Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Trouble with IBM Connections.Cloud

I'm finding myself being increasingly frustrated by IBM Connections.Cloud. It’s a great product, don’t get me wrong. Arguably the most full-featured of its kind. Unfortunately it’s mired by some terrible executive decisions. 

In fact, the problems are so great that it’s pushing us to investigate other products which are “like” connections but are provided by other vendors. 

I came away from an investigation of Microsoft’s Yammer system yesterday shaking my head and saying, “that’s it. Game over”. 

Yesterday afternoon was one of the few times I've found myself in the uncomfortable position of recommending Microsoft over IBM. 


Today of course is another day. I'm a dedicated IT professional, so when I can’t sleep because a system is overwhelming my thoughts, I get up and make a list of my problems.  So, IBM, it’s 3.30am and this one’s on you … and you owe me at least 2 hours of sleep.

Overall thoughts

I can’t fault IBM’s support teams both locally and internationally. They have been brilliant throughout the whole process. Far better than anything Microsoft or Google have ever managed. For the most part, I can’t even fault the product.  It’s technically sound and it does more or less what it’s supposed to, give or take a few silly limitations. Nope. Most of the blame  goes to the licensing team and to management for some truly horrendous decisions.

On-boarding

The gateway to any system is the on-boarding process. At the very least, you have to get this right. There are two parts to on-boarding;

  • On-boarding a Company
  • On-boarding Users


IBM Connections.cloud manages to screw both of these processes up, so if nothing else, at least it’s consistent. 

On-boarding a Company

Without covering old ground too much, (even though we still haven’t received a licence for our second company -- after about a month of waiting) there are three things wrong with the company on-boarding process;

Real Companies with ABNs Only Please

IBM feel the need to prove that the company is “real” - for example, in Australia, companies need to have an ABN (Australian Business Number). This is fine for registered companies but what happens if you want to on-board something larger than a company, perhaps an international forum?  A fledgling sub-company?  Good luck to you… if it doesn't have an ABN, it doesn't exist.

Microsoft’s Yammer on the other hand happily on-boards anything that has its own domain. 

A Fast Onboarding Process that Fails to Collect Information

Then there’s the on-line forms process for on-boarding.  It’s really slick and fast but it doesn't actually ask any of the questions that need to be answered. There’s a separate paper and signature based form for that -- and even then, the IBM provisioning team seem to ignore what you write and make their own choices. Again, Yammer wins hands down with a complete process that takes only a few minutes.


Segregated Data Centres

I said before that this was the single failing of IBM Connections.Cloud.  I was wrong, there are many other failings but I’d say this one is still the worst. When your company is created, it gets put (almost randomly) in one of three data centres (the US, Europe or Asia). This would be fine except that communication can’t happen between the data centres.  That’s right, people in the US can’t communicate with people in Asia.  For a platform based on collaboration, blocking messaging is a big, big mistake.

On-boarding a Person

The on-boarding process for a user is much better. It’s a bit wordy and “disclaimery” and a bit disjointed too but I would have said it was pretty good - if I hadn't seen the Yammer on-boarding process.  The two big flaws with personal on-boarding are;


  • Single-Emails: If you've already used your email address somewhere else in connections, for example at one of the other data centres, then it’s “dead”. It’s tied to that data centre and as mentioned previously, there’s no communication between data centres. This might be fine if you have a single organisation collaborating together but if you’re an association which collects members and guests from other organisations around the world, it makes business impossible. 


  • A lack of Wizardry: The Yammer on-boarding process used some very slick screens to navigate the new user through setting up their account, joining companies, adding friends, setting up their profile and introducing the system.  The IBM on-boarding process simply dumps the user in connections in the hope that they’ll figure out where to go to from there. 


Friends and @Mentions

This was bit that “broke” the system for our people.  They presumed that that, as with most social platforms, they could add guests and then draw their attention via @Mentions.  This works extremely well within companies, so clearly there’s no technical problem with the @Mention system itself.

Unfortunately, without some very, very painful user-based processes, you can’t @Mention anyone who is not a member of your company.  You can’t @Mention guests even though they are members of your community.

The Worst Friend-Request System Ever

In order to @Mention a guest, you need to “Friend Request” them first. Then they have to accept. This might not be so bad but the Friend Request system is absolutely terrible. In order to Friend Request someone, you need to go into your personal contacts and add the person manually to your contacts. To do this, you need to type in at least their name and email address. If you don’t know which email address they’re using for connections, then you can’t add them.

Once people are added to your contacts list, you then need to go in and individually send them “invitations to connect”, and then you have to wait for them to accept.  By this time, your requirement to @mention them has pretty much expired.

Of course, I found a way to upload a CSV file which takes a little of the pain out of the first part of the process but considering that Microsoft’s Yammer lets you talk directly to members in your community without any further action, I think it’s too little, too late.

Broken by Design

The worst part about this however is that it was apparently “broken by design”.  The earlier versions of IBM connections.cloud were far more open and for legal or other reasons, those loopholes were closed. This means that there is no technical reason why the system couldn't be better.  It also means that because the “holes” were clumsily closed, the system tends to go to horrible error-message screens when you hit parts of the old functionality.

This is simply a very bad choice of reaction from IBM. A much better choice would be to change the person profiles so that you could have a choice of;


  • A community-public edge to your profile (ie visible to all - @mentions within shared communities without needing explicit friendships)
  • A completely hidden to all profile (ie: the current friend request system)
  • A list of Trusted domains or companies (ie: @mentions restricted to domains/companies and profiles visible to certain domains/companies only).


All existing Connections.cloud profiles should default to “completely hidden” and all members of the community should be sent a message explaining the differences and how to change it. This would fix the problems in the current system.  From there, all new users could be asked to make the choice as part of the user on-boarding process. The default setting could be set at the company level too.

It’s a simple fix that IBM needs to implement ASAP.


The Capabilities of Guests

One of the most important features of IBM Connections is the Guest System.  The idea that you can invite a guest to connections in order to exchange files with you or participate in your communities.

Apart from the guest problems I've discussed earlier;

  • A sloppy on-boarding process 
  • Inability to invite guests if their email has been used at another data centre
  • Inability to @mention guests without completing a process too complex for new users


There’s also a few other issues;

Lack of Status Updates

One of the first things I noticed about Yammer was that guests have a status update bar. That’s right, guests can post updates (which can include @mentions and hashtags).  In fact, Yammer encourages guests to introduce themselves when they are added to a community. Connections on the other hand does not allow guests to post status updates.


No Collaborative Document Editing for Guests

Then there’s collaborative document editing. If you’re a fully paid subscriber of IBM Connections, you can edit documents using the built in “IBM Docs” editor.  It’s not a particularly good editor, not compared to Office 365 online or the even better (in my opinion) Google Docs but it does the trick.

Unfortunately, if you’re a guest, you are denied the use of these tools and have to download documents, edit them and then re-upload them.

Initially I was okay with this but then I looked a Yammer. Yammer lets people use the online versions of Office 365

Really?  If Microsoft can run their flagship cash-cow product on a freemium model for Yammer users then IBM must be able to offer IBM Docs to guests. In a world full of free apps (thank you Google Docs) and quality open source alternatives (thank you Libre Office), who pays for the bare essentials of content creation these days?

This is simply unacceptable. 

The Outline Screen and Clutter

The last major flaw of IBM Connections.cloud is, in my opinion, the outline screen. As I said before, connections is far more fully-featured than any of the competing systems. It has great sub-systems like wiki’s, blogs, surveys and activities … and it seems that new modules are coming all the time.

There’s nothing really wrong with these options. It’s all a matter of the outline screen.

The focal point of any community is its start page and in IBM connections, you can choose from several options for the start page. The Wiki is offered as an option but it’s restricted to the welcome page -- and you can’t have any “side apps”, such as tags and calendars.

The outline page is really the best start page of the lot. Unfortunately, there are a few major flaws;


Graphics can't be Directly Added to Outlines

Despite years of badgering (I've read the forums), you can’t add graphics to the outline, at least not directly. You have to upload them to the Wiki (or files if you enjoy lots of broadcasts) and then link to them from there. Since the rest of connections seems to support uploads, it makes no sense why the one part that would benefit from this feature misses out.

All Components (except updates) Must be Shown on the Outline

If you decide to have a component in your community, for example a survey or a wiki, then you MUST show it on the outline screen -- even if it’s not relevant at the time. You can collapse these items to start with but they still expand for new users.  There’s an option to “hide” these items but hiding them essentially removes them from your community. If you’re going to use the outline screen, you’re going to have to get used to clutter.

Compare this to the Yammer screens, they’re calm, clean and easily navigable. 

Community Status Updates Cannot be shown on the Outline

You can’t include community status updates on the outline screen. This is pretty amazing, as one of the most important things about any community is the status updates.  You’d think that the outline layout which introduces far too much clutter would at least be all-inclusive but it’s not. Status updates are simply not available there. It’s a shame because people have been asking for them too, for years, in the IBM forums.

No HTML in the Outline

If there's one part of Community that would benefit from HTML, it's the outline page. This would allow you to integrate your own systems (via iFrames and other devices) and it would allow you to use widgets from other sources. More importantly, having HTML would allow you a lot more control over the layout of the outline.

Where to Now?

I really can’t be sure where we are going now.  For a while there I was so sure that our future was going to be IBM Connections but it’s really not looking like the product will meet our needs. It’s a big decision to make because it won’t just affect connections going forward. It will affect all of our systems, our domino systems, the intended move to bluemix and our xpages development plans.

If nothing else, I’m at least reassured. If we lose IBM now, it won’t be for lack of trying and it won’t be because people made an emotional decision to go to Microsoft.  It will simply be that IBM has “mismanaged” themselves into delivering a sub-par set of rules around an otherwise quality product.

2 comments:

Rupert Clayton said...

Gavin: Those sound like some big problems, and not at all what we have found as a business partner working with many IBM Connections Cloud customers. I'll try to address the first few issues you raise and hope I can post later on the others.

>On-boarding a company
>Real Companies with ABNs Only Please

This is news to me. In the US, any existing customer with a Passport Advantage or Passport Advantage Express account can buy IBM Connections Cloud subscriptions. For new customers, we can set them up with a Passport Advantage or Passport Advantage Express account very easily. The only requirement to provide "proof" is for domain ownership if you want to use Verse. I'm thinking this ABN requirement must be specifically Australian. I don't know if that's due to regulation/legal constraints, or to IBM Australia policies.

>A Fast Onboarding Process that Fails to Collect Information

There are no "paper and signature based forms" when we onboard customers in the US. Again, I don't know why this is being required in Australia.

>Segregated Data Centres

We have experienced this issue with a couple of multinational customers that wanted to serve different parts of their user base from different geographic data centers, but still have them all within the same organization and share the same Internet domain(s). From what I heard at IBM Connect, IBM's roadmap does include plans to allow customers to host their organizations across multiple geographic data centers. I don't know what the timeline is for that.

I have not experienced the issue you describe "that communication can’t happen between the data centres". Can you give more detail on exactly what happens? Surely users from Org1 in the Asian data center can send email to Org2 in the US data center and vice versa. This is just the basic SMTP functionality. Is the problem that the Connections collaborative functions do not work between users hosted in different DCs?

>On-boarding a person
>Single-Emails: If you've already used your email address somewhere else in connections, for example at one of the other data centres, then it’s “dead”. It’s tied to that data centre and as mentioned previously, there’s no communication between data centres.

In general, we've had good response from the CloudCSG team (cloudcsg@us.ibm.com). I'm not sure whether this same team supports Australia, or if there is a different one. They've been very responsive in updating existing accounts (trial, guest, etc.) so that they can be (re)used in paid deployments. For larger roll-outs, we have specifically had this team search for existing accounts for the users we are planning to onboard, to get ahead of any issues.

I don't know that we have specifically had to deal with users that needed to be moved from one DC to another, but this seems like the same type of issue.

>A lack of Wizardry

I'd agree that this could be done better. Users don't need to join companies in Connections Cloud as their accounts are already created within a particular company. But it would be helpful to encourage users to flesh out their profiles, etc., both when they first open Connections and during subsequent days and weeks.

>Friends and @Mentions

I think you hit on an important issue here. I won't say that it's the kind of show-stopper that you portray it as being, but it is certainly too hard to connect with other people, especially outside your own company. Your proposed fix seems good. Essentially there needs to be the option for different levels of openness, and for settings at both the corporate and individual levels.

More later (I hope)...

Luis Benitez said...

Hi Gavin,

Just a quick follow up here since I had replied to you via a private message. There are many improvements coming to the external user experience . I'll send you some more details. Keep the feedback coming! I'm always looking for things that we can do to improve the product and/or don't forget to submit your ideas here: https://greenhouse.lotus.com/blogs/We047f6e69323_42ff_8db6_8bd4fe32a841