Australian exclusive: Interview with Alistair Rennie

by Lee Hopkins on November 10, 2008 · 10 comments

in interviews,tools

Alistair Rennie of IBM

Alistair Rennie is VP of Software Services, Workplace Portal & Collaboration Software at IBM and he’s been in Australia recently doing his ‘thang’.

About to head off to the airport to board yet another plane, I managed to get almost an hour of his time via a conference call to ask him about Lotus Connections, innovation, SMEs (Small to Medium sized Enterprises), and where he sees the future of ‘documents’ going…

Some of the interview was caught via Skype and Skylook, but alas my current trend of technological nightmares continued and my own voice was missing from the mix and the whole recording process stopped about 14 minutes into the interview when my pc locked up. Grrrr…

However, I CAN offer you two sound bites and the gist of Alistair’s responses to my questions.

Here goes:

I started by asking Alistair where Lotus Connections came from and if he shared my view that Social Media was probably one of the first times that the ‘outside of the company’ environment fundamentally changed the ‘inside environment’ (as distinct from legislative changes, inter alia).

Listen to the interview

It turns out that ‘Connections’ is the fastest-selling software IBM has ever had.

I then mentioned being at a discussion last night where Dr. Terry Cutler discussed the submission on ‘Innovation’ he presented to the Federal Government (paper available here; overview of the recommendations is here). I commented that whilst ‘innovation’ as Dr Cutler sees it for the purposes of the growth of the Australian economy is primarily something that should be encouraged at the SME level, and that IBM was a ‘big company’ player not focused at the SME, ‘innovation’ is something that affects all companies, both large and small. ‘Innovation’, I said, was something that everyone must be a part of if any business is to survive; what is interesting is how social media tools and practices can now inform businesses in a way that traditional communication tools could not.

Alas, half way through Alistair’s reply the recording stopped (and only after it had started ‘doubling up’ his voice*). But you’ll get the gist of his viewpoint from listening to this snippet.

Listen to the interview

We also discussed how the collaboration outside of the firewall courtesy of social software was leading to true innovation, at which point Alistair briefly touched upon IBM’s Centre for Social Software, a fantastic research unit put together by Irene Greif in Cambridge, Mass., that worked with SME and corporate innovators and internal (to their own companies, not IBM) entrepreneurs to find new ways of fitting social software into organisations for sound business reasons, not just because ‘someone had a good idea’, or ‘everyone else is doing this, we should be too’.

The Centre has its own twitter feed [@ctr4socialsoft], for those (like me) who are interested.

We then went on to discuss a particular component of ‘Connections’: ‘Dogear‘. I put forward the view that Dogear was nothing more than a ‘behind the firewall’ version of Delicious, but with the exceptionally powerful additional feature of being able to tag ‘people’, allowing you and others to find people according to their expertise, interests, professional role, and so on. This, to me, was a ‘killer’ application.

Alistair agreed, adding that the two points I had mentioned (bookmarking and people-tagging) was supplemented by an even bigger component: the ability to meta search through the population’s collection of tags to see what others are bookmarking, which allows you to incredibly rapidly skip past keyword/keyphrase searching (which Google is the undisputed king of) and into ‘wisdom’, the ‘semantic’ web that Google so far has not been able to tap into. By tapping into the collective wisdom of others, by reading their insights into the keywords/keyphrase subjects you are interested in, you can ratchet up your personal ‘wisdom quotient’ factorially fast.

I know this to be true myself: not only do I keep an RSS feed of keyword tags that I am interested in, but I also follow the thought leaders of my industry to see what they are bookmarking, on the very sound logic that if it is of interest to them it will probably be of very high interest to me.

As a side issue, we both had a chuckle at how Google (these days no longer a ‘search’ company but an advertising company) is, with its cloud computing initiatives like Google docs, calendar and email, giving Microsoft a real headache. So much so that Microsoft and Telstra recently announced a retaliatory action: cloud computing of their own. Apparently I’m not the only one who enjoys sitting back and watch the two of them hammer it out, or watching Microsoft trying to figure out whether it is a search company, an office productivity software company (tons of free software available these days, including the brilliant and free OpenOffice), a software platform company (open-source Linux, anyone?) or a web-software company (Internet Explorer is not the only browser out there).

We also talked about Bluehouse, a software offering of which I wasn’t previously aware. According to an IBM press release, Bluehouse is

the first Web-delivered social networking and collaboration cloud service designed to connect people from different businesses. "Bluehouse" combines social networking and online collaboration tools to help businesses of all sizes to securely work together through firewalls and beyond organizational boundaries. This suite of hosted online technologies allows individuals to share documents, contacts, engage in joint project activities, host online meetings and build social networking communities via the cloud through a Web browser.

What really excited me was that this was a software service that was aimed at SMEs, not just IBM’s traditional blue-chip clientele. Built from the ground up and with over 10,000 users already, this beta software allows a SME to create a fine-grain social network — allowing data to be shared between two people, five people, five thousand people. Imagine the ‘family/friend/everyone’ options of, say, Flickr, built into a cloud database working as a fully-secure extranet. Cool.

I then brought up the question of ‘documents’ and where Alistair felt this dinosaur of the business age was heading.

He felt strongly that there are four developments that need to occur with documents:

  1. That standards need to be aggressively set and aggressively complied with, making documents both ‘open’ (via ODF, or the OpenDocument Format) and multi-composable (of which more in a moment);
  2. That new document types will still need to integrate heterogeneously with all manner of legacy systems;
  3. That web-based cross-collaboration on documents needs to be built-in as a basic requirement, not a ‘wish list’ add-on;
  4. That documents become very much more ‘social’ — that whereas current document generation (even via wikis) is asynchronous (only one person at a time can edit it/contribute to it, for example) the document of the future/now needs to be truly collaborative. For example, where we already have mashups of different media, there is or should be no reason why we cannot apply the same thinking to what we have traditionally emailed around the offices and clogged email servers and inboxes with.

Now, will this happen overnight? Of course not, but great things are afoot. For example, just 48 hours before our interview Sun and IBM announced the joint release of a developer tool kit for ODF, the cryptically-named OpenDocument Format Toolkit Union.

There was just soooo much more that I wanted to ask, and so much more that Alistair was wanting to share, I’m sure. His excitement and passion for the development of new types of documents was palpable even at the other end of a conference call! Even I got excited — hard to believe, isn’t it? I’m normall
y so laid back… [author rolls on floor laughing]

More questions, Alistair

But Alistair did leave the door open to more questions, so I’ll do so via this post, inviting either himself or members of his team to answer:

  1. No doubt as a marketer you have your ears very close to the marketplace; do you see the global economic crisis impacting on future business communication trends, and what are those trends?
  2. Can one’s delicious tags be imported into ‘dogear’?
  3. Does IBM share/still share (in light of the economic crisis) Gartner and Forrester’s bullish predictions on the take-up of the 3D web? Will such 3D worlds eventually integrate with, for example, Lotus Notes and Lotus Connections?

~~~~~~~~~~~

So there you have it. I could have stayed talking with Alistair for hours. Like my previous interview with David Boloker, I found Alistair passionate and enthusiastic about business communication and the strategic use of technologies to both sustain current business and encourage/support future business growth.

The exclusive interview with Alistair was courtesy of Lukas Picton and those very fine folk at Text100 (and I trust their building move over the weekend was hassle-free!).

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

* the ‘voice doubling’ glitch is a technical hiccup that plagued me when I interviewed David Jones from Hill & Knowlton in Canada; I still don’t know whether to release that interview or not because the beginning and end are fine but a large chunk of the rest are almost painful to listen to).

  • http://www.text100.com.au/ Lukas

    Great post Lee, I knew what Alistair had to say would be right up your alley!

  • http://www.text100.com.au Lukas

    Great post Lee, I knew what Alistair had to say would be right up your alley!

  • http://leehopkins.net/ Lee Hopkins

    Thanks, Lukas, and thanks for arranging it!

    If you could ask Alistair or members of his team to answer the three exceptionally tricky questions at the bottom of the post I’d be really grateful. And I await with keen interest the link to Bluehouse!! :-)

  • http://leehopkins.net Lee Hopkins

    Thanks, Lukas, and thanks for arranging it!

    If you could ask Alistair or members of his team to answer the three exceptionally tricky questions at the bottom of the post I’d be really grateful. And I await with keen interest the link to Bluehouse!! :-)

  • Alistair Rennie

    Lee, thanks for the time last week, I really enjoyed talking. Let me try to respond to your questions:

    I think the economic climate is accelerating the business drivers behind collaboration – getting closer to customers, enabling global integration and using collaboration as a ‘service’ within business processes.

    We are running some very cool programs around 3D. Here is a link to a recent press release where are connecting Sametime to 3D environments.

    http://secondlife.reuters.com/stories/2008/09/03/ibm-adds-virtual-worlds-support-to-lotus-sametime/

    This week we are running a large (worldwide) technical symposium using sametime linked with a secure instance of secondlife, augmented with communities in Lotus Connections. The feedback do far has been excellent.

    Lastly, yes you can import bookmarks. I have not tried this myself, and I’m told its a bit awkward. The process is:

    Export from here:
    https://secure.delicious.com/settings/bookmarks/export

    And then import into dogear.

  • Alistair Rennie

    Lee, thanks for the time last week, I really enjoyed talking. Let me try to respond to your questions:

    I think the economic climate is accelerating the business drivers behind collaboration – getting closer to customers, enabling global integration and using collaboration as a ‘service’ within business processes.

    We are running some very cool programs around 3D. Here is a link to a recent press release where are connecting Sametime to 3D environments.

    http://secondlife.reuters.com/stories/2008/09/03/ibm-adds-virtual-worlds-support-to-lotus-sametime/

    This week we are running a large (worldwide) technical symposium using sametime linked with a secure instance of secondlife, augmented with communities in Lotus Connections. The feedback do far has been excellent.

    Lastly, yes you can import bookmarks. I have not tried this myself, and I’m told its a bit awkward. The process is:

    Export from here:
    https://secure.delicious.com/settings/bookmarks/export

    And then import into dogear.

  • http://www.mindrs.com/mindrs/?cat=8 interview tips

    Great post Lee, I knew what Alistair had to say would be right up your alley!

  • http://www.mindrs.com/mindrs/?cat=8 interview tips

    Great post Lee, I knew what Alistair had to say would be right up your alley!

  • http://www.leehopkins.net/ lee hopkins

    Thanks for that info, Alistair.

    Ok, so along with an invite to Bluehouse, who do I have to mug to nab an invite to Sametime? :-)

  • http://www.leehopkins.net lee hopkins

    Thanks for that info, Alistair.

    Ok, so along with an invite to Bluehouse, who do I have to mug to nab an invite to Sametime? :-)

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