What's next for IBM’s enterprise social business

What's next for IBM’s enterprise social business

Enterprise Social Solutions GM shares thoughts on Project Toscana, cloud vs. on-premises and more at IBM Connect event


IBM Enterprise Social Solutions GM Jeff Schick emceed the company’s recent Connect conference in Orlando, where Big Blue updated customers and partners on its latest collaboration, mobile and cloud efforts, emphasizing a message of “Make Every Moment Count.”

Schick managed to squeeze in a few of those precious moments for reporters to follow up with him on the company’s direction in social and collaboration business, an operation that he’s been part of since 2006, including as the creator of the IBM Connections enterprise social platform.

Here’s a slightly condensed transcript of Schick’s thoughts on where IBM is headed in this area:

On IBM’s Collaboration portfolio

We have a very large on-premises business and a very fast growing cloud-based business. At this stage we have symmetry between the offerings: We have a mail offering on prem [currently Notes, but IBM Verse is headed there too], we have it in the cloud; we have a social network for work on premises, we also have that in the cloud.

In the 2014 timeframe we really focused ourselves from a development point of view on cloud first and continuous development and delivery. We have the opportunity then to make snapshots of those technologies and build them out as on-premises releases. Whereas in the cloud we will make updates every single week, on premises we’re good for probably a major release every year for each of the respective on-premises technologies that are part of the collaboration portfolio.

On cloud adoption by customers

Those organizations that are interested in cloud and think it is a viable option for their company, then they’re thinking of that in terms of mail, office productivity, social networking, meetings, chat. They’re thinking about that holistically.

We’re not seeing companies coming to the conclusion often that say we’re willing to put our mail there but not our chat. It’s usually, if I’m considering cloud for collaboration, I’m willing to do that across a set of collaboration capabilities…

Most people are not securing meeting services on premises any longer. It’s almost gone fully towards a cloud-based model. Mail is growing more so. Social networking, look, it started with some of the larger consumer-based providers….

From our vantage point at least for a long period of time there will be an on-premises because because of governance and compliance. That’s not to say we haven’t solved many of those challenges in the cloud, but their belief system and position is based upon their sensibilities. We have built and integrated compliance technologies in the cloud so that if a bank wanted to move their mail to the cloud, the regulatory stewardship that they have over that content is absolutely possible through archiving e-discovery capabilities that are available.

On video integration

We’ve bought two major video providers, one focused on streaming, another providing that as an on-demand capable service [and IBM has created a cloud video unit].

Right now in the unified communications space you have a diversity of video: You have one-on-one video, one-on-many video [that can behave like a group chat], a meeting that’s exploiting video to see people as you’re sharing a presentation, and then in some cases that presentation sharing could be spawned in lecture mode, and then you have live streaming.

The part of IBM that made the [video acquisitions] wasn’t necessarily the collaboration business, but I like it, I’m going to exploit it, I’m going to add it to offerings so that your social network can have streaming video as part of it. I really see that also happening as a statement of when you look at [IBM’s SoftLayer cloud platform] and the SoftLayer set of services you start to look at here are things that I can do through SoftLayer APIs to administer, manage...even in commerce, file management, video services.

That’s not unlike some of the moves you’re seeing made by Amazon in terms of the services they are making inherently as part of their cloud-based offering.

On Project Toscana conversation engine, demonstrated publicly for the first time at IBM Connect

Facebook has WhatsApp [which actually runs in SoftLayer] and then there’s Slack. These are tools that have emerged almost like text messaging apps that are focused on the conversation.

We think there’s a couple problems with that. One, people that we know that have been using Slack for any appreciable period of time feel like their information organization is totally kaput, like "Where did that conversation take place?" If you put artifacts in it "How do I get back to it?"

People are struggling with just the basic utility of "I’m having a conversation and how do I get back to the information, artifacts, content, decisions that were made when they still sit within the conversation framework?" We’ve solved that by if you put a file into the conversation we'll still store it within your content store where you would expect all the rest of your content to be.

toscana Bob Brown/NetworkWorld

IBM Enterprise Social Solutions GM Jeff Schick reveals Toscana, a conversation engine that could bolster Verse and other enterprise social tools

But we also felt that the creation was an important dimension of that. Certainly Slack has through APIs done some modicum of integration so from this conversation you can try to start a Google Doc, but Google actually stores it in their runtime, they don’t really let you ship it back…

So how some of these technologies are integrating the broader collaboration set is problematic. Somebody doesn’t need to just have a conversation, or just doesn’t need to create or share content. We need to do all of that, and that’s where we’re coming from with Toscana.

We’re injecting the expertise of cognitive, but we’re taking that conversation and acknowledging that the conversation becomes a destination for a discussion, where a community may not particularly be well served as that destination. There has to be better integration with other ways in which people want to interact, create or share…

The Toscana conversation engine itself is a capability not related to unified communication or your social network or your email. We’ve built a conversation engine. We didn’t just go and say, let’s take our Sametime chat engine and put a new user experience on it, because a chat engine doesn’t have the same characteristics as a conversation engine [that includes presence, content sharing and other capabilities].

I see it as an offering but that very much is complementary and enjoys the adjacencies of the other collaboration services. [IBM is still sorting out whether Toscana -- being tested internally now and entering beta mode for external customers in April -- will be embedded in releases of Verse, Connections, etc., offered separately, or both.]

On Watson AI integration with collaboration products

Watson represents a fairly substantial brand now across a diverse set of products. We have as early as the beginning of last year integrated corpuses of knowledge that were encoded within Watson and plugged them into an activity stream, [into mail] or where a discussion was taking place.

It’s all off the shelf for us now. The request-reply paradigm is now in place to support information transfer and questions. We’re making it easier and easier to do that. Today we showed the "tone analyzer" [for giving a sender a heads up about the sentiment of a message being crafted]. Watson is actually quite a few different things in cognitive, but in principal you’re doing work that previously only a person did.

On IBM Verse messaging product

Verse represents the first messaging system that is using true faceted search. We’re using Solr from Apache based upon Lucene. Faceted search allows us to inverse, basically to say gee, I remember I received something related to the budget and I think I received it within the last month and I know it was something with an attachment, and by adding the facets people are finding what they want in their mail in ways that were very tedious before…

Also, there’s Important To Me, which we thought was so important we made it pervasive across all of our collaboration capabilities. I don’t think about just date and time: If my boss, head of project management or development, or head of sales or marketing sends me something, those are some of the most important people in my life inside of work, but then at any given time you and I may be working so closely together that you pop up on Important To Me because of analytics…

Another example: I can go into an email or calendar invite and say, who’s on this email thread? I absolutely don’t know everyone who is in every meeting on every day [in such a big company as IBM]. Now when that email comes in I click on it and can get either an org chart or social graph of how everyone in the email is connected. There are a hundred things like that. There are improvements that you can make to mail and calendaring that are just so intuitive…

Any customer that is leveraging our cloud mail service has the opportunity to use Verse and we have a very large cloud mail service.

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