Whenever I visit a customer I have not met, I ask them if they are familiar with the IBM Redbooks series. If they have not, I give them a copy of the most recent CD of Lotus software related redbooks. For the past few years at least, the IBM Lotus Redbook team has had a pedestal at Lotusphere. This CD is, for me at least, the single most-usable giveaway on the showcase floor. For the customers that have never heard of the Redbooks, there is usually a huge smile across their faces as the look at the treasure trove of information available.
So you can imagine my surprise yesterday when I heard that the Lotus Software Redbook center in Cambridge, Massachusetts is dismantling its lab and shutting its doors. While other members of the IBM Software family will, at least for now, continue to have dedicated Redbook centers, the IBM Lotus Software community is losing theirs. There are some fundamental questions surrounding this decision.
Why is Lotus making this decision? Why do members of the Lotus Software family value the Redbooks so much? What impact will it really have on the community as their are many people out there who have never even heard of the Redbook collection? Is IBM Lotus Management missing the point on the intangible value of the Lotus Redbooks to the community? Are IBM Lotus Business partners only upset because they are losing a valuable marketing tool as their employees will no longer be able to be on the Redbook team? What other models are there to put together similar content?
Why Is IBM (Lotus) Making This Decision?
Apparently, this decision was not supposed to be public. Unfortunately, it was picked up on the blogs of Volker Weber in Germany, and Carl Tyler in the United States. So that cat is out of the bag. The writing seemed to be on the wall as the number of Lotus Redbook residencies has been dramatically dwindling. According to one source in IBM, this is happening because IBM Lotus Software General Manager Mike Rhodin does not see the value and real return on investment from the Redbooks. The cost to IBM to assemble a team in Cambridge is reported to be approximately $150,000 per Redbook, which are given away free. According to the source, Rhodin feels it would be better to have his own development team write any and all documentation for Lotus Software. There is also talk of moving the Redbook writing process to a Wiki environment (more about that later).
Why Do Members of the Lotus Software Community Value the Redbooks So Much?
There is a very simple reason why the Redbooks are of so much value to the Lotus Software community: for the most part, the documentation provided by the Lotus Software development team sucks. Now, before readers from IBM get bent out of joint for my using this word, let me explain. There have been many times where the documentation fails to deliver in terms of installation, configuration and management of Lotus Software. Don't believe me? Try to take someone in the Lotus Software development group who has never touched LEI and a System I (iSeries) machine. Ask them to install LEI on the System I using only the documentation provided with the product. Ask someone who has never touched the product to fully understand all of the administration options and settings for the Domino server. I used the word "sucks", but believe me you, the words I have heard from others struggling with the documentation have been much worse. If this was not the case, why did Chris Miller have to write his book on deployment of the Sametime Gateway?
The problem is that the development team lives in a cocoon. They are developing the software in the cocoon in a lab type environment. As such, they are too close to the software and too knowledgeable about it to understand the needs in the "real world". Bottom line, this frustrates customers. That is why many put greater faith in the Redbooks put together by a team assembled from the Business Partner community, IBMers, and others. These people are believed to bring real world perspective to the products, and a better understanding of the frustrations being experienced.
Will There Be a Real Impact?
This is a very good question. If so may customers are not familiar with the Redbooks collection, is the significant cost associated with bringing a team together really worth it? Is Mike Rhodin correct and is he really going to push the developers to write better documentation? Does the fact that there are so many blogs out there focusing on Lotus Technology really negate the need for Lotus specific Redbooks? For example, when I had to deploy TLS for a customer, I could not depend on the IBM provided documentation to make sure it was configured correctly. Instead, I found the necessary information on Chris Linfoot's blog. A Google search served me much better than a Redbook would have. So from this perspective, I did not even need a Redbook.
Will Intangible Value Be Lost?
For some, there is definitely an intangible value in brining together a team from around the world to one place. They spend the days together and work in the lab together. It helps build the global community in ways that cannot be done online. Or does it? The teams are small so there is not necessarily an extended type of bonding. You can see a better model of the extensive bonding that has occurred in the Lotus blogging community. So is there really an intangible value being lost? I would argue yes. There will be a perception that IBM is blowing off the Lotus Software Community. IBM cannot minimize this or try and spin it. Perception becomes people's reality. By trying to keep the news of the shutdown quiet, with no discussion of future plans plants seeds of doubt in peoples' minds. That is an intangible IBM has been struggling to get back over the past 4-5 years.
Why Does It Really Matter To Business Partners?
Let's be perfectly blunt here. Being on IBM Redbook teams gave business partners great visibility and virtually free advertising costs. IBM picked up all of the travel costs, with the partners taking care of salary. It also presented an incredible opprtunity for business partners to get hands on training with the newest technologies. Does anyone really belive that people will be able to get by with only the documentation for Lotus Connections? Will business partners really have the skillsets needed to support customers with the technologies? But business is business, and this is one way that business partners may feel, rightly or wrongly, they are being disrespected and cutoff from IBM.
Are There Other Models?
There has been talk of having Redbook wikis. This approach has pluses and minuses. The huge plus is to truly get global, real world input to products. But the loss of a centralized lab diminishes the ability for everybody to truly play with the software in a homogenous environment. Frankly, I have always considered wikis to be "poor man's collaboration", useful for organizations that do not have a collaborative software environment. They are also cumbersome to use, and you cannot take them offline and hold in your hand like a Redbook. There is no reason why the costs of Redbooks could not have been reduced through the use of virtual teams. Of course the trade-off is that you lose the 100% focus and attention of team members. Earlier I talked about the Lotus blogging community. This has been and continues to be a great resource, with one small problem" there is no peer-review process for the content. Occasionally, bloggers (including me) have been called on the carpet for an error in a post. But this only happens if people take the time to comment. As the number of blogs grow, the ability of people to read and comment diminishes. So blog solutions become "Drive at your own risk" or "Your mileage may vary" or "Do not try this at home." If IBM does not come up with a plan or open discussion of other models, it is hard to know what to think. IBM did a great job opening up the development process of Notes and Domino 8 for community comment. So what can they do as an equivalent for replacing the Redbooks?
It is hard to know how to really look at this news. There are 3 or more sides and perspectives to everything/ Am I happy this decision was made? No. Am I willing to listen to alternatives? Yes. Do I want Mike Rhodin and his management team to be more open about this? Absolutely. Meanwhile, I have a Quickr assessment document deliverable to write.
IBM Lotus Redbook Domain
Comment posted by Carl Tyler09/21/2007 02:41:32 PM
Perhaps Mike will respond to you through his blog?
Comment posted by jack dausman09/21/2007 03:08:20 PM
This is an insane decision by IBM/Lotus, and you've crafted a clear response to this impending disaster. Thanks. They've already dampened the education channel, now RedBooks.
What's the message? Domino may be growing, but there is no more need for technical publications? Maybe there is a glut of high-level professionals and the RedBooks are considered unnecessary? Or, perhaps Amazon has an overabundance on the technical subjects covered by the Lotus Redbooks?
I always tell Domino shops, "someone is going to read these Redbooks. It's either going to be someone in your department, or it's going to be the high-priced consultant that is hired to fix the problems created by not reading this documentation."
Comment posted by Mikkel Heisterberg09/21/2007 03:25:54 PM
You mean Mikes blog (http://www.mikerhodin.com) that hasn't been updated since Lotusphere 2007? It's really a joke that his blog site is still publicly available.
Comment posted by Mikkel Heisterberg09/21/2007 03:28:45 PM
As Jack points out there's a strange discontinuity between cancelling the Redbooks and the industry and the products requiring even more skilled professionels.
Comment posted by Barry Shapiro09/21/2007 04:59:08 PM
I have always valued the Redbooks as a real life document wriiten by people who actually use the product. What a shame it is for IBM/Lotus to be doing this as they offer more and more products. Well maybe the information is wrong and Mike or Ed will chime in and tell us the real is going on
Comment posted by Stuart McIntyre09/22/2007 05:00:49 PM
Chris, completely agree. This is a crazy decision, and one that will only have a negative impact on the Lotus community.
Therefore, I have taken the step of creating an online petition requesting signatures to the following text:
"We believe that ITSO Redbooks are an essential aid to the Lotus and Websphere Portal community, that more Lotus Redbooks are required for new products such as Notes/Domino8 Quickr and Connections, and that they should continue to be published in the future."
If you anyone wishes to sign the petition it can be found at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/lotusredbooks - if you agree with the statement please sign the petition and publicise this as much as possible via your blogs, online communities and personal relationships.
There must be a way to get the WPLC/Lotus management to reconsider this decision, might this be it? Thanks, Stuart
Comment posted by Stephan H. Wissel09/23/2007 12:35:16 AM
We can hope, that it is not as bad as it looks. Currently Lotus seems to regroup, changing development locations and perform some musical chairs. Once the dust settles Redbooks might be back in whatever form and/or location then.