IBM #Think2020 Day 2: Smarter Business is apparently only about AI

This is now my third day attending IBM’s online Think 2020 conference: I attended the analyst preview on Monday, then the first day of the conference yesterday. We started the day with Mark Foster, SVP of IBM Services, giving a keynote on building resilient and smarter businesses. He pointed out that we are in uncertain times, and many companies are still figuring out whether to freeze new initiatives, or take advantage of this disruption to build smarter businesses that will be more competitive as we emerge from the pandemic. This message coming from a large software/services vendor is a bit self-serving, since they are probably seeing this quarter’s sales swirling down the drain, but I happen to agree with him: this is the time to be bold with digital transformation. He referred to what can be done with new technologies as “business process re-engineering on steroids”, and said that it’s more important than ever to build more intelligent processes to run our organizations. Resistance to change is at a particular low point, except (in my experience) at the executive level: workers and managers are embracing the new ways of doing things, from virtual experiences to bots, although they may be hampered somewhat by skittish executives that think that change at a time of disruption is too risky, while holding the purse strings of that change.

He had a discussion with Svein Tore Holsether, CEO of Yara, a chemical company with a primary business in nitrogen crop fertilizers. They also building informational platforms for sustainable farming, and providing apps such as a hyper-local farm weather app in India, since factors such as temperature and rainfall can vary greatly due to microclimates. The current pandemic means that they can no longer have their usual meetings with farmers — apparently a million visits per year — but they are moving to virtual meetings to ensure that the farmers still have what the need to maximize their crop yields.

Foster was then joined by Carol Chen, VP of Global Lubricants Marketing at Shell. She talked about the specific needs of the mining industry for one of their new initiatives, leveraging the ability to aggregate data from multiple sources — many of them IoT — to make better decisions, such as predictive maintenance on equipment fleets. This allows the decisions about a mining operation to be made from a digital twin in the home office, rather than just by on-site operators who may not have the broader context: this improves decision quality and local safety.

He then talked to Michael Lindsey, Chief Transformation and Strategy Officer at PepsiCo North America, with a focus on their Frito-Lay operations. This operation has a huge fleet, controlling the supply chain from the potato farms to the store. Competition has driven them to have a much broader range of products, in terms of content and flavors, to maintain their 90%+ penetration into the American household market. Previously, any change would have been driven from their head office, moving out to the fringes in a waterfall model. They now have several agile teams based on IBM’s Garage Methodology that are more distributed, taking input from field associates to know what it needed at each point in the supply chain, driving need from the store shelves back to the production chain. The pandemic crisis means that they have had to move their daily/weekly team meetings online, but that has actually made them more inclusive by not requiring everyone to be in the same place. They have also had to adjust the delivery end of their supply chains in order to keep up the need for their products: based on my Facebook feed, there are a lot of people out there eating snacks at home, fueling a Frito-Lay boom.

Rob Thomas, SVP of IBM Cloud & Data Platform, gave a keynote on how AI and automation is changing how companies work. Some of this was a repeat from what we saw in the analyst preview, plus some interviews with customers including Mirco Bharpalania, Head of Data & Analytics at Lufthansa, and Mallory Freeman, Director of Data Science and Machine Learning in the Advanced Analytics Group at UPS. In both cases, they are using the huge amount of data that they collect — about airplanes and packages, respectively — to provide better insights into their operations, and perform optimization to improve scheduling and logistics.

He was then joined by Melissa Molstad, Director of Common Platforms, Stata Strategy & Vendor Relations at PayPal. She spoke primarily about their AI-driven chatbots, with the virtual assistants handling 1.4M conversations per month. This relieves the load on customer service agents, especially for simple and common queries, which is especially helpful now that they have moved their customer service to distributed home-based work.

He discussed AIOps, which was already announced yesterday by Arvind Krishna; I posted a bit about that in yesterday’s post including some screenshots from a demo that we saw at the analyst preview on Monday. They inserted the video of Jessica Rockwood, VP of Development for Hybrid Multicloud Management, giving the same demo that we saw on Monday, worthwhile watching if you want to hear the entire narrative behind the screenshots.

Thomas’ last interview segment was with Aaron Levie, CEO of Box, and Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, both ecosystem partners of IBM. Interesting that they chose to interview Slack rather than use it as an engagement channel for the conference attendees. ¯_(ツ)_/¯  They both had interesting things to add on how work is changing with the push to remote cloud-based work, and the pressures on their companies for helping a lot of customers to move to cloud-based collaboration all at once. There seems to be a general agreement (I also agree) that work is never going back to exactly how it was before, even when there is no longer a threat from the pandemic. We are learning new ways of working, and also learning that things that companies thought could not be done effectively — like work from home — actually work pretty well. Companies that embrace the changes and take advantage of the disruption can jump ahead on their digital transformation timeline by a couple of years. One of them quoted Roy Amara’s adage that “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”; as distributed work methods, automation and the supporting technology get a foothold now, they will have profound changes on how work will be done in the future. This is not going to be about which organizations have the most money to spend: it will hinge on the ability and will to embrace AI and automation to remake intelligent end-to-end processes. Software vendors will need to accept the fact that customers want to do best-of-breed assembly of services from different vendors, meaning that the vendors that integrate into a standard fabric are going to do much better in the long run.

I switched over to the industry/customer channel to hear a conversation between Donovan Roos, VP of Enterprise Automation at US Bank, and Monique Ouellette, VP of Global Digital Workplace Solutions at IBM. She invited us at the beginning to submit questions, so this may have been one of the few sessions that has not been prerecorded, although they never seemed to take any audience questions so I’m not sure. Certainly much lower audio and video quality than most of the prerecorded sessions. US Bank has implemented Watson AI-driven chatbots for internal and external service requests, and has greatly reduced wait times for requests where a chatbot can assist with self-service rather than waiting for a live agent. Roos mentioned that they really make use of the IBM-curated content that comes as part of the Watson platform, and many of the issues are resolved without even hitting internal knowledge bases. Like many other banks during the current crisis, they have had to scale up their ability to process small business loans; although he had some interesting things to mention about how they scaled up their customer service operations using AI chatbots, I would also be interested to hear how they have scaled up the back-end processes. He did mention that you need to clean up your business processes first before starting to apply AI, but no specifics.

I stayed on the industry channel for a presentation on AI in insurance by Sandeep Bajaj, CIO of Everest Re Group. I do quite a bit of work with insurance companies as a technical strategist/architect so have some good insights into how their business works, and Bajaj started with the very accurate statement that insurance is an information-driven industry, both in the sense of standard business information, but also IoT and telematics especially for vehicle and P&C coverage. This provides great opportunities for better insights and decisions based on AI that leverages that data. He believes that AI is no longer optional in insurance because of the many factors and data sources involved in decisions. He did discuss the necessity to review and improve your business processes to find opportunities for AI: it’s not a silver bullet, but needs to have relatively clean processes to start with — same message that we heard from US Bank in the previous presentation. Everest reviewed some of their underwriting processes and split the automation opportunities between robotic process automation and AI, although I would have thought that using them together, as well as other automation technologies, could provide a better solution. They used an incremental approach, which let them see results sooner and feed back initial results into ongoing development. One side benefit is that they now capture much more of the unstructured information from each submission, whereas previously they would only capture the information entered for those submissions that led to business; this allows them to target their marketing and pricing accordingly. They’re starting to use AI-driven processes for claims first notice of loss (FNOL is a classic claims problem) in addition to underwriting, and are seeing operational efficiency improvements as well as better accuracy and time to market. Looking ahead, he sees that AI is here to stay in their organization since it’s providing proven value. Really good case study; worth watching if you’re in the insurance business and want to see how AI can be applied effectively.

That’s it for me at IBM Think 2020, and I’ve really noticed a laser focus on AI and cloud at this event. I was hoping to see more of the automation portfolio, such as process modeling, process management, robotic process automation, decision management and even content management, but it’s as if they don’t exist.

IBM had to pivot to a virtual format relatively quickly since they already had a huge in-person conference scheduled for this time, but they could have done better both for content and format given the resources that they have available to pour into this event. Everyone is learning from this experience of being forced to move events online, and the smaller companies are (not surprisingly) much more agile in adapting to this new normal. I’ll be at the virtual Appian World next week, then will write an initial post on virtual conference best — and worst — practices that I’ve seen over the five events that I’ve attended recently. In the weeks following that, I’ll be attending Signavio Live, PegaWorld iNspire and DecisionCAMP, so will have a chance to add on any new things that I see in those events.

IBM #Think2020 Day 1: needs improvement

The first day of IBM’s online conference Think 2020 kicked off with a keynote by CEO Arvind Krishna on enterprise technology for digital transformation. He’s new to the position of CEO, but has decades of history at IBM, including heading IBM Research and, most recently, the Cloud and Cognitive Computing group. He sees hybrid cloud and AI as the key technologies for enterprises to move forward, and was joined by Rajeev Ronanki, Chief Digital Officer at Anthem, a US healthcare provider, discussing what they’re doing with AI to harness data and provide better insights. Anthem is using Red Hat OpenShift containerization that allows them to manage their AI “supply chain” effectively, working with technology partners to integrate capabilities.

Krishna announced AIOps, which infuses Watson AI into mission-critical IT operations, providing predictions, recommendations and automation to allow IT to get ahead of problems, and resolve them quickly. We had a quick demo of this yesterday during the analyst preview, and it looks pretty interesting: integrating trouble notifications into a Slack channel, then providing recommendations on actions based on previous similar incidents:

He finished up with an announcement about their new cloud satellite, and edge and telco solutions for cloud platforms. This enables development of future 5G/edge applications that will change how enterprises work internally and with their customers. As our last several weeks of work-from-home has taught us, better public cloud connectivity can make a huge difference in how well a company can continue to do business in times of disruption; in the future, we won’t require a disruption to push us to a distributed workforce.

There was a brief interview with Michelle Peluso, CMO, on how IBM has pivoted to focus on what their customers need: managing during the crisis, preparing for recovery, and enabling transformation along the way. Cloud and AI play a big part of this, with hybrid cloud providing supply chain resiliency, and AI to better adapt to changing circumstances and handle customer engagement. I completely agree with one of her key points: things are not just going back to normal after this crisis, but this is forcing a re-think of how we do business and how things work. Smart companies are accelerating their digital transformation right now, using this disruption as a trigger. I wrote a bit more about this on a guest post on the Trisotech blog recently, and included many of my comments in a webinar that I did for Signavio.

The next session was on scaling innovation at speed with hybrid cloud, featuring IBM President Jim Whitehurst, with a focus on how this can provide the level of agility and resiliency needed at any time, but especially now. Their OpenShift-based hybrid cloud platform will run across any of the major cloud providers, as well as on premise. He announced a technology preview of a cloud marketplace for Red Hat OpenShift-based applications, and had a discussion with Vishant Vora, CTO at Vodafone Idea, India’s largest telecom provider, on how they are building infrastructure for low-latency applications. The session finished up with Hillery Hunter, CTO of IBM Cloud, talking about their public cloud infrastructure: although their cloud platform will run on any vendor’s cloud infrastructure, they believe that their own cloud architecture has some advantages for mission-critical applications. She gave us a few more details about the IBM Cloud Satellite that Arvind Krishna had mentioned in his keynote: a distributed cloud that allows you to run workloads where it makes sense, with simplified and consolidated deployment and monitoring options. They have security and privacy controls built in for different industries, and currently have offerings such as a financial services-ready public cloud environment.

I tuned in briefly to an IDC analyst talking about the new CEO agenda, although targeted at IBM business partners; then a few minutes with the chat between IBM’s past CEO Ginny Rometty and will.i.am. I skipped Amal Clooney‘s talk — she’s brilliant, but there are hours of online video of other presentations that she has made that are likely very similar. If I had been in the audience at a live event, I wouldn’t have walked out of these, but they did not hold my interest enough to watch the virtual versions. Definitely virtual conferences need to be more engaging and offer more targeted content: I attend tech vendor conferences for information about their technology and how their customers are using it, not to hear philanthropic rap singers and international human rights lawyers.

The last session that I attended was on reducing operational cost and ensuring supply chain resiliency, introduced by Kareen Yusuf, General Manager of AI applications. He spoke about the importance of building intelligence into systems using AI, both for managing work in flight through end-to-end visibility, and providing insights on transactions and data. The remainder of the session was a panel hosted by Amber Armstrong, CMO of AI applications, featuring Jonathan Wright who heads up cognitive process re-engineering in supply chains for IBM Global Business Services, Jon Young of Telstra, and Joe Harvey of Southern Company. Telstra (a telecom company) and Southern Company (an energy company) have both seen supply chain disruptions due to the pandemic crisis, but have intelligent supply chain and asset management solutions in place that have allowed them to adapt quickly. IBM Maximo, a long-time asset management product, has been supercharged with IoT data and AI to help reduce downtime and increase asset utilization. This was an interesting panel, but really was just three five-minute interviews with no interaction between the panelists, and no audience questions. If you want to see an example of a much more engaging panel in a virtual conference, check out the one that I covered two weeks ago at CamundaCon Live.

The sessions ran from 11am-3pm in my time zone, with replays starting at 7pm (well, they’re all technically replays because everything was pre-recorded). That’s a much smaller number of sessions than I expected, with many IBM products not really covered, such as the automation products that I normally focus on. I even took a lengthy break in the middle when I didn’t see any sessions that interested me, so only watched about 90 minutes of content. Today was really all cloud and AI, interspersed with some IBM promotional videos, although a few of the sessions tomorrow look more promising.

As I’ve mentioned over the past few weeks of virtual conferences, I don’t like pre-recorded sessions: they just don’t have the same feel as live presentations. To IBM’s credit, they used the fact that they were all pre-recorded to add captions in five or six different languages, making the sessions (which were all presented in English) more accessible to those who speak other languages or who have hearing impairments. The platform is pretty glitchy on mobile: I was trying to watch the video on my tablet while using my computer for blogging and looking up references, but there were a number of problems with changing streams that forced me to move back to desktop video for periods of time. The single-threaded chat stream was completely unusable, with 4,500 people simultaneously typing “Hi from Tulsa” or “you are amazing” (directed to the speaker, presumably).

IBM #Think2020 analyst preview

I had an early look at IBM’s virtual Think conference by attending the analyst preview today, although I will need to embargo the announcements until they are officially released at the main event tomorrow. The day kicked off with a welcome from Harriet Fryman, VP of Analyst Relations, followed by a welcome from IBM President Jim Whitehurst before the first presentation from Mark Foster, SVP of Services, on building resilient and smarter businesses. Foster led with the need for innovative and intelligent workflow automation, and a view of end-to-end processes, and how work patterns are changing and will continuing to change as we emerge from the current pandemic crisis.

Whitehurst returned to discuss their offerings in hybrid cloud environments, including both the platforms and the applications that run on those platforms. There’s no doubt that every company right now is laser-focused on the need for cloud environments, with many workforces being distributed to a work-from-home model. IBM offers Cloud Paks, containerized software solutions to get organizations up and running quickly. Red Hat OpenShift is a big part of their strategy for cloud.

Hillery Hunter, CTO and VP of Cloud Infrastructure, followed on with more details on the IBM cloud. She doubled down on their commitment to open source, and to how they have hardened open source cloud tools for enterprise readiness. If enterprises want to be flexible, scalable and resilient, they need to move their core business operations to the public cloud, and IBM hopes to provide the platform for them to do that. This should not just be lift-and-shift from on-premise systems, but this is an opportunity to modernize systems and operations. The impacts of COVID-19 have shown the cracks in many companies’ mission-critical capabilities and infrastructure, and the smart ones will already be finding ways to push towards more modern cloud platforms to allow them to weather business disruptions and gain a competitive edge in the future.

Rob Thomas, SVP of IBM Cloud and Data Platform, gave a presentation on AI and automation, and how they are changing the way that organizations work. By infusing AI into workflows, companies can outperform their competitors by 165% in terms of revenue growth and productivity, plus improve their ability to innovate and manage change. For example, in a very short time, they’ve deployed Watson Assistant to field questions about COVID-19 using information published by the CDC and other sources. Watson Anywhere combines with their Cloud Pak for Data to allow Watson AI to be applied to any of your data sources. He finished with a reminder of the “AI Ladder” which is basically a roadmap for adding operationalized AI.

The final session was with Dario Gil, Director of IBM Research. IBM has been an incredible source of computing research over 75 years, and employs 3,000 researchers in 19 locations. Some of this research is around the systems for high-performance computing, including their support for the open source Linux community. Other research is around AI, having moved from narrow AI to broader multi-domain AI, with more general AI with improved learning and autonomy in the future. They are also investing in quantum computing research, and he discussed this convergence of bits, neurons and qubits for things such as AI-assisted programming and accelerated discovery.

This was all pre-recorded presentations, which is not as compelling as live video, and there was no true discussion platform or even live Q&A; these are the two common complaints that I am having with many of the virtual conferences. I’m expecting that the next two days of the main IBM Think event will be more of the same format. I’ll be tuning in for some of the sessions of the main event, starting with CEO Arvind Krishna tomorrow morning.