Over the past few weeks I’ve been reflecting on my experience from IBM Connect 2016, working to synthesize what I saw, what I think about what IBM presented and how I believe it impacts our future. The conference on the whole was well done, with some changes from years past, a new venue, a new format for some of the sessions and of course some new themes for this new era. While the origins of Connect were based in the ideology of Social Business and attached to the annual Lotusphere conference (i.e. collaboration centric), this theme today is part of a broader one around digital transformation, with more of an emphasis on how technology is enabling businesses to do things differently. In some ways new and in some ways more efficiently and in some ways just better.
My original definition of Social Business was bringing a holistic approach to unifying our thinking about internal and external operations, thinking about the interplay between collaboration and marketing. To this extent there was an emphasis on creating and enabling ‘moments’ – something we have been working on for a while in the Customer Experience Design world and which my friend Brian Solis wrote about deeply in his exceptional new book, X. While I saw these sessions listed in the program, I unfortunately did not make it to any of them so I can’t comment much on that here. For a bit of fun I did go to a session offered by the IBM Design team which was a workshop on design thinking. Even that session was focused on employees rather than customers. They also had a great design and innovation lab setup where I got to speak directly to the product managers and designers behind the new products being showcased this year and yet to be announces products that may come in the future.
For those of you who know me and my work, you may recall my post on Social Business is Dead, or perhaps the one from my last Connect conference two years ago, Social Business isn’t Dead, It’s just _______ (hint, it’s largely Marketing though the concept is much deeper and more meaningful for those in the know). Regardless of the label or the meme you place on this era, the bottom line is that the pace of change in the market and the world is not only fast, it’s accelerating. As Darwin long ago said, it’s not just survival of the fittest, but about who is the quickest to adapt to a changing environment. This is the truth facing our world, our market and your company’s competitive position in it. Unfortunately, most larger organizations are not endowed with the sort of agility they need to thrive or perhaps even survive under these market conditions. But all hope is not lost here, in fact, it is in my view an even greater opportunity today then at the birth of the internet era for forward thinking organizations with courageous leadership to become market leaders.
This tone was set early in the opening general session with Jason Silva touting the wonders of science and the potential we have to solve some of the most perplexing problems the world faces today. It was rounded out perfectly in the closing session with Erik Wahl igniting the crowd’s sense of possibility and the inherent power they each have to create, to be beautiful, to be courageous and to make a difference. I’m not using this hyerpbole lightly here. It was truly a great kickoff and close to wrap up a very solid conference. One I hope that IBM continues to host separately from its other conferences and expands upon in new ways.
While some may feel righteous in criticizing the conference for not showing enough of a vision of the future, it is important to remember that this is first and foremost a sales and educational conference, not a peek into a far flung future where every organization is self managing, relying heavily on independent contractors and surrounded with augmented reality. The main focus of IBM Connect this year was backing up Ginny Rometty’s push forward into Cognitive Computing and demonstrating what that concept means in more tangible terms. In this regards, as someone who helped lead strategy on the global deployment of a large Enterprise Social Network, I was very encouraged by what I saw from their Project Toscana.
I wouldn’t quite call Project Toscana a dashboard view of your work, but that is the closest metaphor we have today. In my view it is more of a smart command center that integrates all forms of communications, updates and insights into a more efficiently actionable context. While we were only shown early demos and I didn’t see actual product, I’ve been told by my close friends at IBM that they are indeed using early alpha versions of these products and even have mobile versions in their hands. From what I understand about software development from my own entrepreneurial life, nothing in what they have provided is beyond the realm of possibility so I trust this will be more widely deployed and available in the not too distant future.
What is exponentially more valuable about their approach to collaboration is the deep empathy of the design thinking that is at the core of the new offering. What do I mean by this? Well, not only is the information displayed in contextual clusters of relevant information and urgency of actions required, but Watson is parsing through the information deluge to simplify what I think of as administrative/computing minutiae in dozens of ways which cumulatively add up multiple work weeks of regained productivity for every employee. This is in many ways closely associated with some of the things I have been working on with my Alynd software, though I didn’t quite see what I have been trying to build yet, so I am still optimistic about my chances, though they are getting closer.
How does it enable people to regain so much ‘wasted’ time? How often do you receive a request for the latest version of some document and not quite recall where it is stored? Not only does the software recognize it as a document request, now, using Watson, Project Toscana auto suggests several documents you may wish to include in your reply. This alone would save me, as someone who is not the most organized with my numerous digital files across multiple projects, at least a couple hours per week. Another example is auto suggest replies and auto suggest actions, like approving a request for time off, or for a budget increase. IBM calls this cognitive collaboration where my friend and colleague Alan Lepofsky refers to this as assisted collaboration (read his excellent recap post on Connect here). Whatever you call it, it is IMHO, finally delivering on the original promises of IT to deliver exponential productivity gains. More importantly, it enables your smartest employees to focus on contributing their real value to the company and not spending their time searching around their computers or reading through poorly worded overly long emails.
Perhaps even one day it will take a long post like this one I just wrote and boil it down to a more concise version enabling you to get a personalized version that emphasize the things you are most interested in learning instead of having to read it all the way through!
While IBM Connect did a great job of demonstrating the art of the possible over the next year, I would love it if IBM would invest in painting a picture of a more mid term future, of what collaboration and marketing will look like in 5-10 years with new organizational structures and the extensions of current trends. If you could see what I’ve been shown, you would be seriously impressed with the great work going on in their research labs being developed by great engineers that never get the benefit of a business focused narrative beyond explaining their functions and features. To this extent I want to propose to my friends at IBM that we invest in producing a video series on the future of work more in the spirit of Corning’s A Day Made of Glass videos. I know the futurists who really have a vision for a #NewWayToWork who would make the perfect team to produce it…
After returning home I joined fellow IBM Futurists Brian Moran and Dion Hinchcliffe for a recap show on Blab which I’ve been slowly working to edit down into component pieces. It’s truly a terrific conversation covering the conference itself, cognitive collaboration, privacy and so much more. If you have any questions about what I saw at the conference, or would like to share your thoughts, please do so in the comments below.
I’ve really been searching for some criticism or constructive feedback to provide, but I have to stretch. I’m not an unadulterated fan boy by any means, but I sincerely believe their long term approach to restructuring their products and their teams, especially now with the placement of Inhi Cho Shu as General Manager of Collaboration Solutions, looks like it is starting to pay off. Of course this hasn’t shown itself well in the financials yet, and I am not a market analyst per se, but I believe it will. They are hiring the right people (like friends Neville Hobson, Julio Fernandez, Alex de Carvalho, Andy Jankowski and others), bringing the right approach with their all star Design team and listening to the market (and people like me). That said, it is still hard to navigate the company to get things done and they still haven’t shaken off the perception of pitching vaporware and lacking details on product announcements, but they are making progress.
My bottom line is that I have found IBM to be full of smart people who care passionately about what they do and are striving to do the right things despite having the weight of a large company structure and an organizational culture that inhibits expedient progress in an increasingly fast moving market. For now, I’m happy to continue my relationship with them and hold onto the hope that my insights will positively influence their direction and the better outcomes we need in the market to advance society towards the #betterworld I have long envisioned.
Want to talk more? Come talk to me next week in Las Vegas while I am there for IBM Interconnect.
Disclosure: I am an IBM Futurist. One of the few who are participants in both their #NewWayToWork and #NewWayToEngage programs. They don’t pay me for this, but they do pay for my travel, take me out to nice dinners and feature me as an expert/futurist in their online media in exchange for my honest unfettered opinions and insights. They did pay to sponsor my Customer Experience podcast series, CXDNow. I also formerly represented Deloitte Consulting on the IBM Social Business Council. This has provided me a level of access to what they are dong today and what they are developing in their research labs.