Orlando-bound: my perspective on the upcoming IBM Connect 2014 event

It’s a dark and dank early Friday morning in mid- to late-January, so as is the annual routine, I’m in a airport car headed for London Gatwick and onto the hopefully somewhat brighter climes of Orlando, Florida.

What takes me there?

I’d be surprised if you need to ask, but if you do, it’s IBM Connect – IBM’s premier Social Business, collaboration and workforce management conference –  the event formerly known and loved as Lotusphere.

IBM Connect 2014 banner

This is my tenth Lotusphere/Connect in all, with my first being a European event in Berlin in 2000 and then subsequent US trips in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009-14.

Whilst my attendance at these kinds of conferences has become much wider over the years (Le Web, SugarCon, Jive and Salesforce events to name but a few), the annual trip to the Swan and Dolphin is still a major highlight of the year.  The mix of business, technical, community and social is still a heady one, even with the continued evolution of the conference from being Notes/Domino-centric in the 90s and early-noughties, through additions such as Sametime/Quickplace/Portal/Workplace/Foundations in the mid-2000s, to the current focus on Social Business (Connections) over the past few years.  With the recent acquisition of Kenexa (the event is also tagged as Kenexa World Conference), the theme of Social Workforce will be a strong one this year too.

Dolphin and Swan

There is no doubt that the audience has changed massively over this time, with 2014 seeing the notable absence of a good number of those that have played a central role in the community (Bruce and Tom amongst many many others who will be sadly missed), however so far it is definitely the case of ‘the more it changes, the more it stays the same’.  Connect is still Lotusphere as far as I am concerned, and whilst some of the changes can be hard to accept, there are plenty more that are exciting and innovative.

IBM Connect 2013 Community

As for my role, the heady and incredibly busy days of IBM blogger programs, weekly podcasts and running the Lotusphere Blog are behind me, so this year’s event will be a calmer, more reflective affair.  With my new direction at Social 365 and continued developments at my primary customers, I’ll be approaching this event with a different focus, looking at the announcements, roadmaps and sessions from a more analytical perspective.

The Social Business marketplace is at an interesting inflection point right now. In many cases the technology is now mature, vendors are generally innovating a little slower than previously, and many organisations are taking a second (or in some cases, third) look at their investments and strategy in this area.  Since these solutions became available in 2007/8/9, many significant technology working practice shifts have taken place (and they continue to come thick and fast) – the ever increasing use of mobile devices, the shift toward the cloud, the continuing evolution of social media and the links between private and public networks, the migrations away from traditional on-premises messaging systems, the development of open standards for Social transactions and activity streams, the move from Human Resources to Talent Acquisition and Management and more.  These have meant that what was expected of a Social platform in 2014 and beyond is very different to in years gone by.  Organisations are looking for solutions that bridge the worlds of CRM, ERP, HR, messaging, team collaboration and social media.  That’s not to say that they necessarily want one platform that does it all, but Social Business reaches into all of those areas and therefore any products or platforms must have answers to questions being asked in all aspects of an organisation’s business rather than just from the perspective of internal collaboration and knowledge sharing.

IBM has a massive heritage in this space, and the strength of products such as Connections, Sametime, Domino and Portal is well acknowledged by Gartner and the like.  However, this space is more competitive than ever. Companies like Jive, Cisco, VMWare, Microsoft and SAP are driving their solutions forward.  The smaller niche players such as Box, Dropbox and Huddle are innovating fast.  Meanwhile, Salesforce are making such inroads (as they widen their scope from their position as CRM leaders) that they’ve just been given their own category in Paul Greenberg’s CRM Watchlist for 2014.  It will be fascinating to see how IBM takes their existing platforms, combines them with their Kenexa acquisition and their other investments under the SmartPlanet banner, and even throws in a little magic from Watson.  All the while, they need to be looking outside the walls and working on improved integration with social media and the established players in those other spaces I mentioned above.

I’m coming into IBM Connect with less knowledge of what’s coming up than ever before.  I have very little steer on what Connections Next will look like, or at the higher level, what IBM’s Social Business strategy for the next 12-24 months looks like.  That’s quite exciting…  In addition, changes in management always stir things up.  The switch from Alistair Rennie to Craig Hayman as GM of ICS (in addition to Craig’s existing role as head of Industry Solutions) is sure to be interesting to follow – I’m anticipating a change of style and possibly a more substantial strategy adjustment too.

So, all in all, I’m headed across the Atlantic with great expectations.  Hope I’ll see you there?  If not, look out for plenty of posts over the next few days…

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!