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The Collaboration Buzz Is Back at IBM

I don't think I'd get much argument in suggesting that IBM stopped being a "cool" communications and collaboration company long, long ago... perhaps as far back as the time when "groupware" was all the buzz and Lotus Notes was synonymous with enterprise email. This isn't to say its Connections social network platform and Verse email service aren't solid workhorses... because they are. But they smack of traditionalism rather than the edginess needed for emerging digital workplaces.

Inhi Cho Suh, GM of Collaboration Solutions, IBM

But in one deft move, IBM has landed itself back in the communications and collaboration limelight -- "dead center," as Inhi Cho Suh, GM of Collaboration Solutions at IBM, told No Jitter in a recent interview. "And we have a real desire to be competitive."

The move, as covered on No Jitter late last month, came in the form of a multiphase partnership agreement with Cisco. Beginning this fall, the companies will integrate their respective collaboration platforms (IBM's Connections and Verse and Cisco's Spark and WebEx) and, over time, infuse those with intelligence delivered by the IBM Watson advanced analytics platform. Cognitive APIs from Watson and bots will work in tandem to serve up insights in context from data contained within applications as well as elsewhere in the enterprise.

If all that seems complicated, it should. And whether IBM and Cisco can pull it all off isn't a certainty.

"Meaningful conversations happen in context of business problems you want to solve, and most business problems are by industry," Suh pointed out. Elaborating with a healthcare example, she continued:

So if I want to have a set of communications for the hospital that's providing the care, the family of the patient, and maybe the clinical researchers that are working on the treatments, then I need the ability to do so in a secure but open way across all these parties involved, and then create bots that are intelligent and knowledgeable about the vocabulary of healthcare. Just think about how tough that is to solve, and then do it not just for healthcare but for insurance and financial services and banking... and do it for retail.

IBM has the industry knowledge and the cognitive know-how, while Cisco brings its expertise in real-time communications and video to bear. However, as they converge advanced analytics and cognitive learning with real-time collaboration, IBM and Cisco are mapping unchartered territory.

"The space of conversation channels and coordinating meaningful relationships and curating content and applying analytics and cognitive bots... this space is brand new. It's emerging. People are just talking about it. We -- 'we' meaning the collective niche vendors as well as big platform vendors -- haven't even delivered sufficiently. We haven't even begun to deliver capabilities," Suh said.

But deliver they -- and, like Suh, I mean "they" in the universal sense -- will. The nature of work is changing, and analytics-fueled, bot-assisted communications and collaboration will become the norm.

IBM and Cisco will make a formidable team, no doubt, but it'll be fun to see who else steps into this emerging space. Microsoft won't be left behind, to be sure, and gains its own brand of leverage here with its acquisition of the data-rich and analytically inclined LinkedIn. And Suh said she's on the watch for the rise of specialty and niche companies focused on artificial intelligence and cognitive computing, and expects to see more and more coopetition around open APIs that facilitate integration and access calls between platforms.

"The whole landscape," as she said, "is going to change quite a bit."

Indeed, it already is -- IBM, after all, is suddenly in the thick of things once again.

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