Probably nowhere in the world has the strange state that ECM technology finds itself in been on better display than it was at IBM’s World of Watson Conference (WoW) recently in Las Vegas. It is clear that valuable mindshare has been ceded to other technologies, that momentum has been lost, and there are poor perceptions and challenges that the ECM industry must address all around. Paradoxically, the opportunity and potential for future growth and success is also well within reach! All this was on display in living color for the price of a conference badge and a willingness to subject oneself to Las Vegas for a few days.
Before I get to ECM’s tale, a few thoughts on WoW in general (I’m pretty sure IBM doesn’t want this TLA to catch hold, but it is just too hard to resist). As you would expect, WoW was a non-stop showcase of IBM’s dreams and aspirations for all the things it is throwing under the Watson and Cognitive Computing banner. IBM made a point to highlight commercial Watson successes (to quell the critics who say Watson is technology with limited near term business purposes), alongside the myriad futuristic concept use cases that are not yet completely viable. Many of the concepts are truly inspiring ideas that would not just line the pockets of big business, but actually improve the lives of people around the world. So, I give kudos to IBM for the boldness of its bet on Watson and its aspirations to build a smarter planet. If they pull it off, delivering both the altruistic use cases and commercial success to stem the tide of their long running revenue decline, they will have earned the right to be a proud “Big Blue” once again.
ECM’s tale is not so straightforward. For me, it started at a pre-conference event where a Watson “Marketecture” Chart was shown and ECM found itself relegated to that dreaded spot at the bottom of the chart – basically the plumbing in the basement of a fancy new home, far away and out of sight of the guests (aka customer). Later in the session, and totally out of context in the Watson and Cognitive lovefest, an IBM Case Manager and Box integration was briefly and awkwardly highlighted. And such is the state of ECM at IBM and the world at large. One minute forgotten, the next given a brief chance in the spotlight, just in case somebody is still interested.
The paradox continued as the work that IBM is doing with Box was on display in many places throughout the conference. I found the new offerings linking IBM’s traditional ECM portfolio with Box compelling, along with soon to be launched Box Relay (a lightweight easy to use collaborative workflow tool built from scratch on Box). In addition, Box’s role as a content repository for use cases such as external collaboration were well articulated and the point was made repeatedly that Box is complementary to, and not a replacement for, IBM’s flagship ECM products. Still, as a veteran of these IBM Conferences, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that Box got more attention in one Conference than all of IBM’s own repositories combined across the last several of these events.
IBM’s ECM Team wouldn’t go to the basement quietly. The availability of the main ECM stack as a single tenant, managed service in the Cloud with SaaS licensing is real and having some limited commercial success. They also have much improved Mobile Clients and just maybe can start to stem the tide of ceding ECM centric mobile use cases to other technologies. They also highlighted Datacap Insights which seems to have broken the code on extracting intelligence from large/complex documents such as mortgage files and medical records. And this is real Cognitive computing with broad applicability across myriad high value use cases … Watson folks are you listening? Finally, they did a bit of their own futuristic positioning discussing how ECM stack offerings could transform into plug and play services as part of another IBM high flying product – Bluemix. Cloud/SaaS, Mobile, Cognitive, Collaborative, new modular deployment options … seems to check a lot of boxes (pun intended).
Still the relevancy topic looms large. How IBM can focus on analytics and cognitive strategies while giving little credence to the part of its portfolio that has the best chance of unlocking the knowledge in documents and other unstructured content necessary for those efforts to succeed holistically? This baffles me! And outside of a few, often sparsely attended backroom breakout sessions, the many and varied customer successes based on the traditional ECM portfolio were never mentioned. Meanwhile, Watson Robots dotted the hallways ready to engage in conversation on the topic of your choosing. I would have liked to have asked one of the robots what ECM is, but I’m guessing the answer to that question has never been programmed into their knowledge base!
Managing Partner – UNDRSTND Group