Exploring IBM's vision for enterprise collaboration

The company that first brought us groupware in the 1990s is now moving towards cognitive collaboration for differentiation, says IBM's new head of product management for collaboration, Ed Brill.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor
IBM's Ed Brill, VP of Social Collaboration Software

As the collaboration software industry goes through several major new shifts for the first time in a number of years -- the resurgence of lightweight messaging, the rise of app integration, collaborative analytics, and now the advent of interactive smart agents -- IBM, one of the pioneers of the computing industry, is poising itself to capitalize on several of these new trends in their own products.

As I noted in my round-up in April of the top intranet and collaboration platforms for 2016, IBM's main approach to collaboration today is based on the social business concepts that were derived by adapting the important lessons learned from consumer social networks to the more constrained and purposeful atmosphere of the enterprise world.

As most of us know now, the social model of collaboration is inherently more open, participative, and dynamic by employing consumer social networking-style user profiles, activity streams, and embedded media as the basis for connecting the workforce together and enabling interaction. This is represented well in IBM Connections, their flagship collaboration offering currently, where these capabilities form the foundation of how users find each other, have threaded conversations, work together on documents, and accomplish shared goals, all within an enterprise social network.

The IBM Collaboration Software Landscape: IBM Connections, Verse, Sametime, Notes, Domino, Project Toscana, IBM Watson

This 'big' social business approach is in relatively sharp contrast to today's renewed industry interest in lightweight, real-time messaging for collaboration, especially at the team level, while social collaboration is generally perceived as a more diverse and broad based activity across an enterprise.

Popular enterprise messaging services such as Slack and Hipchat from smaller, nimble vendors are the standard bearers at the moment for this type of enterprise-ready chat service, with offerings from more traditional vendors, such as Cisco Spark, trying to break into the excitement in this space. IBM even has an offering here, in their slightly long-in-the-tooth SameTime product, though it's almost more unified communications than chat.

Which brings up a key point, in that collaboration technology isn't necessarily high tech rocket science (excepting perhaps the new cognitive computing aspect, which we'll explore a bit below.) Thus the barrier to industry entry is low, and tool proliferation has been commonplace in both the collaboration and messaging spaces for the enterprise, which overlap quite a bit. You can see how this has happened in miniature to IBM itself in terms of their many current and legacy solutions depicted in the accompanying visual above, which is a sort of brief history of the different eras of digital collaboration.

So while there are many ways of digitally collaborating, it's an open question whether we actually want or need an individual product for each type of collaboration. Pointedly, the unified communications industry -- which was supposed to help address this very issue -- has been extremely slow (there's really no other way to say it) to expand and incorporate the newly emerging channels they actively support. As a result, there is a large overall trend in the industry to attempt to bring these different modes back together in other ways, either as software suites or app integrations in some way, to make our collaboration activities manageable and prevent the growing and pernicious problem of fragmentation.

IBM and the Future of Workforce Collaboration

All of this then sets the essential stage where IBM now finds itself today in the collaboration world: In 1) a crowded industry filled with a steady stream of new startups that are beginning to make the rules, 2) a rapidly evolving industry focus in areas of new promise, 3) an increasingly fragmented collaborative experience and 4) along with some formidable enterprise-class competitors, especially Microsoft and their newest collaboration strategy.

To understand how -- as one of the largest providers of enterprise collaboration solutions -- IBM is planning to navigate this challenging space, I recently sat down with the enterprise technology giant's new head of product management for collaboration, Ed Brill, to discuss how he is thinking about the evolution of the industry and IBM's place in it.

Dion: It seems there's an infection point in collaboration happening suddenly. Slack and targeted solutions like Mural for creative teams are showing that new ideas in the space have promise. Even Microsoft has become more innovative recently. What does IBM think about this and what's the collaboration vision for the company going forward?

Ed: We look at all this as an opportunity to create new mindshare as well as dominate in new areas, and put some excitement in existing products too. We are also looking to broaden the availability of IBM collaboration products to a wider audience. For example, we are experimenting with online digital purchase with credit card, letting customers try and buy, with both Connections and Verse.

At the same time, we have just as much interest in strategy as we try to figure out the right interfaces [for new forms of collaboration], industry partnerships, and the right go to market strategies. We've found that it's important to understand who we can team with, and where we can differentiate. For example, we have a relationship now with Docusign, who works with us as a partner and we're already integrated with Box, a very long term partnership.

We're also working on realizing the promise of cognitive collaboration, to help our customers become better informed, to understand who should they be engaged with, who are the experts, what conversations should they be involved in.

So it's the case we are very much at an inflection point. We meet with many organizations, and they are all trying to figure out how to best use collaboration to improve the individual workplace experience today.

Dion: What are your thoughts on the value of Slack-style app integration to collaboration?

Ed: That's what we have [code name] Project Toscana for. There are a few things that are fundamentally different in the way people are going to work going forward. People want a team-oriented collaborative approach, they also want help with their knowledge. We want to bring our intelligent bots and their cognitive approach to this problem, to create a work environment that better supports decisions.

We also want to be very open and become an ecosystem platform instead of just a fixed set of collaborative capabilities. It embodies IBM's new understanding of the importance of being open. Project Toscana [Dion: This previously top secret effort was demonstrated at IBM Connect recently but is still in alpha] should be in the market by the end-of-the-year. It is cloud native, can be purchased by credit card, has no on-premises version, and may eventually grow up into an large enterprise solution. It is certainly in the same space as Slack. We actually started the project when we thought about how to surface cognitive in teams.

Dion: So let's talk about IBM's vision for what you call cognitive collaboration.

Ed: The use cases that we're looking at [for cognitive collaboration] are the ability to leverage the full body of knowledge to get at the best solution to a problem.

An example in healthcare will illustrate the point: A doctor wants to work with a patient remotely, to talk about a particular issue that the patient is presenting with. They can use our collaboration solutions, which are includes a fully integrated stack with our video capabilities. The doctor and patient can then have a real-time meeting even though they're actually distributed, with IBM Watson listening to the conversation in the background, providing an intelligent platform that looks at the context of what's being discussed. Watson then finds a way to support the patient conversation in the background by providing just-in-time data and insight.

So the real use case is the collaborative, intelligent organization. We're using these scenarios as sort of a concept car, to establish the vision across IBM. We hoping to move quickly and that this is as little as 12 months out. First, we have to teach Watson how to be a useful contributor in these scenarios. And that's the work that's going on right now between the IBM collaboration team and the Watson team, to skill up the cognitive element. I believe it will be industry plays where this is particularly high value, such as healthcare, that can create unique value and that we know how to do better than anyone else. Watson Health is off trying to solve cancer, which is something very meaningful.

Dion: Let's talk a little bit about IBM Connections. your main collaboration platform.

Ed: At the end of day, what we're hearing about Connections from customers is that it's an effective engagement platform that helps with employee engagement, for sharing, and getting at information. Connections, when paired up with Verse or the Portal, is what people are adopting it for. Social adoption for engagement is where we're seeing traction for those products today. We have other collaboration products and a healthy loyal base around Notes and Domino. But cloud is where the growth is and where we have to compete going forward.

As for mobile collaboration, we're trying to inflect around mobile. We talk at lot about mobile-first at IBM. One way to look at it, however, is that it's just another delivery mechanism for collaboration. That's ultimately our goal: A completely seamless experience, without any degradation. Start on mobile and move to desktop, or start on desktop and move to mobile, and not have any issues. We want to take unique advantage of the devices too, with GPS, iBeacon, and push notifications, yet not treat it as a some separate thing.

Dion: What about post-mobile collaboration? Virtual and augmented reality? Any plans there?

Ed: That's more of a research exercise right now. I recently visited IBM's research center, however. They showed us an amazing experience, very much like the holodeck on the Star Trek Enterprise, with sensors and screens, and a massive visualization space. You can query it by voice, for example, to show all the companies that meet an acquisition criteria. It's amazing where we could take collaboration beyond a tablet next.

Dion: What else are you thinking about in terms of collaboration vision?

Ed: That's there's a lot of work ahead. There are a lot of tools in the environment today. I am drawing on my CIO experience here. The increasingly common business usage of apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, and Line goes to the point that people are going to use the app that best gets the job done. Right now, anybody can create a community on anything. That's part of the future: Going beyond people doing work only on our platform where we can see it being done. The best a company can do now is catch on and provide the most popular tools. That's because for many of us, a platform where everyone can do everything they need to do is simply not the world we live in yet.

There also remains real growth in some markets. The Connections space, is a place where people are actively inquiring and there is a lot of opportunity. For Verse, I believe we have a pipeline of 10x of what's actually deployed so there's a tremendous amount of interest, with people keep coming back to IBM, asking us what do you have now? What can we do differently today? We are looking at offering some things that are uniquely differentiated, such as collaborative experiences that we can surface in other places, wherever they are needed.

Dion: If you could say something directly to the market that you don't think is well understood about IBM's perspective on collaboration, what would it be?

Ed: The main thing is that we're doing new things that actually much of IBM is starting to do: Adopt a mindset around agile, and apply it to more than just software development, while really being market focused. We have perhaps been too siloed before, and now we are more consistently aligning around some core market facing efforts. We are also broadly embracing design thinking and and a design aesthetic for our products.

For us, clarity is the most important thing right now. The collaboration space is very complex at the moment. We have a startup of the week situation today and many new competitors. So clarity of vision and how we're going to get there is the objective. I am also hoping we'll get more awareness of what we've accomplished so far. For example, we've had Verse in market for a year and a lot of people still haven't heard about it or know what it does. Ultimately, we think carefully about our global reach and how to demonstrate a brand that has legs for decades. We understand it's a market that's now running really fast and we want to be at the front.

IBM's Sophisticated, Shifting Collaboration Space

The key take aways from this conversation, for me, was the determination to keep up with the moving targets in the industry. Staying still for IBM is simply not possible, not while remaining relevant to emerging customer needs. Ed actually talked a quite a bit about agility and how to get a large company like IBM to realize its vision for enterprise collaboration faster while more directly addressing customer needs today, not in a year or two.

The urgency is real, as industry data has repeatedly shown that there is up to 25% of untapped productivity in our workplace to be had, if we could only get better ways of working fully rolled out and used effectively. This, as I've long said, has serious competitive implications for many organizations, yet most companies have pursued a single tool or one suite approach.

However, it's also pretty clear that a one tool approach to collaboration is probably not viable at this point in the evolution of the space. So vendors like IBM are clearly finding value in assembling a larger portfolio of solutions, which in my experience often -- though not always -- works well together, that lets businesses bring together a rich set of solutions that meets their specific needs, work styles, and corporate culture.

In the end, however, Ed will need to differentiate IBM's solutions in a way that a startup can't easily do. It's certainly all the rage to add artificial intelligence capabilities to pre-existing solutions to make them more relevant -- though doing this will perhaps be overdone -- collaboration is a good candidate for AI support, with its rich tapestry of accumulated open knowledge that can be analyzed and mined for strategic effect. This almost certainly is why cognitive collaboration is a big component of IBM's go-forward view on the space, as it's a technology differentiator that go-getter startups in the space will likely have a harder time adding to their mix.

When I spoke to Ed a short while ago, he'd only been in his new position in charge of collaboration at IBM for about 8 weeks. I plan check-in with him early next year and see how things have evolved in this ever fast moving space.

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