More importantly: consuming our time.

Ok, so I agree, but then I started thinking. How many mails do I actually get in a day…..? 
I’ve got 5 email addresses. One for work, one for friends, one for non-work-non-friend related stuff I deem important and 2 for spam. I use those last two when I need to register on some obscure site and I never check those two unless I’m looking for something specific. So those don’t really count towards my email consumption. The other three gave me a total of 12 messages today, 7 of which were notifications from other systems.
Now that isn’t extreme! That is actually pretty low if you consider I work in IT and was working at home today. I know people that get hundreds of messages, especially while working at home. So why don’t I? Does this mean I don’t work, don’t communicate…..?? No, I actually communicated with several of my colleagues and customers today as well as had interactions with several people around the globe. So lets analyze this….

I started the day with an email notification from Quickr about a document I’d put up for review. It was reviewed by a customer in the USA and she’d updated the document in the Quickr environment and used the notification option to let me know. As I noticed the customers project leader was online on Greenhouse Sametime I used this to have a short discussion about the review.

I then proceeded with opening our new IBM Connections test environment that we set up specifically for demonstrations to customers. To get some filling all employees were asked to fill out their own fictional profile as well as provide some fake content. While doing this I noticed some problems with the test installation. Instead of using mail I put a message on the Administrators notice board, telling him about the problem.

He responded back on the board which was promptly shown in my Status Update widget in my Lotus Notes client.

Now I could just as easily have used our internal Tweet application as well but as it was Connection related it seemed logical to respond within the environment itself. Using mail didn’t cross my mind once.

Roughly at the same time I was invited into a Skype call by another customer. During this call I had to verify something with a co-worker and with a Partner of us. So I used LotusLive Sametime to connect to my co-worker and set up a second Skype chat to ask my partner contact. He wasn’t up yet (Canadian) so I just left him a message in his chat to pick up when he returned.

While all this was going on I was also setting up a test environment for a migration project. It was not exactly going as planned and I used Twitter and Facebook to vent some of the frustrations with getting the thing to work. Apart from the fact this helped me to vent some of my frustration it also delivered a handy tip from a guy that responded to my tweet and sent me a helpful link.
Through the social media app I use I also noticed a new invitation request on LinkedIn that turned out to be a business relation that wanted to connect. As I’d been wanting to talk to this person for a while I used the opportunity to send him a direct message in LinkedIn and set up a phone call.

For the rest of the day I made several phone calls to customers & relations, used text messaging to make an appointment with a good friend, had a lengthy call with a co-worker on the server I was trying to set up and congratulated my niece with her birthday on Facebook.

So looking back on my day and talking about the ‘Less mail’ initiatives, I can honestly say I’m actually doing pretty well already. I’m not email-free yet (nor do I want to be, there’s always something that is better done through mail) but in general I can definitely say I’m not being consumed by my inbox.

There is however another side to this. Remember that Skype chat I started with the Canadian guy that wasn’t online yet? He did get back to me but by that time it was evening here. And that is the whole crux in this story….

Because one of the downsides of using more interactive forms of communications like Social Media, Skype and Sametime is that it is stretching my day. Timezone differences mean I have to adept to other peoples day regimes if I want to speak, chat, Sametime or Skype with them and that means I tend to spend a lot more time at night behind my laptop, sometimes stretching well into the night.

So are these forms of social communications the future? Yes, definitely! It allows you to not just  communicate  but to really build a relation with the other person, something that email just didn’t do. But I don’t think it will put email out of business yet. If not for the fact that lots of people still are hooked on mail then for the sanity of those that need to sleep….