By Gloria Lombardi

“We need to understand what we do not know, and where we can rely upon a cognitive engine to help us do our job better.” EdBrill

Ed Brill is Vice President, Offering Management and Design, at IBM Collaboration Solutions. He is responsible for the business and technical strategy for IBM solutions focused on the future of work such as IBM Verse and Connections. He helps to drive cultural change and business transformation around the adoption of social engagement tools. Brill is also focused on expanding IBM’s reach and innovation through collaboration and partnerships, such as with Cisco and Box. He is the author of ‘Opting In: Lessons in Social Business’, an Amazon bestseller.

Brill tells MARGINALIA how IBM is building continuing momentum for its social business offerings as enterprises around the world work to usher in the next era of collaboration with IBM Verse and Connections. IBM is also expanding the capabilities of its cognitive computing portfolio with new Watson innovations, such as ‘Watson Workspace’, that are expected to change the way organisations operate, communicate, and share business insights across teams.

Gloria Lombardi: When we think of the IBM social business offerings, IBM Verse and Connections come immediately to mind. What are their latest capabilities?

Ed Brill: IBM Verse has been on the market for about two years. We have continually improved the browser-based email experience, which is designed around less clutter and more clarity within your inbox. Verse works on-premises as well as in the cloud. In recent months, we delivered what we call the cognitive inbox.

The ‘cognitive inbox’ helps people understand where they get significant amount of emails from and helps them manage that flow of emails. The idea is to surface the priorities from their collaboration environment based on analytics of language and the context of their actions – actions like sharing a file, reading a blog post, or sending messages to particular people. The goal is to help workers discover the knowledge and actions that are required to support decisions within an organisation.

With regards to Connections, the social engagement platform for enterprises, we have just released version 6.0. The new release focuses on a re-invented start-up experience that we call Orient Me. In ‘Orient Me’ the platform helps the employee identify knowledge and discover experts within their company. Similarly to Verse, it uses cognitive computing technology to help the user navigate their environment. The solutions takes a look at the employee’s network, and the communities that they are part of. It then makes recommendations on content that would be most useful to them based on who they are interacting with on a regular basis, and the activity levels of certain communities. The overall goal is to highlight information and knowledge within a networked organisation that the worker may not otherwise discover on their own.

IBM Verse and Connections can of course talk to each other to allow for an integrated experience.In Verse, for example, the user can share content directly into and out of Connections communities – so embedding an existing file in an email message takes just a single click. In turn, if the user is reading an email that they think it should go to a public blog, and again it takes only a single click to share.

GL: How can a company make the most of these collaborative solutions?

EB: We encourage the use of business-based design to drive the decisions around how to implement collaborative tools inside an organisation.

There must be a clear understanding of what business outcomes the company wants to drive. For example, at IBM itself, when we set up our collaborative tools it was all around achieving innovation, speed, agility, and improving employee engagement.

Once the goals are set, then it becomes clear what the use cases should be and what they should not be. But the company also needs to provide employees with the necessary training to help them use solutions for best results.

When this is done properly, the benefits multiply. A good example comes from a housing and estate company in the UK. IBM Connections is enabling 20,000 people inside the organisation to surface the best ideas fairly quickly. It has been a major change for their corporate culture. But with the tools in the cloud, which are available to workers anytime, anywhere, they can now be more responsive and innovative.

GL: It’s almost impossible to discuss IBM and the future of work without mentioning ‘Watson’; how do AI and Watson enable new ways of working?

CognitiveEB: IBM Watson can help in the context of work in two ways at least.

One is expertise. The technology helps people identify information that will contribute to better decision making, as well as identify the people with the right knowledge — the experts — to bring to a project and other activities.

But we also expect Watson to help with action identification and automated processing. People should not have to deal with mundane tasks – for example, checking people’s availability and scheduling a convenient meeting. There’s a lot of moving parts in such a task, but it’s basic admin. Watson will be able to easily do all that. It’s able to understand cues from the environment, such as the size of the meeting; Watson will be smart about the arrangements, rather than merely triggering a workflow.

We already see the potential of Watson within IBM itself. For example, we use an automated processing bot, called ‘Chip’, which helps new employees to answer questions about working at the company. If a new starter needs to find and understand a particular policy they can ask the bot instead of going to their manager or peers. This makes sure the most accurate information is made available at any time without having to depend on a human being who might or might not know the best answer.

GL: When machines collaborate with us, and perform tasks on our behalf, just like Chip is doing at IBM, what attitudes should we develop towards the technology?

ED: We need to understand what we don’t know, and where we can rely upon intelligent automation to help us do our job better.

We should not feel frightened or intimidated by the power of cognitive machines. It is of course a learning process, which we all have to go through, as artificial intelligence continues to take off. It’s about being ready to allow a ‘thinking’ machine to be part of our working lives. And to recognise that the machine can bring us greater insight and advantages, making us better and faster in doing what we need to do.

GL: What is the next big innovation that we can expect from IBM?

WAtsonWED: We’re working on a new solution called Watson Workspace, which will be available within the next quarter. Workspace is a conversational interface on top of the cognitive engine, designed for team sharing or project-oriented work. It is a lightweight and democratic solution that people can easily activate to share knowledge and information.

Workspace is fully integrated with Watson as well as with a whole network of IBM partners. It is very conversational. The interface is much more casual than the structure that we provide with Connections. So anybody can get into it and just start chatting, integrating files or videos, or whatever they want into that conversational space.

It promises to be an engaging experience. While enterprise social networks such as Connections typically see 10 to 20% of the users actively participating, with Watson Workspace we expect that figure to rise to around 50%.

GL: You have just mentioned the integration with IBM partners. You’ve been investing heavily in your partner ecosystem to help bring all the best technologies to the market and improve innovation across the world.

EB: Yes, we recognise that IBM clients are trying to be adaptive to the best technologies, which they are exposed to in their consumer lives. So rather than assuming that we need to build every solution ourselves, we say, ‘Let’s integrate with Box or Cisco or other players to deliver the best solutions together’. This allows us to offer a fully integrated experience, which is uniquely available to IBM clients who no longer have just to buy IBM, but who can also take advantage of all the other best-in-class solutions.

GL: You are also the author of “Opting In: Lessons in Social Business”, an Amazon bestseller. What’s your best piece of social business advice to MARGINALIA readers?

Opting inEB: To me, the main lesson has always been about transparency. Being open in the way in which we interact with others through social networks is a critical way to build trust and credibility. The more we sound authentic, the more we are real to the people who we engage.

This transparency is serving me well. It’s creating thousands of relationships across the world with people who might not necessarily feel like they would interact with an executive at IBM. Instead I am just Ed Brill. Someone can tweet me or connect with me on Linkedin all the day long and I will respond, because they know who I am and what I stand for.