At an analyst briefing in London in late September, IBM described what seems like an increasingly hoary chestnut: social business – a term that tries to combine all the consumer-type aspects of social networking with all that which we associate with business.

As almost all there agreed (IBM and non-IBM), and despite Salesforce’s Marc Benioff with his continued and irrepressible enthusiasm for finding some distinctive link, the reality is that nearly all business actions involve some form of inter-personal interaction in order to make anything happen. Such interactions, which have been around as long as there has been commerce, do not need Facebook or Chatter or Twitter or similar software. They are a fact of life. Trying to add implied modernity by associating social networking with business to create ‘social business’ adds little to anyone’s understanding, however appealing it might seem to marketeers.

With the term largely relegated to ‘marketing-speak’ what IBM discussed under this inelegant umbrella had more substance. In effect three topics were examined:

  • The notion that improved models of collaboration are needed, especially those which take advantage of the mobility which the smartphone and tablet open up; traditional business tools were great for largely fixed location computing but are now seen by users to be inadequate when so much more can be achieved out of the pocket or the purse.
  • The desire to make workforce’s operate in ‘smarter’ ways that bring greater benefits to users and the enterprise; in its grandest manifestation this had IBM reinventing “what work means” so that technology assists staff to deliver what an enterprise wants.
  • Building on both of these was the use of advanced analytics, to exploit not only core enterprise data (as found in conventional systems of record) but also to add that which an enterprise can gather and use about customers, suppliers and employees from their use of these new technologies.

IBM presented such integration as potentially a new nirvana, both for itself and for its customers and their employers. In practice much seemed rather obvious, if dressed up in elegant sales-speak. Why would an enterprise not want to do as was described?

Finally there was a presentation of what was called “a Cloud-based Platform for Social Business”, which appeared to bring cloud and a rebranded Lotus Live together. IBM has what seems to be a neat and straightforward cloud solution that is competitively priced and scalable, though without the depth of application function that an Office365 delivers. What is attractive is that IBM does the IT systems heavy lifting, from the provisioning through backup and recovery and much in between within the price – though this is hardly original in a crowded cloud services market place. 

That IBM understands the IT and service implications is recognised by all, and one would think it should, therefore, be a commercial success. Except there was one small problem, which was recognised when the issue of US ownership of IBM was raised: the Patriot Act (and, by implication, the knock-on effect of Mr Snowden’s revelations). 

IBM is a US-registered company, and one of its largest customers is the ‘US Defense and Security Establishment’. Which would IBM choose to respect more if push came to shove, one monumental customer or a collection of many and much smaller customers using its Social Cloud? In the USA this might not matter. Outside the USA - especially in the likes of Canada, Europe, Brazil, India, China and elsewhere - the appeal of its Smart Cloud solution may be dimmed by the uncertainty about who can see what.

You may argue that this is a complete irrelevance, especially if businesses decide that pragmatism should rule and thereby accept the risk that some unidentified agency might secretly be looking over that organisation’s IT shoulder. Or, alternatively, Snowden may yet turn out to have undermined out-of-house cloud solutions owned by US-based companies that are offered outside the USA. If the latter turns out to apply, many large US companies (think Amazon, Microsoft and Oracle as well as IBM - to name only four) may yet find that their excellence of technology and product will not overcome the fear of what you do not know or, to borrow from Mr Rumsfeld, “... there are also unknown unknowns, things we do not know we don't know”.  The possible cost of the unknowable may yet become an obstacle to social cloud adoption.

By Charles Brett, principal analyst at Freeform Dynamics