Looking forward at IBM Connect 2016

IBM’s collaboration strategy gets an overhaul at its annual collaboration conference, IBM Connect, which once again took place in Orlando, Florida in 2016, although this time at a new venue (the Hilton Orlando) for the first time in 10 years. After the uncertainty surrounding the 2015 event, IBM Connect 2016 felt like a refreshing new start, building upon many of the positives from last year in the agenda, and benefiting from the new perspective brought by a change in scenery.

That said, I wasn’t at all convinced by the event strapline – “Make every moment count” – which sounds a little depressing to me.. However, it makes more sense in the context of the broader marketing angle, which heavily focused on IBM’s cognitive investments to leverage the information available to us in a way that makes our jobs easier, and opens up new opportunities for us as individuals and as organisations. The opening general session was split into two distinct parts this year, the first addressing business leaders and focused on the big picture in terms of the way technology can help make a difference. The second – which was more demo-centric – clearly targeted the other half of the audience with an IT background – the Lotusphere faithful, if you like. I thought this split worked well, and was a good way to handle the challenge that the split audience presents. I know some of the technical attendees would have preferred to skip the first part altogether, though.

From a product strategy perspective, the biggest IBM collaboration strategy announcement related to a forthcoming new product, code-named Project Toscana. Still in development, this is a new collaboration app designed to support small teams – frankly, it’s IBM’s response to the success of new tools like Slack. It’s still very early days, but Toscana will support persistent, chat-like conversations, enabling emergent project or team communities which allow the sharing of files as well as collaborative note creation, via a web or mobile app. Packaging info is not yet formalised, but it’s likely that this will be available as a standalone product, as well as integrating tightly (and possibly being bundled) with the other IBM collaboration cloud products, Connections and Verse. IBM hopes to have a pre-release version available for limited availability trialing later in H1 2016.

Other major news included the availability of IBM Verse on-premise by the end of 2016. This is an important move for IBM; as much as it is keen to continue the growth of its cloud business, many customers are simply not (and may never be) ready to embrace cloud, and are pushing hard for an on-premise alternative. Though there is ongoing investment in Notes and Domino, it’s clear that IBM’s future for mail is in Verse with its modern UI and analytics-infused intelligence, and there has been frustration among on-premise customers that they’ve so far been left wanting.

On the subject of Verse, we also saw some new features that are being introduced in 2016, extending the personal assistant concept with Watson-based cognitive features that are designed to help you manage your work. The first of these analyses your received messages and identifies potential actions included within them, with auto-suggestions of potential resolutions, or alternatively allowing you to add them to your “Needs action” list. The second focuses on meeting conflicts, with Watson recommending which looks like the most valuable to attend, for example based on how long ago you accepted, or who else is attending (your boss, for example). Both of these are nice additions to the product, and provide a gentle but valuable introduction to the potential of intelligence-based tools in overcoming the email overload challenge.

The big news of the closing session was the introduction of Inhi Cho Suh as the new GM of IBM Collaboration Solutions – an appointment that has been well-received inside IBM, and that will hopefully have a positive impact on the direction of the business. In her previous role as VP within IBM’s analytics business, she was involved both with IBM’s recent partnership with Box, and also in the acquisition of the Weather Company’s product and technology businesses late last year. The Collaboration Solutions business has already seen a lot of re-organisation take place in the last 6 months, particularly with the shift to focusing on IBM’s capabilities in this space (think mail, social, analytics, mobile) rather than its products (Connections, Verse, Sametime, Notes, etc. etc.), and I hope Cho Suh will build on this with a clear strategy for growth going forward.

Overall, the event was very valuable for me – I was able to attend several customer sessions (which I will hopefully be able to follow up with a couple of case studies), and it’s a great way to gauge IBM’s customers’ response to its strategy and direction, as well as – of course – to find out what’s on the medium-term roadmap. I’m intending to dig a bit deeper with analysis on a few areas, notably Toscana and IBM’s external communities strategy, so stay tuned to The Advisor for more detail.

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