Lotusphere 2011 – my review in 6 posts 3) The Keynotes

Post 1 covered the stats and the take-aways from Lotusphere 2011.  Post 2 discussed IBM’s new Social Business message.

So, we’re onto the Keynotes…

It’s hard to discuss the Opening General Session at Lotusphere 2011 without rehashing arguments and points that others have already made.  Suffice to say that of all the Lotuspheres I’ve attended (and this was the 8th in total), this was by some margin the worst OGS session that I have yet sat through.

In the past I have suggested that IBM needs to tell a story in its major event keynotes rather than just detail IBM’s strategy pitch, or to jump from product to product (see ‘What’s the story, Lotus?‘ from May 2009).  

I stand by that post, e.g.:

At no stage did Lotus ever tell the story behind its products, why they’re relevant to an organisation, what difference do they make to a knowledge worker’s life, how they work together to make a user’s work more enjoyable or a department more efficient…  Where are the ‘day in the life’ demos, the captivating success stories, the ‘wow’ moments, the creation of desire and excitement amongst attendees, viewers or readers?

The Lotusphere 2011 OGS was almost bizarre.  I remember sitting in the Bloggers Den looking around at the other blogger’s and attendees, exchanging glances of ‘what’s going on?’, ‘are we really seeing this?’ and ‘how long is left?’!  I also glanced across at the front row of the audience, filled with IBM execs, VIPs and press, and saw Blackberry devices being checked, conversations taking place and general boredom setting in:

Are we having fun yet?

As others have detailed, the OGS started so well – a good performance by the band, then Alistair welcoming everyone including the 500 students in attendance, then Kevin Spacey giving us his experience on collaboration.  All really involving and exciting to watch.  Then we had the pitch by Blackberry around the Playbook – so-so, and understandable that they would want to talk about the device at an event they are sponsoring.  But then we had the panels.  Oh my goodness!  I want to say so much about these – so so wrong.  Scripted, tele-prompted (why??), uncomfortable seats (so lots of shuffling), monotone voices, too long on each answer, no real mention of how IBM Social Business products and solutions are making a difference to the organisations, just vague waffly discussions of why Social might be important in the next five years.  Nothing for technical attendees, nothing for students, nothing for anybody to hang onto at all.  And just as the first panel finished after about 25 minutes, another one started.  I saw so many tweets and live blog comments that said something along the lines of ‘oh no they’re bringing out more chairs, its another panel ;-(‘.  And this was just more of the same…

So, what about the panels?  For me they have no place in the OGS, no place at all.  Can you imagine Steve Jobs inviting a panel of CEOs onto the stage at an Apple keynote and talking from scripts for 25 minutes, let alone for two sets of similar conversations?  Of course not!  He would never let it happen!  Sure, he might have one or two come on individually for 2-3 minutes to say their piece (revolving around the Apple announcement and products naturally), he might have snappy recorded interviews that can be interlinked into his presentation, but never a panel.  [As an aside, I think IBM would benefit from asking ‘What would Steve do?‘ on a regular basis – not to copy Apple’s strategy, but to copy their style and attitude towards business people as consumers…]

In summary, the panels were dire, awful, dull.  if IBM wanted to do panel discussions on the Social message, they should have been saved for the Symposium over at the Yacht and Beach.

Then we got to two of the real positives of the OGS.  Doug came on, and recognised that folks back stage had been reading the tweets regarding the panels, and promised to push on and get to the demos.  Awesome.  IBM listening to attendees in real-time.  That’s social!  Then the new demo-man came on, Brian.  Brian did a tremendous job of the demos – high-energy, engaging, clear explanations of what he was showing – just what was needed.  Ron and Suzanne did their usual professional jobs, and then Alistair closed off the session.  Much better.

But… where was the story??  Sure the demos were engaging (and as the oasis in the desert of panel discussion, so should they have been!), but I felt as if they were too bitty, too fast and too jumpy – at very few points were products mentioned, and no real description was given as to how the solutions could be built or when.  The demos didn’t really relate back to any narrative – no discussion of how they would make people or organisations more social, no mention of a roadmap for the next 3-5 years.  The demos were fine, but only that.  For me there was no wow, no distinctive message as to how IBM was going to build on the collaboration infrastructure that so many attendees already have in place to take them to the next level of Social Business.  A massive opportunity lost, I felt.

So that was Monday’s OGS keynote in a nutshell.  One last point, it overran, again.  Meaning that later sessions were delayed, and attendees were actually kicked out of the OGS hall, interrupting conversations and killing atmosphere.  A plea of Lotusphere 2012, please schedule in some overrun for the OGS – it always happens, and don’t schedule any sessions in the OGS hall that morning.  That would leave attendees to make conversation and to savour the OGS experience rather than being hustled out of the hall at high speed.

This year there were actually 4 keynotes in total, Business Development Day (Sunday), the OGS and then two more sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday.  I would love to say that the OGS was the only letdown, but I’d be lying.  The BDD day general session for business partners also featured an over-long panel, was missing a guest speaker or any kind of guest appearance (e.g. like the artist of last year), and generally did not hit the heights.  Tuesday’s keynote was better than the OGS, but not by much.  I was looking forward to hearing John Iwata’s talk, but even then it was a very low-key keynote, no real razzmatazz at all.  Wednesday’s saved the week for me – Andrew McAfee got things back on track and the subsequent content reflected the vision of Social Business well – I covered this in Post 2.

So all in all, I was utterly under-whelmed by the keynotes.  Knowing folks like Suzanne Livingstone and Chris Reckling as I do, it really pains me to be so negative about the massive amount of work that they do towards these sessions.  However, this year at Lotusphere, someone got it very wrong.  The timing was off, the content badly chosen, the atmosphere neglected, the students ignored, the loyal Notes/Domino techies left out.  It was notable how many times there were pauses for applause in the script that never came, someone clearly misunderstood the audience.  Whilst I completely recognise that this was always going to be a ‘different’ Lotusphere, with few announcements and the need to tell the Social Business story, there was no excuse for delivering a total of 7-8 hours of such poorly targeted sessions.  

What’s more, this was the year of the streaming content (great work by the way Kathy et al!), and thus was the chance to broadcast the keynote sessions to a far wider set of attendees than ever before.  So, lights, camera, action…. Zzzz.  Another massive opportunity missed.

Lastly, and I know I’m straying into personal territory here, which is always dangerous… For me, Mike Rhodin has no place on the main stage at Lotusphere.  For a great number of loyal Lotusphere attendees, the Workplace product set that Mike owned represents the nadir of our relationship with IBM.  I recognise that Mike has a very important role within IBM Software Group, and that includes a relationship with the Lotus brand, but really IBM, I’m sure you could find other execs and presenters that would raise the atmosphere in the room rather than, well…

So, back to the positive.  From the tweets I’ve seen about LCTY events that have taken place so far, the reaction to main sessions seems to be much more positive.  I hope that IBM learns from Lotusphere 2011 and works towards much more story-led and involving keynotes in the future.

The series:
1) The Stats and the take-aways
2) The Social Business message
3) The Keynotes
4) The people of Lotusphere
5) The social side
6) The future of Lotusphere
7) Where do we go from here?

Stuart McIntyre is a Senior Strategist at Fostering Community Limited. He curates a number of product-focused news sites, is a lapsed podcaster, founded the Social Connections user group and regularly speaks at conferences and events. This blog represents his own slightly-eccentric and usually-controversial opinions!