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Jumping Into Tibbr Social Collaboration With Both Feet

IT services firm CGI skipped the pilot project and launched Tibco's Tibbr to 31,000 users at once.

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When the IT services firm CGI introduced Tibbr for social collaboration in October, it skipped the phase of having a pilot project or departmental rollout and launched the internal social network to 31,000 members of the organization at the same time.

"If you want to build a social network, it takes people in the social network," explained Eric Lebel, vice-president of knowledge management at CGI, an IT services firm based in Montreal. He provided an overview of the social collaboration initiative earlier this month in an interview along with Lorne Gorber, senior vice-president of global communications and investor relations. While Lebel is reinventing CGI's knowledge management infrastructure, Gorber wants to use the social network to replace the portal CGI uses for internal communication and collaboration.

"Of course, we knew there would be challenges trying to communicate with 31,000 people and explain to those 31,000 people why this made sense," Lebel said. "You don't have the typical lessons learned of some pilot project when you do it that way, but still it was a way to learn. We just sized the experiment bigger."

[ Does your social software get the job done? See Sparqlight Bets Social Workflow Beats 'Social Voyeurism'. ]

Rather than trying to create the perfect implementation from the start, CGI took an approach of "evolution, but with a clear vision," Leber said. In the agile development world, there's the concept of having "just enough organized process, or just enough discipline, and we wanted to bring some of that into this initiative," he said.

By launching the technology without any rigorous process, CGI allowed its people to experiment with the social environment and figure out what it was good for. There were also consequences, like the creation of new subjects for discussion without any formal taxonomy, leading to "a bit of a chaotic structure," Leber said. As things progressed, he appointed "gardeners" to prune dead-end discussion branches and "gradually consolidate topics," he said.

The enterprise social software product CGI chose, Tibbr, was created by Tibco and builds on Tibco's integration middleware strengths. For CGI, part of the attraction was that Tibco is a known and trusted enterprise software vendor. Also, CGI liked the approach of delivering social collaboration as a layer of functionality meant to be integrated with many other systems--and it saw the product's potential as a tool CGI could take into client engagements.

Gorber said it would be "quite presumptuous" for CGI to put the tool out to its clients as the perfect tool for their collaboration needs without having first proven the value itself.

CGI also had its own reasons for a systems revamp. "We've grown through a lot of acquisitions, a lot of integrations, and we've wound up with several different systems, several different approaches to collaboration," Gorber said. "We decided we'd like to have one common communication or collaboration platform and we'd pull in some of the best practices from around the world to make that happen."

Previously, CGI's primary collaboration platforms included the PeopleSoft portal and custom applications built on an early version of the open source framework now known as SocialEngine.

With the custom applications, built to support practice area communities within the consulting organization, Lebel said, "We did something interesting, but at that time the enterprise wasn't ready to embrace social collaboration. There was still a feeling that we could win business without collaborating globally." Now the business has changed, and staying competitive means getting everyone working together across boundaries of time, geography, and organizations.

CGI also uses SharePoint, primarily for "structured records management," Lebel said.

In CGI's new environment, Tibbr is replacing the SocialEngine applications and is also likely to replace the PeopleSoft portal over time. SharePoint will stay in the mix as a document management system that can be used in conjunction with Tibbr.

"Our Sharepoint 2010 implementation is kind of a sister to the Tibbr work, where they're going to be used in combination, one to the other," Lebel said. One aspect of the combination CGI is not satisfied with yet is search--currently, the Tibbr search function covers only Tibbr content, while CGI would really like to have one method of enterprise search that also covers SharePoint content.

Because Yammer offers a free version of its social collaboration service, some 500 to 600 CGI employees had started collaboration groups there using their email addresses, but it never got much beyond "chatting conversation," Lebel said. "After we brought in Tibbr, that gradually faded out. I think since March, there's been no more action on that front."

While Tibbr hasn't received as much attention as some other social software products, it may get more respect in the coming year. A just-released Forrester Research report on enterprise activity stream products classifies Tibbr as a leader, rivaling Yammer and's Chatter in the strength of its current offering and of its strategy (although not in market penetration).

Forrester's write-up on Tibbr begins with a bit of a backhanded compliment: "For a company with such a deep reputation for middleware, Tibco has managed to build a product with a very well-received interface." As evidence, the product is winning deals with organizations that are not Tibco middleware customers, according to the report. "Tibco provides all major deployment models (SaaS, private cloud, on-premises, and hybrid), but its vision really comes to life in the on-premises model. By leveraging Tibco middleware, customers can provide access to underlying line-of-business data and processes. Customers have begun to bring the vision to life with deep integrations into SAP and Oracle applications," reads the Forrester report.

For this particular ranking Forrester didn't look at social intranet products from Jive Software or IBM, which Forrester considers to be in a different category. Forrester classifies Tibbr as a more narrowly focused, supporting a particular style of social collaboration: an activity stream with updates from social connections as well as applications, and conversations around those posts.

Gorber said CGI consultants have done social software implementation work with Jive as well as IBM, but he perceived Jive's approach as being more like trying to recreate the portal model in the image of social networking. "The model seemed more flexible" around Tibbr with its streamlined focus on the activity stream, he said.

They also found Tibbr easy to use. "At the beginning, we were saying the technology is almost a commodity," Lebel said. "After seven months, we're finding it isn't true. Yes, you can say technology isn’t the most difficult part, but the technology must be a lever." People who've gotten used to Apple and Google tools, he continued, "take it for granted that it's now the de facto expectation that technology should be simple, efficient, productive--blah, blah, blah," and they notice when enterprise software doesn't measure up. "If that gap is too big, they just won't get into using the tool."

CGI also wants to take what it has learned about Tibbr and apply it to implementation work for its clients. At the time of our interview CGI hadn't actually landed contracts on that basis, but it was starting to garner interest. "We're making a push, but we've also seen in the last month or so some pull for this," Lebel said.

"We've been surprised at the level of proactive interest from government agencies, both in Canada and the U.S., where this might be part of a larger package," Gorber added. These agencies are looking for social software that meets their security standards, he said.

Internally, CGI is seeing "better visibility into what people are doing around the company," Gorber said. At the same time, there's a growing trend toward cutting off further development on isolated portals, or even shutting them down. Processes like responding to client requests for proposal inquiries are working better, and a key organizational group called the Global Operations Team has been able to move toward more continuous collaboration rather than relying so much on quarterly meetings.

Gorber also believes social collaboration has helped "humanize" the executive team by providing a channel where people can reach out directly to a leader such as the CIO. "That can sort of breed catchiness around the rest of the company," he said.

Lebel is working to develop more quantifiable metrics and key performance indicators for social collaboration. Email volume has not yet tapered off, but he expects it will as workers learn to give up their group email habits. CGI does see reducing mass emails as a goal, since it tends to be more efficient for employees to subscribe to the topics they are interested in following.

While almost 100% of the company participates in the social network, so far activity conforms to the rule of thumb that 1% contribute the majority of the content, 9% participate moderately, and 90% are mostly observers, Lebel said. "But over time, we think more and more the other 90 percent will get in the conversation."

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard and

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