Jan 25, 2012

IBM's Social Business Gambit

Although I did not attend the IBM Lotusphere 2012 and Connect 2012 events in Orlando last week, I managed to wake up early enough (I'm in California) to watch the Opening General Session (OGS) and Keynote live-streams. These main "messaging" sessions are IBM's opportunity to tell its customer and partner base how it sees the current communication/collaboration/productivity IT market and what IBM plans to do about it. Largely the message includes a resolute - and not unexpected - re-branding strategy that shifts the discussion away from old themes to contemporary technology for business trends. Once again IBM is trying to keep at the front of the Business IT pack with the hope of driving the market and minds of business buyers. The idea is to start a new game, Social Business, and 2012 is the season opening.

The Gambit
gam·bit  (gmbt)
1. An opening in chess in which a minor piece, or pieces, usually a pawn, is offered in exchange for a favorable position.
2. A maneuver, stratagem, or ploy, especially one used at an initial stage.
3. A remark intended to open a conversation.
It's clear that IBM has spent a lot of time considering its Social Business marketing strategy and how to dovetail a re-branding of the increasingly thread-worn Lotus marque. That consideration is showing up as a more focused IBM that is betting on a branding trifecta:
  1. Social: more seamless integration of social tools with productivity tools and enterprise information
  2. Mobile: consistent access and experience on different devices
  3. Connect: information and people through a range of communication and collaboration experience
Not only is this a message customers (i.e., buyers) can hang their hat on, but it's competitively targeted at IBM's rival's weaknesses. This is most evident when looking at Microsoft's 2011 strategy that has been marked by an anemic social message, the inability to disrupt the mobile market (although WM 7.5 is getting some good press traction), and siloed productivity tools.

IBM's gambit includes the sacrificing of the Lotus brand; although not dead yet, it's been relegated to the back-seat with IBM Connections at the driver's seat. Notes Mail, Quickr, and Domino applications are now playing second fiddle to Social Messaging, Content Analytics, and XPages in the IBM Social Business strategy. It's as if IBM went to the spa and came out looking like a teenager.

This isn't all bad but the proof obviously comes in how the strategy attracts customers and if the follow-through and technology meet IBM's ambition. As one attendee tweeted during the OGS: "The geek aspect of all this is great. But will non-geeks embrace the cultural implications of all this?" (@duffbert).

Raising Bars
No matter though, IBM is confident. The teenage awkwardness we've seen at previous Lotuspheres has moved into young adulthood. Although there were some rocky moments - especially around the Websphere versus everything else message - this is not the clumsy and seemingly confused IBM of the past. IBM raised many bars at this year's events that are likely to have a bolstering impact on its customer and partner base. Overall the quality level of the streamed sessions was a step up from events over the last several years.

I am pleased that IBM finally invested in live streaming of important sessions. The insular, "you gotta be here to get it" attitude, was quite frankly insulting, especially coming from a company that sold communications products. It's as if IBM really got what it means to be social. Not only that but also the quality of the IBM web sites for Lotusphere and Connect were easy to navigate and use.

IBM also brought in A-list guest speakers. Instead of parading in partner and customer honchos, although there were some, IBM also invited key industry thinkers and figures such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Guy Kawasaki, Manoj Saxsena (OK he's IBM but it's Watson), Bill Taylor (FAST Company). These talks gave the event a world-class feeling with TED-style lectures that inspired discussion on how new technology in business is changing how we do our work.

Lastly, as always, the IBM press and analyst team worked the media. And although there was the usual coverage with press announcements, twittering, and blog posts (ah hem), IBM managed to also get some well-timed ink with attention grabbing headlines, such as: "IBM Gives Birth to the Amazing E-mail-less Man*" (Wired) and "SharePoint is a 'document coffin,' says IBM"(Computerworld).

Game On
In the IBM realm it's "Game On!" challenging competitors to join the scrimmage with IBM's new rules.  Now let's see how, or if, IBM's competitors join or if they will start or continue their own game. In competitor's circles IBM Lotus customers have become installed base point fodder as they compete among themselves. Now that the new game has begun IBM needs to stay the course and make sure it delivers quality technology that will strengthen and grow its fan base. Should IBM catch the attention of business customers and revive ties to the IBM brands enough to unsteady the competition then the Social Business gambit may be just what IBM needed.

*Although it's really not true, more like the "amazing e-mail emancipated man"

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