IBM Leads on Social Business, But UC Still Needs Go-to-Market Strategy
With the shift to social, IBM is once again leading the thought process on UC, but it has considerable work ahead of it to gain the position it should hold.
I spent a good part of last week at Lotusphere 2012 in Orlando, IBM's annual conference for their Lotus customers. While IBM made little mention of "unified communications", they have been a player in the UC market since before the term was coined, and years before Microsoft or Cisco entered the market. With the shift to social, structured around the IBM Connections product, IBM is once again leading the thought process on UC, but it has considerable work ahead of it to gain the position it should hold.
In a closed session for industry analysts, Mike Rhodin, SVP for IBM's Software Solutions Group, described how IBM chairman Sam Palmisano agreed to fund IBM's first forays into social business almost a decade ago, as he recognized that this was an important emerging area. Rhodin went on to point out that while the IT community may be confused about the impact of social on business, IBM is working with line of business managers in making their social business vision a reality.
IBM has recognized the direction of the market and has gone beyond UC to embracing social networking as the next major development in business, particularly where knowledge workers are concerned. During his Lotusphere keynote, Rhodin was joined on stage by Michael Chui, Senior Fellow at the McKinsey Global Institute, to discuss how work is changing and how leading-edge companies are starting to make use of social networking in both internal operations and in customer-facing activities. In response to the question of how enterprises should best start the shift to social in business, Mr. Chui responded that companies should "embed it in business processes". That sounds suspiciously like UCStrategies' definition of UC, "Communications integrated to optimize business processes".
While IBM has a great vision for social business, when it comes to UC, IBM is a prime example of a "thought leader" that became a "market laggard". IBM clearly has a vision that goes beyond "speeds and feeds", but they have effectively been left out of the UC conversation, and voice seems to be the weak link in IBM's vision. Unfortunately for IBM, the IP-PBX vendors have usurped the UC market and sold customers on the idea that the starting point for UC is an IP-PBX. This has left IBM out of the discussion, and in most cases they were not even at the table when the customer was talking about UC. (Note that we at UCStrategies have never made the IP PBX-to-UC assumption). IBM's Sametime Unified Telephony (SUT) architecture does not provide PBX functionality, and instead focuses on interoperability, using a server to interface the Sametime UC capability with virtually any TDM or IP PBX system. In the meantime, Microsoft clearly isn't gun shy about going after the PBX directly, and has had more success with its UC offerings.
IBM has had a love-hate relationship with the voice business since the introduction of its European-developed 2750 PBX in the mid-1970s and the purchase of Rolm Corp. in 1984, which was subsequently sold to Siemens in the early 1990s. While it is tempting to speculate as to whether IBM has an institutional aversion to voice based on past failures on that front, the more practical reason is that IBM's systems integration business does billions of dollars in business each year with Cisco and Avaya and they could not replace that revenue with UC any time soon.
Besides the decision to keep voice at arm's length, IBM has never invested sufficiently in the marketing, sales, channel recruitment/development and consultant programs to compete with the other UC players. Most recently, the company introduced the innovative Foundations UC/PBX product, only to withdraw it a year later.
The key for IBM will be how to take its innovative long-term vision and translate it into a practical go-to-market strategy. The company is way ahead of its UC competition in key areas such as recognizing the value of social networking and analytics, and in revolutionary ideas such as the probabilistic computing paradigm for working with unstructured data, which has been demonstrated in the ground-breaking Watson initiative.
If there was ever an example of need for an improved go-to-market strategy for UC and Social Business, IBM is it. That strategy refresh will need to start with a frank assessment of the company's strengths and opportunities and develop into a plan to build market awareness around the vision they embrace, and then support that with a sales plan that brings it to the customer. With all it has going for it, IBM should be doing a lot better in UC and will want to ensure that the UC lessons learned are applied in order to attain broad-based Social Business leadership.
The UC channel should keep an eye on the IBM go-to-market strategy. There may be some exciting new partnership opportunities.