I recently attended an IBM event about its new social business products and services. I was skeptical at first: I have seen another vendor’s “social enterprise” come and go, and although companies need to address customer use of social media, I don’t think “social” is the path businesses should take; it is more to do with collaboration. However, I quickly learned that IBM sees things rather differently. Its starting point is the need for companies to make their workforces smarter – something I agree with. Employees are the heart of a company; for example, according to my research into customer service and the agent desktop, not only do happy, empowered employees twice as often deliver superior customer experiences, but they also meet customer-related targets more often, and deliver or retain more satisfied and more loyal customers who spend more.

IBM joins up the two sides of the equation – a smarter workforce and superior customer experiences – with its platform for social business. Companies can access it through the IBM SmartCloud, a private cloud, on-premises or using a hybrid model. IBM sees SmartCloud for social business as a way to connect business users more efficiently and effectively. It supports business-grade secure messaging in the cloud (mail, calendar and contacts); mobile access to systems and information; file sharing; chat and project management; integration with traditional social media sites; online meetings; the ability to produce, edit, share and collaborate on documents, spreadsheets and presentations; and cloud-based mail archiving.

The platform itself consists of four components: social networking, social analytics, social content and social integration. Despite the heavy use of “social,” these components are not about what most of us think of as social media, and they certainly aren’t just about using traditional social media sites to network and analyzing posts on Twitter and Facebook. IBM uses the term in a much wider context, more closely aligned with sharing information, collaboration among employees, managing content to support customer-related activities and analyzing customer-related data (especially about customer interactions). Some of the components in the platform include: IBM Connections, IBM Notes and IBM Domino (Special Edition), IBM Sametime, IBM WebSphere Portal and IBM Web Content Manager.

These components underpin IBM’s Smarter Workforce initiatives and connect them to the exceptional customer experience. Smarter Workforce is made up of two main components: the IBM Employee Experience Suite and talent management applications from IBM Kenexa; the first takes care of strategic talent management and the second focuses on the operational side. Kenexa, which was acquired by IBM early this year, makes products that support end-to-end workforce management, including recruitment, assessment, onboarding, learning, performance management, compensation and employee surveying. The IBM Employee Experience Suite adds the social component to talent management, once more from a collaborative rather than a pure social media perspective. It supports social sourcing of talent, onboarding, learning, performance recognition and performance analytics, and includes mobile and video-based capabilities.

The exceptional customer experience concept involves supporting new IBM social businesscapabilities that take into account that customers now want to interact with companies through the channel of their choice and at the time of their choosing, and they expect responses to be personalized, in context and consistent across touch points. My research into the contact center in the cloud shows this is no easy task, as companies now must support an average of seven channels of communication, and almost every business unit except IT now interacts with customers. IBM supports these requirements with its Customer Experience Suite, which includes a range of capabilities focusing on understanding and interacting with the digital customer through mobile and social channels. It enables companies to create rich content, personalize responses, integrate content and applications, and ensure information is consistent across channels. The suite supports the mobile consumer and enables companies to build applications on any smart device and utilize capabilities such as location, connecting with business applications and raising notifications such as offers available near the user’s location. A new addition to the suite is available through IBM’s acquisition of Tealeaf, whereby companies can collect data on website and mobile usage and analyze it to improve the customer’s Web and mobile experiences.

At the event, and indeed at IBM BusinessConnect 2013, there were four constant themes: mobile, data, social and cloud. IBM sees these areas – especially mobile – as the drivers behind companies innovating in the ways they do business going forward. The IBM social business platform brings together several existing products as well as products it has acquired and makes them all more social and mobile. Ventana Research agrees on the importance of the four themes and adds analytics and collaboration to them as key technology trends. My research shows that companies need to provide superior customer service and experiences to increasingly digital and mobile consumers. I am not convinced that the best way to describe this is as social business. I see it more as collaborative business, as companies have to find ways to share data and information, have a better, more complete view of employee performance and customers, connect disconnected processes, and make information-driven decisions. Call it what you want, companies seeking to achieve these objectives should evaluate how this new offering from IBM can help with their efforts.