IBM attempts a digital business automation reboot

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IBM has been one of the biggest influencers in the business process automation space for well over ten years, but recently its interest and energy has faded. It’s attempting to make a comeback – but has it left it too late?

Ever since 2005, when IBM began to participate in the development of the BPMN standard, it’s played a major role in driving the BPM technology market. Its acquisition of Lombardi Software in 2010 gave it a stage on which it could match its market influence with a solid and contemporary technology offering.

Over the past couple of years, though, IBM’s attention in the business automation space has been drawn elsewhere – particularly in developing and extending the Watson brand of technology products and services; and building credible IaaS and PaaS platforms to defend against the momentum of AWS and others. When it comes to having a set of offerings that make sense to organisations wanting to drive digital transformation in their business operations, IBM’s been in neutral gear – which would be OK, except that while it’s been focused elsewhere, organisations’ expectations have moved on.

Part of IBM’s difficulty here has been of its own making. For many years following the Lombardi acquisition, IBM was content (pun intended) to kick the can down the road multiple times on an important issue: how to deal with the overlaps that existed between the capabilities and propositions of its BPM technology platform with the capabilities and propositions of FileNet. As IBM added more case management features into its BPM platform the overlap only increased – but still, the tension remained unresolved.

At IBM’s Think conference this week the company has shone a light on moves it’s started to make to try and reboot. With the launch of the snappily-titled IBM Automation Platform for Digital Business, IBM’s trying to do two things: first, to resolve the long-overdue tension in the workflow and case management areas of its portfolio that’s caused confusion and led to customer inertia; and at the same time, and to try to put together a more contemporary story about how it can help organisations with their current business automation priorities.

We know from our research that the effects of digital transformation initiatives are now being felt in business operations: more and more organisations realise that digital transformation means a reappraisal and often a redesign of operating models. This is not just about BPM technology though: in our community, we’re finding teams trying to make sense of a tools and platforms landscape that encompasses not only workflow and case management but also RPA, decision management, low-code web and mobile application development, the new wave of integration platforms, document capture, content management – and if that wasn’t enough, various blades in the AI Swiss Army knife. (I’ll be presenting on this topic at the upcoming bpmNEXT conference in Santa Barbara CA, for anyone attending that).

With its new automation platform, IBM now has a more contemporary story to tell. The platform offering spans:

  • Task automation – through RPA, powered by Automation Anywhere.
  • Workflow automation – through a merged Case Manager and BPM offering.
  • Decision automation – through Operational Decision Manager.
  • Content services – through FileNet technologies.
  • Capture services – through DataCap and DataCap Insight Edition (which adds Watson capabilities).
  • A unified front-end application UX – through an evolved Content Navigator framework.

It’s important to realise that just because the platform offering includes a number of components, doesn’t mean you need to take all these components or use them all together. This is something that IBM will need to work on explaining in the coming months – it’s going to need to provide guidance to customers and prospects about which pieces make sense where, and how those pieces will add value to each other over time.

Not yet available but on the roadmap are common platform monitoring and analytics (delivering not only management insights but also operational insights and recommendations in the flow of work); and a new low-code design and development environment that plays across all the platform’s core automation capabilities.

Separate from the Automation Platform, IBM also announced a broader IBM Automation offering at Think 2018 – combining advisory, technical and managed hosting services with the platform described above. Not much information is available on this yet, and I’m keen to see how IBM partners can/will play roles alongside IBM’s own Services teams.

So where does all this leave IBM?

All this represents a significant step forward for IBM. However in the context of where the market need is today – and the degree to which IBM had taken its eye off the ball – this needs to be just the start.

If IBM can deliver on its product roadmap and support its salespeople, partners and consultants properly, and do this consistently over the next few months, then it will be in a position to earn customers’ and prospects’ interest. But it must not be complacent. The market is moving fast, and what counts as ‘enough to be credible’ today in this space is not going to be enough for IBM to build a growth business.

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