Next week IBM is holding their annual conference focused on collaboration software. However, this year things are going to be a bit different.

The conference’s roots date back to the early 1990s in what was originally called Lotusphere. That event focused on products like Lotus Notes/Domino, Sametime, Quickplace and others. Over the years as IBM evolved their collaboration portfolio the conference added sessions around the more “IBMish” technologies like WebSphere Portal and DB2. These additions did not resonate well with the faithful Lotus customers and business partners. In 2013 the event was renamed IBM Connect and added the IBM Kenexa portfolio of Human Resource and Learning Management products (which they combine under the term, Smarter Workforce). This change was also not met with universal acceptance. With market momentum shifting away from IBM to competitors like Microsoft, Google and Salesforce, many people believed that last year (2015) would be the final incarnation of the conference. The event was much smaller than previous years (down from several hotels to just one), but to the joy of the faithful, was much more focused on the core collaboration technologies that customers and partners wanted to hear about. Due to the success of the 2015 event, IBM Connect is back for 2016, but for the first time in 20 years will not be held at the Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin resort, instead taking place at the Orlando Hilton. 

In my opinion, the change is a good thing. It’s time to break the ties to the past. It’s time for a reboot. With that in mind, here are the main areas I’d like to hear about at IBM Connect 2016:

Vision - First and foremost, I want to sit in the audience and pretend I have no previous knowledge and see if I leave with a clear understanding of how IBM helps personal productivity and team collaboration (both internal and external). I want to hear how the IBM collaboration tools fit into the larger IBM vision, not just how other parts of IBM (like Watson and BlueMix) are helping collaboration. How does collaboration fit into cognitive computing? How does collaboration fit into application development? Not the other way around. Microsoft has made their vision clear, "Reinvent productivity and business process in this mobile-first, cloud-first world”. I’d like to see something like that from IBM.

UPDATE: I know IBM's company vision revolves around the Cognitive-era, so I expect we'll be hearing a lot about this at Connect.  I'd previously mentioned on Twitter that to make the keynote more fun, we should all take a shot each time IBM says Cognitive. :-)

Customers - I want to hear new customer references. Big ones. Name brands. Not upgrades. New customers. Nothing proves success like customers.

Business Partners - One of the keys to Microsoft, Google, Salesforce and even Slack’s success is size and momentum of their business partner ecosystems. These vendors have a large number of companies building add-ons and integrations for their tools. Those vendors each have robust application catalogs/stores/marketplaces that enable people to extend their products with a few simple clicks (and maybe a credit card). In almost every product briefing I am in new products support “Exchange and Gmail” or “work with Office365”, but I very rarely hear IBM mentioned. I’d like to learn if IBM Verse and/or Connections has made any progress in these areas.

Platform - Similar to the point above about add-ons, what is IBM doing to help developers build stand-alone collaborative applications? The IBM application platform is BlueMix, I hope to leave with a good understanding of how developers use it to build collaborative applications. Vice versa, what components of IBM collaboration can be embedded into other applications? What incentive do developers have to build on IBM technologies versus Salesforce1, AWS, Azure, etc?

Investments - IBM’s largest investments these days are around data and analytics. Their various acquisitions and partnerships with companies like Twitter (which they should buy now since the stock is so low), The Weather Company, and Box are all part of a strategy to get their hands (well algorithms) on as much data as possible. That data is then fed into IBM Watson to hopefully derive insights which can help improve business outcomes. I’d like to see IBM show similar commitment to analyzing the vast amounts of employee interactions that take place in email, calendar, contacts, social networking, etc. Google (with Google Now), Microsoft (with Delve Organization Analytics), and Salesforce (with SalesforceIQ) are far ahead of IBM in these areas. Microsoft is on a productivity/collaboration buying spree lately, having acquired Accompli, LiveLoop, Sunrise, Wanderlust, VoloMetrix, MileIQ and most recently Talko. I’d like to see IBM show some sign of investment in collaboration.

Business Outcomes - One of the strengths that SAP, Oracle, Salesforce, Microsoft and Infor have is that their social tools are deeply integrated with their business process software (such as CRM, HR, ERP, Finance, Legal, etc). IBM has done a good job integrating social into Kenexa, but what are they doing in the other areas? How does IBM’s collaboration software help a sales team close a deal or a supply chain discuss a shipment? Will IBM be partnering in any of these areas? Acquiring? Building? Will IBM provide any templates for specific business processes and/or integrations? Similarly, what about industry verticals? IBM has always had strong sales/services around verticals, so how about having tailored collaboration offerings for healthcare, manufacturing, energy, media, etc.?

Innovation - When I think back over the last decade or so of the tours I've had of IBM Research's Innovation Labs, I can’t think of anything that has made it into shipping software, or even into the hands of the public to look at. Microsoft on the other hand releases new “garage" products all the time. Microsoft is also rapidly adding new products such as Delve, Sway, Planner (beta) and GigJam (beta) that truly change the way people work. IBM Verse has done a nice job at integrating frequent contacts, email and calendar on a single screen, but it’s time to do more than just make a better email client. I’d like to see IBM redefine the way we create content, share information, connect with colleagues/prospects, plan/attend meetings, organize and execute projects, etc. I’ve not seen any improvement in calendar nor IBM Activities in many years. That needs to change. For more on this topic, see my report: Collaboration Vendors Shaping the Future of Work

Marketing - Is IBM still going to push “A New Way To Work”? I’ve been pretty vocal with my dislike for this phrase, as I’ve not yet seen anything from IBM that really changes the way people work. They have improved email (which is a good thing) but I have yet to see how they change the way employees do their jobs. This is tied into innovation above. I also don't like the conference theme "Make every moment count". That seems like the type of thing you say when you're worried about the future. Perhaps I'll change my mind when I see how it is used at the show.

Let's Get Personal - Let’s stop wishing IBM would have a consumer play. IBM is not good at consumer offerings. They do not have a web search engine, map/navigation, news, social network or file/photo sharing service that people use in their personal lives. They failed miserably at trying to provide a public version of Verse for email. It’s time to lay this hope to rest. The B in IBM is business, they should focus there.


UPDATE - I didn't mention IoT.  I wonder what role IBM sees IoT playing in the future of collaboration.

Moving On

Let’s all go into this event with an open mind, and accept that the days of Lotusphere are over. The show is going to be smaller than in the past. It will be more like a customer conference, not an industry event. That’s ok, IBM needs to keep their current clients happy, but I don’t think a lot of new client prospects will be in attendance. Also let’s try and not put too much focus on personnel changes. Yes of course they matter, but they are not telltale signs of the apocalypse. I look forward to this new rebooted IBM Connect. I believe it will pay homage to the past, while forcing an awakening for the future. I hope IBM addresses the things I’ve mentioned above. Finally, I hope to see you there.


Feedback Please

Are there areas I’ve missed? Are there things you disagree with? Do my thoughts echo your own? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.