IBM Connect 2017: Nurturing and Augmenting Cognitive Collaboration

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  March 1, 2017

I’ve attended IBM’s annual partner and user conferences for as long as I’ve been an IT industry analyst. While I’ve seen more than a few shifts in the company’s emphasis and strategic intent around staging these events, few reflected the kind of fundamental realignment that I witnessed at the Connect 2017 conference last week in San Francisco.

Why is that the case? Because of the evolution of IBM’s collaboration and application business. Remember that the company’s original focal point in this market centered on the platforms and applications it purchased by acquiring Lotus Software in 1995. Those solutions, including the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet and Lotus Notes and Domino collaborative client-server platform were widely used then, and enabled IBM to provide its enterprise customers alternatives to offerings from Microsoft and other competitors.

Interest in what was then called the Lotusphere conference peaked in 2000 and 2001, with both events attracting about 10,000 attendees. Its profile has lowered since then with around 2,000 attendees during the past two years. Why has IBM Connect attendance dwindled? Due to fundamental marketplace and workplace changes.

While IBM Lotus applications and platforms held a substantial portion of the market a decade of two ago, Microsoft solutions, such as Exchange and Office currently dominate workplace usage. At the same time, many organizations have focused increasing attention on collaboration platforms and processes in hopes of enhancing individual and work group productivity.

In 2013, Lotusphere was renamed Connect in concert with the rebranded IBM Collaboration Solutions (ICS) organization. This year’s Connect was the first time that the conference was hosted outside of Orlando, Florida.

It also marked the first anniversary of ICS GM Inhi Cho Suh who was introduced at the end of Connect 2016. Ms. Suh, who has been deeply involved in numerous IBM analytics efforts, including the purchase of The Weather Channel’s digital assets, spotlights the company’s emphasis on powering ICS with advanced analytics and cognitive capabilities.

Augmenting applications

Market researchers estimate that IBM’s ICS solutions remain a platform of choice for thousands of enterprises and developers, and tens of millions of workers. So how does IBM continue to serve the developers and customers that continue to invest substantially in its collaboration solutions? That is a question whose answer was apparent at Connect 2017, where an executive one-on-one meeting and two special analyst sessions helped me understand the answer.

The executive was Marc Pagnier, offering manager for IBM’s Cognitive Collaboration who also led a session on IBM Watson Work Services, a platform for developing cognitive functions for existing business applications. In essence, the need for such services is driven by workplace pain points, including information and work flow challenges, security issues, management requirements and user interface (UI) complexities.

IBM’s Watson Work Services is designed to “extend and enhance” existing applications by adding insights, taking actions and summarizing communications. They are designed to be integrated with and understand the context within specific domains and industries, and can also enable business applications to communicate and share information with one another.

In fact, ICS’ aims to use Watson Work Services to add cognitive capabilities across the applications in its portfolio, including Connections, Verse and Workspace. This approach will enable additive and common cognitive experiences across enterprises that should benefit individual employees, work groups and entire organizations.

I asked Pagnier, “So in the same way that the IBM Watson platform supports “augmented intelligence” (rather than artificial intelligence), Watson Work Services support augmented applications.”

“That’s exactly right,” he replied.

Watson Work Services also highlights a proactive shift in IBM’s use of augmented intelligence, with an increasing focus on utilizing Watson to cognitively enhance business collaboration processes and applications. IBM also is more open and has fewer limitations than many competitors in this space, offering a nurturing approach that should appeal to enterprise developers and their employers.

Cognitive collaboration today and tomorrow

The analyst sessions I found especially enlightening were a lunch and demo session with IBM business partners, and a tour of the IBM Research Innovation Lab in the Connect 2017 Solutions Expo.

The former event included demos by IBM partners, including Box, Cisco, Genband, OpenTopic, Pangenda, Rocket Software, TimeToAct and videoBIO. They covered a variety of business processes and use cases but not all incorporated specific cognitive features. For example, Box demoed a new Box Relay solution that will be available later in 2017. The solution was developed in concert with IBM as part of the alliance the companies announced last year, and is designed to simplify and automate tasks that are difficult to manage with email.

Other partners are using IBM’s cognitive and analytics technologies to deliver commercial solutions. For example, videoBIO is using Watson Developer Cloud APIs, including Tone Analyzer and Personality Insights to streamline job interviews, hiring and other human resources (HR) processes. OpenTopic has developed “Sia with IBM Watson” – a cognitively-enabled marketing bot that helps businesses gain deeper insights from their customer, marketing asset and target audience data.

The projects in the IBM Research Innovation Lab were more future-focused. Several utilized IBM Watson to parse, personalize and enhance users’ interactions with data sources, including email, textual content, group chat and messaging. Others leveraged cognitive technologies to improve workplace collaborations, like personal meeting planning and project management. Still others used IBM Watson to gather new insights from complex data, like a tool that observes comments about adverse drug reactions in social media content in order to enable remedial actions.

These events both emphasized how IBM is using its Watson platform and other cognitive resources to enhance and extend collaborations of virtually every kind. That should both comfort and excite the enterprises and developers that have made considerable investments in IBM’s ICS solutions.

Final analysis

Though I haven’t attended Connect (or Lotusphere) for several years, I came away from this event with a greater appreciation for and understanding of the practical ways in which IBM is using its Watson platform and other advanced analytics tools.

The company is often criticized, sometimes rightfully so, for its obsessive promotion of strategic technologies and initiatives, including Watson. That can make IBM appear to be a common example of the, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” business conundrum. But the fact is that when vendors are working at technology’s bleeding edge, as IBM often does, regular repetition is necessary to help people understand when potential solutions become not only possible but commonplace.

In that light, IBM Connect 2017 wasn’t merely a simplistic Watson promotional channel but an exercise demonstrating how cognitive technologies and tools are fundamentally improving and will continue to enhance a wide range of business processes and applications. The message for IBM’s Collaboration Solutions customers and developers wasn’t simply that the company has their back but that IBM is also showing them a way forward.

© 2017 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.