IBM Opens Social Software Research Center in Cambridge

The personal and professional connections that people make over computer networks can be at least as important to business as the actual work they do using those networks. To capitalize on that fact, IBM is setting up a new Center for Social Software in Cambridge, MA, where researchers and product developers from inside and outside Big Blue will collaborate to explore new business applications of Web 2.0 technologies.

The center—whose formation will be announced today at a day-long, IBM-sponsored conference on new user interfaces at the MIT Media Lab—will be directed by Irene Greif, an IBM Fellow who currently heads the company’s Collaborative User Experience (CUE) group. CUE has long studied computer-supported collaboration from its base at the former Lotus Software headquarters in Kendall Square.

In an official announcement, IBM is billing the center as “the industry’s premier incubator for social technology,” a place where IBM insiders, customers, and academic partners will collaborate to “identify new business models, help discover the next killer Web 2.0 applications, and determine how and why people form viral communities and the implications they have on our daily lives.”

Irene Greif, IBMBut Greif says that for her group—which is best known, recently, for launching Many Eyes, an experimental platform for collaborative, Web-based data visualization that we chronicled last November—the center’s creation mainly represents an opportunity to have a bigger, more permanent impact on the actual products and services offered by the notoriously sprawling company.

“We’ve been doing the kind of research that the center will emphasize—scalable deployments of social software that allow us to do research on applications, viral take-off, and so on—for a number of years,” Greif says. “But we felt that the partnerships we had with the CIO’s office, the software group, and the consulting organization needed formalization in order to accelerate the impact we can have. The research is about watching people use technology as they do real work, and that means we need to have the resources to put features in place that would matter for helping people do real work.”

As an official research center within IBM, the group will be able to “look for funding and projects together, instead of having to draw in people on an ad hoc basis whenever we need help deploying and maintaining a project,” Greif says.

The social software center will bring in experts from IBM’s two biggest business divisions—the software and global business services groups—and will also host visiting scientists from the company’s research labs in Beijing, Haifa, New York, San Jose, and Tokyo. Whereas the CUE group hosts students only during the summer, the center will have funding for student interns throughout the academic year. And Greif says the center will also offer academic researchers access to data on the way business users employ social software. “We believe we’re sitting on a gold mine of data that could be enormously valuable to social scientists, business-school faculty, and other people looking to understand the impact of these technologies on business,” she says.

Another centerpiece of the new organization will be a corporate residency program that brings visitors from outside companies to Cambridge for three-month rotations, working with IBM researchers and university students on specific social computing projects.

Business news giant Dow Jones and the healthcare division of Thomson Reuters are the first two members of the residency program. “The particular relationship in both cases is around turning one of our venture research assets—the Many Eyes visualization system—into an offering that these customers can be interested in,” says Greif.

At the Media Lab conference today, IBM researchers will present papers on several of the social-software problems already under study inside the company, with a focus on advanced user interface issues such as 3-D tele-collaboration, gestural interfaces, brain-computer interfaces, haptic interfaces, and augmented reality. But the new center’s research will relate more closely to Web-based collaboration, including, according to the company’s announcement, “social discovery, social search and new scalable architectures for social software including cloud computing.”

Outsiders shouldn’t confuse the technology under study at the IBM center with MySpace- or Facebook-style social networking, Greif says. “I’ve been networking systematically for years and I do appreciate outside systems like LinkedIn,” she says. “But we’re talking about social software, not social networking. We are seeing a real change from people using social software in who knows whom, and how people find people. We have anecdote after anecdote about people who learn about colleagues they wouldn’t have learned about from using social software inside their companies. A lot of what our research is about is understanding the broad impact of this category of software.”

I asked Greif what she hopes IBM partners will take from their periods in residency at the new center. “A very different understanding of what this kind of environment can mean for work,” she answered. “And if they’re doing development with us, they can take home code. We’ll have appropriate IP agreements so that they will get those tangible assets to use in their companies.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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