A peek into IBM Watson Workspace

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In November, IBM announced a new team collaboration offering called IBM Watson Workspace. Underpinned by cognitive technology, it is designed to complement IBM’s other enterprise collaboration offerings while attracting new customers in this competitive space. I recently got access to the preview version.

This week, I’ve had a chance to take a closer look at IBM’s new tool for team collaboration and communication (and its answer to Slack), IBM Watson Workspace. If you haven’t heard of it before, don’t panic – it’s currently in invitation-only preview mode, and is (somewhat deliberately) flying under the radar. IBM watchers might have come across it as “IBM Toscana”, which was pre-announced at last year’s IBM Connect customer event. As we approach IBM Connect 2017 (which I will be attending and reporting on later this month), I wanted to check on IBM’s progress in this space, particularly in the face of Slack’s continuing success and momentum, and the launch of Microsoft’s own team collaboration offering, Teams.

IBM Watson Workspace provides a simple, flexible and easy-to-use platform where teams can have group conversations and share files in “spaces” (comparable to “channels” in Slack). Developed for the cloud, it places mobile access on a par with web access from the start, in acknowledgement of the changing demands and expectations of today’s (and tomorrow’s) workforce. It also enables organisations to build and integrate third-party applications and bots into the conversation feed. The application was launched in parallel with a set of cognitive API’s called Watson Work Services, which allow developers to extend or integrate with the Watson Workspace, or build new applications that leverage its features.

My primary impression from testing out the limited preview version of Watson Workspace was that the user experience is very clean and uncluttered, with the focus purely on the conversation. This I liked a lot. However, while the preview provides the basic conversation capabilities you’d expect in a communication/collaboration platform (e.g. posting, sharing files, notifications), I was disappointed how many features that I was expecting are not yet enabled – for example direct messaging, @mentioning, conversation threading, etc. I realise this is a platform for IBM to test, gain feedback and adapt its priority list, but it seems there is still a lot to do – or at least enable.

On the other hand, the most impressive piece is “Moments”. Perhaps the most important thing to note about IBM Watson Workspace is its cognitive underpinning. While “cognitive” can seem like a rather over-used buzzword in IBM’s marketing at the moment, it’s fair to say that this is a key – and increasing – differentiator for the company across many of its products, and particularly in the collaboration space. For Watson Workspace, the capability is primarily enabled through the “Moments” feature, which leverages natural language processing and AI to help overcome the challenge of keeping up with an active team, particularly if you are away for a day or so. Rather than having to scroll through volumes of messages in a space, clicking on the Moments button provides you with a summary of the activity that’s taken place since you last looked, automatically identifying the key topics that were discussed, and picking out specific questions, actions and commitments by team members. This capability is a very different way of handling information overload, and a much more targeted solution than simple filtering approaches. I suspect there will be more to come here to strengthen and expand the cognitive piece within Watson Workspace (not least in relation to bots), and this is one of the things I will be listening out for at IBM Connect 2017.

Another angle that interests me is how IBM will be positioning Watson Workspace in the context of its broader suite of collaborative applications; Connections remains the umbrella brand and the flagship collaboration product, though it is less heavily marketed than it was a couple of years ago, and of course there is Verse for email, as well as Sametime on the unified comms side. Watson Workspace is not meant to replace any of these products directly, but there are some overlaps that customers will struggle with, and it’s important for IBM to be able to clearly articulate a) how the products differentiate, and b) how they fit together where an organisation (inevitably) has several deployed at once.

I’m also interested to see what the company has planned for its full launch of Watson Workspace; it’s got a lot to do to catch up with Slack, and Microsoft has arguably also got a head start with Teams. Watson Workspace should be well-placed to compete with its cognitive differentiator, but it needs a fully-launched product to be able to do that properly.

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