Implementing IBM Connections

Tips and advice from zero to launch…

I’m gratefully, thankfully, miraculously near the end of a long journey to implement IBM Connections for my company of 50,000. This journey took longer than it should have but this article isn’t about that. This article is about what it takes to get through the ups and downs of implementing an enterprise software product.

Many people worked long and hard to get this project off the ground and safely to its destination. It quiet nearly — but mostly figuratively — took a cast of thousands.

IBM Connections is a social collaboration platform that is available in the cloud or through an on-premise implementation that provides web/enterprise 2.0 capabilities — such as blogs, wikis, forums, status updates, tags, and liking — to either internal and/or external users. Companies typically use Connections as a compliment to or a replacement of traditional intranets.

Read on for a few pointers that will hopefully be of use for anyone embarking on this journey.

Selling

Getting buy-in to purchase and deploy an Enterprise Social Network (ESN) such as IBM Connections isn’t a trivial task. An ESN isn’t something that every organization has. It isn’t something every organization wants. It may not be something that all of your organization’s leaders have even heard of. Gaining approval then is often a tough hill to climb. There is a good bit of information freely available on the web highlighting the benefits of implementing an ESN or becoming a more social business. I’ve written about it a few times here in Business as Unusual. You can also find great research reports from Gartner, Forrester, and McKinsey to name a few.

IBM Business Value Assessment (BVA)

IBM can also help out with building the business case by performing a Business Value Assessment. The BVA lays out the benefits, discovered through discussions and interviews with key stakeholders, and draws from IBM’s extensive knowledge and expertise. Leveraging the experts can provide a quick boost to understanding the potential opportunities that a collaboration platform like IBM Connections can bring to your organization.

Business Use Cases

Identifying and building out business use cases can be the number one selling point to gaining approval to implement an ESN. Find a problem that IBM Connections can solve and flush out the details: current process, to-be process, and benefits (both hard and soft). Use cases may also provide good guidance on which groups to pull in to early proof of concept validation and pilot/beta environments. Showing how you can solve real-world, current issues will enlighten nay-sayers and decision makers who have no experience or exposure to this type of collaboration (you know…the “how’s this better than email?” crowd).

Building

Great — you got approval to purchase IBM Connections! Now it’s time to get to work on the implementation.

Kick the Tires

Before you get too deep into your implementation you need to spend the time learning the ins and outs of the tool. Connections, unlike most of the other products in the ESN space, has a broad list of features and capabilities. Connections isn’t just an activity stream with a shared calendar and a folder to store a few things. With Connections there are typically multiple ways you can accomplish your goal. This flexibility is great; however, it also adds a bit of complexity. I’ve probably said “it depends” to my leaders far more times than they have had the patience for during this project. You may want to consider a metered approach to exposing Connections capabilities to your workforce. Consider their knowledge level of this type of product coupled with the use cases you identified previously to find the right balance.

When you think you’ve got it, kick the tires some more. Dig into the details. Write down and make sure critical stakeholders know the capabilities Connections brings as well as its limitations.

Configure, Don’t Customize

Connections isn’t perfect. You will be tempted to bend it to your specific desires and needs. Resist this urge. I highly suggest working with an experienced Connections architect and/or engineer from the very, very beginning of your implementation. There are definitely aspects of Connections that you will want to tweak, and you should. The main concern is not making changes that will make upgrades difficult or impede them altogether. Rely on an expert to provide insight into the downstream effects of every change you consider.

Look to the Clouds

This seems like a no-brainer in 2016, but we are talking about enterprise software here and enterprises like their applications in-house a lot of the time: I highly encourage you to pursue the cloud-based Connections offering. An on-premise implementation will take longer to deploy, be more expensive, and won’t have the latest and greatest features. You need a really compelling reason to not choose the cloud option. If you are leaning on-prem, question your sanity and reconsider.

Preparing

So you have your Connections environment up and running. Ready to launch, right? Think again. What comes next is going to make or break your success.

Governance

Every organization has a different appetite for risk, takes different approaches to policies, and wants varying levels of control. Governing an ESN isn’t always a straightforward. Get the right stakeholders together: representatives from HR, Legal, Communications, Technology, and others based on your specific organization and your plans for using Connections. Your governance team is going to need to understand what employees can and can’t do in Connections and you’ll need to set up the appropriate amount of controls and safeguards commensurate with how much risk the team sees in the new capabilities.

This is going to spin you back into discussions of configuration and customization, so do it early and resist the urge. If you customize Connections so much that your employees can’t easily leverage its capabilities, an ESN might not be for your organization. Sorry.

I’m an advocate of holding people accountable. Establish policies, codes of conduct, set some guidelines, and monitor usage. Hold violators accountable. This approach is meaningless if you can’t or won’t enforce the policies.

Awareness

Prior to launch, you need to make a concerted effort to ensure that leaders know what’s coming. The larger your organization and the bigger the change an ESN represents at your workplace, the more awareness building you are going to need to do. Some leaders are going to be excited. Some will be apathetic. And some are going to emphatically declare, “not in my house.”

The key to awareness isn’t building consensus. Implementing Connections is already approved. Awareness is a courtesy. Yet, you can and should work to drive excitement and buy-in to what’s coming. Try to win everyone over, but don’t beat yourself up too bad on the few that you can’t.

Promotion

Promotion isn’t exactly the same as awareness but it is pretty similar. I separate the two in that awareness is giving key stakeholders and organizational leaders a more than cursory walkthrough of the new platform, and promotion is casting a wide net with only a high level look at what is to come. Promotion is more about marketing than it is previewing. Catchy slogans, short videos, and brief news articles are ways to get the message out that something new is coming and to build some excitement and anticipation. Leverage events that are already taking place to piggyback upon and get the word out that a new collaboration platform is coming.

Launch and Ever After

You’ve sold the vision, learned the ins and outs, tested it with real users, established a governance framework, told everyone it was coming, and built up some excitement — it’s time to launch. Wait…are you really ready? I highly encourage you to not launch Connections to your entire organization without allowing pilot groups, or early adopters as we call them, to have used the production application for some time beforehand. Giving early access to users will help ensure that Connections isn’t a barren ghost town when the bulk of your users gain access for the first time. If you take the ghost town approach, it is fairly guaranteed that you will be doing a “second” launch at some time in the future. Get some activity going, start a few public communities that will be of broad and general interest. Better yet, change a major process that will drive traffic and make use of Connections a necessity…not a passing curiosity.

Your launch day isn’t the end. It may be an end, but it is also a beginning.

As much as you plan for launch, you are going to need a plan for how you will sustain a constant flow of fresh content and interest from that point forward. Depending on your use cases, this could be a simple shifting of work from one tool to another. However, in many cases you are likely going to need to work at teaching your employees about the capabilities and features of Connections and helping them see ways to apply those to the work that they do.

Conclusion

Connections is a powerful tool. It gives organizations a way to communicate and collaborate well beyond the rudimentary capabilities of a traditional intranet or the limited functionality of small team chat tools such as instant messengers or channel-based products like Slack. Connections goes well beyond file sharing platforms like Box or Dropbox that provide the ability to share files and track key data points such as versions, downloads, comments, and likes. Connections does those things as well, but can do it within a community that has a shared calendar, a leadership communication blog, a forum for getting questions answered, and an ideation blog for soliciting crowdsourced ideas that the community members vote on.

Connections is a full-featured, highly-capable system that gives organizations the ability to give their employees a platform for revitalizing the way they work. Connections gives employees a voice. Connections gives teams a place to collaborate. Connections gives leaders a place to engage with their workers. Connections opens up the many possibilities that are ahead as we move toward a digital workplace and the future of work.


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