IBM Think 2021 at a glance

IBM Think goes virtual – again

IBM Think logo

This year’s version of IBM Think, like most other conferences, was virtual for the second year running. This time it was broken into three segments, with general content shown everywhere and regional-specific content dropped in for each of the Americas, APAC and Japan, and EMEA and India editions.

For the second year running, it was powered by IBM’s own Watson Media, an AI-driven streaming solution. That’s somehow appropriate since the overarching themes were AI and hybrid cloud. The event also included networking opportunities, a virtual lounge where customers could interact with subject matter experts, and an expo. Here are some of the highlights.

Charting the course

photo Arvind Krishna

IBM’s chairman and chief executive officer Arvind Krishna kicked off the conference by charting the company’s course for the future. It’s centred around hybrid cloud and artificial intelligence (AI), which product-wise means heavy reliance on Red Hat OpenShift and IBM Watson.

“IBM is all-in on hybrid cloud,” he said. “A hybrid cloud strategy is about meeting you where you are in your journey. It’s about giving you the ability to leverage the capabilities and benefits of the cloud across a whole spectrum of environments, including the edge. With hybrid cloud, you extend your data center to the cloud, you consistently and securely deploy any app to any location.”

He noted that despite the excitement, only 25 per cent of workloads have so far moved to the cloud.

“A hybrid cloud approach helps overcome the challenges that prevent companies from moving to the cloud,” he said. “That’s why I believe hybrid cloud will define the technology strategy of businesses over the next decade.”

From cloud to AI

photo arvind krishna

Krishna said that, according to IDC, data will grow to about 175 zettabytes by 2025 – the equivalent capacity of a stack of Blu-ray disks tall enough to go to the moon and back 23 times.

“What we are seeing today is that it is data, not just software, that is eating the world,” he said. “The only way we know how to make sense of the phenomenal amount of data is artificial intelligence. At a global level, AI is slated to unlock almost $16 trillion in productivity by 2030, according to a study by PwC. In the same way that we have electrified every factory and machine in the past century, we will infuse AI into every software and system in the 21st century. So we are really thrilled about this potential for AI to transform business everywhere.”

IBM’s Global AI Adoption Index 2021, released at the conference, confirmed Krishna’s optimism, saying that one-third of global IT professionals report that their companies plan to invest in both skills and AI solutions over the next 12 months. Key technologies involved include automation and natural language processing – technologies that are behind the newly-announced Watson Orchestrate (demoed in the image above), which uses AI to help business professionals automate mundane tasks. Watson Orchestrate is currently in preview in the IBM Cloud Paks for Automation.

Issues with AI

photo Jim Whitehurst

During a pre-event press conference, IBM president Jim Whitehurst reported on the progress that’s been made in fulfilling the vision presented at last year’s conference.

Despite significant progress, there are still issues to address. Whitehurst pointed out that it’s easy to pick a cloud, but it’s very hard to move applications to it. That led to the development of two products announced at the conference: Mono2Micro (using technology developed for Project Debater), and Project CodeNet. Both look at enterprise applications in different ways to assist in their migration to the cloud.

The challenges attached to AI, particularly in addressing bias, are moving front and centre in the corporate world, he noted.

“It’s becoming a bigger and bigger deal as people start to wrestle with implications of AI,” he said. “It goes from kind of being more back-office stuff that people don’t see to making decisions that directly impact consumers. And so even a year ago, I would say less than a third of my conversations on AI brought up or included discussions of bias. I would say in 90 per cent of my customer conversations now it’s one of the first questions that comes up.”

He said that IBM is making good progress in dealing with the problem, building mitigations into its toolsets. But it’s not stopping companies from looking hard at the technology.

“Coming out of the pandemic, companies are rebuilding entire business models, leveraging the possibilities of digital technologies like hybrid cloud and AI,” Whitehurst said. “I think the cause of that to some extent is almost a do-over of the way we build. This year is going to be considered kind of the moment when the world truly entered a digital century full force.”

Product announcements in brief

graphic What's New

Over the course of the conference, IBM made a series of product announcements, mainly (surprise) around cloud and AI. In addition to Watson Orchestrate, we saw:

  • AutoSQL capabilities were added to IBM Cloud Pak for Data to return responses to distributed queries up to 8x faster than before.
  • Maximo Mobile, a mobile platform for field technicians with IBM Maximo at the core.
  • Project CodeNet, an open source dataset of 14 million code samples, 500 million lines of code, in 55 programming languages that will help AIs learn how to translate programs from one language to another.
  • Mono2Micro capabilities which use AI to analyze enterprise workloads and recommend ways to adapt them for the cloud, were added to WebSphere Hybrid Edition.
  • Qiskit Runtime Software for developers using quantum software is containerized and runs in the hybrid cloud rather than on the user’s computer.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

IBM Garage

IBM Garage | IBM


In the tech world, there’s something about garages that says “innovation”. Sometimes the garage is a physical location, but not in IBM’s case. IBM Garage is a model for accelerating digital transformation.

Deborah Vavangas, IBM’s global Garage lead, chatted with customer Shelley Kalms, chief digital officer at Woodside, and Anthony Farah, managing partner, transformation acceleration and ventures for Asia Pacific at IBM to discover what the Garage methodology has done for them.

Vavangas began by pointing out that 75 per cent of transformation projects fail to deliver an impact on business performance. She believes that there are two reasons for this. First, the idea wasn’t a good one to begin with or there wasn’t an understanding of how its value would be measured. Second, people weren’t taken into account.

“To transform a company, you must transform the individuals within a company,” she said. “Transformation programs introduce new ways of working, new operating models, new tools, new techniques, new technologies. And we very often miss looking at the individual fears, desires and behaviours that shaped the company’s culture. And when you don’t take care of those, you don’t transform the company, you don’t achieve your business goals, change fatigue sets in, and the whole thing starts to fall apart.”

Kalms added that one lesson Woodside had learned was that if an initiative wasn’t delivering the expected value, stop.

“So to say, hey, let’s stop, we’re not moving forward, it was okay because we’re not delivering the value. So we’re doing it fast as well,” she said. “You could say that that is failing, but it’s also learning. The team learned that we’ll go fast, we’ll determine are we delivering value, and if we’re not, then we stop.”

Improving customer, employee, and citizen experience with IBM Watson

photo Melanie

Customers want things fast and easy, and they want engagement, said Brian Loveys, director of offering management focusing on the use of Watson AI in customer experience at IBM, and that’s where AI and automation come in. Not only do they improve customer experience, but the technologies can also save companies money by dealing with routine calls, allowing humans to handle what they do best. He spoke with customers who have successfully done just that.

The first was Melanie Cheng-Kai-On, director of digital channels at courier company Purolator. When the pandemic began, Purolator’s business-to-consumer shipments went up by 75 per cent, and call centre volumes increased by 30 per cent. With IBM Watson Assistant, she said the company was able to dynamically increase capacity to the equivalent of 300 agents to keep up with demand.

“In terms of ROI we just saw, as volumes kept increasing, we introduced the virtual agents in around October 2019,” she said. “To put things in perspective, in January, we saw about 3 per cent of the calls coming from the chatbot, by June that went to 34 per cent. By December, over 50 per cent. We’d just never anticipated more than 50 per cent of our contacts coming through the virtual assistant. And that equated to some cost savings or cost avoidance annualized about 45 FTEs, and about $1.5 million in savings.” And, she added, less than 20 per cent of calls get transferred to an agent.

Improving customer, employee, and citizen experience with IBM Watson

photo brian and collette

Collette Smith, vice-president of clinical services and human resources, chief nursing officer at Eastern Health in Newfoundland and Labrador, had completely different needs for Watson to address. Her team developed a Watson-based application called EVA (Employee Virtual Assistant) that leads people through a series of questions to determine what mental health support they need and directs them to the appropriate resources while preserving their anonymity.

“And it even goes to the extreme of leading people directly to emergency care if they need it,” she said. “So within the menu and the pathway that the artificial intelligence has developed, it’s been a godsend for our team, in really getting the support and the immediate help, safely, that they need.”

Over time, people have been asking EVA additional, non-health questions (for example, how can they access their paycheques) and Smith plans to build those responses in.

“Eventually our vision is this could be a one-stop shop with artificial intelligence built-in for any employee type of question or need that we have, and lead them to the right answer, right response, right there, as they need us, immediately,” she said.

But her immediate goal is to share EVA with other health authorities in the province.

Cubicle versus couch: Is the future of work hybrid?

photo malcolm and adam

Bestselling author and co-founder of Pushkin Industries Malcolm Gladwell sat down with organizational psychologist and professor at Wharton School Adam Grant for a lively discussion about whether the pandemic would radically change the way we live and work in the future.

Grant said that when he went to CEOs in 2018 and suggested that the future of work might be hybrid, so perhaps they could experiment with allowing people to work from anywhere one day a week, they turned him down.

“They said, ‘We don’t want to open Pandora’s box, we think people will procrastinate constantly and our culture is going to fall apart,’ and a lot of those CEOs have started rethinking it. Some of them announced they’re going to be permanently remote, many others are at least rolling out hybrid plans, and so I don’t think that flexibility is going away,” he said.

Gladwell argued that when he was young, going to the office was exciting, and he learned a lot.

“If you’re a company that employs young people, can you really hire the best and brightest young people by saying, ‘we’re gonna have you work out of your apartment or a Starbucks’ is nuts to me.”

Grant agreed to a point but said he doesn’t think requiring people to be in the office every day will work either. He cited the example of Brazilian company Semco Partners, who offered employees the option to buy back one day a week for ten per cent of their salary. Semco thought the notion would appeal to older workers, but it is most popular with employees in their 20s and 30s.

“I think this is going to be a competitive advantage for companies moving forward,” he said. “The organizations that are willing to give you that little bit of flexibility are going to do a much better job attracting motivating and retaining people than the ones that say you have to be here all the time.”

The transformative power of open

photo jim and scott

IBM president Jim Whitehurst closed out the conference by first echoing Krishna’s comments about the power of technology to not only change IT systems that support the business, but to change business models, the way people work, and even corporate culture.

“That’s why technology decisions that we make today are so important, because we know they’ll have the potential to shape your business for decades to come,” he said. “So the question is, what kind of shape do you want your business to take?”

He went on, “I have a passion for all things open: open standards, open organizations, open cultures. These aren’t moral choices; these are strategic business decisions based on market realities. In the digital economy, companies compete on the basis of innovation – those that produce innovation more quickly, efficiently, and effectively when. It’s that simple.” For those reasons, he believes Red Hat OpenShift is a transformative technology. Its open approach to innovation has a ripple effect that goes beyond technology to corporate culture, even at IBM.

He concluded with a discussion with Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, on how United’s investments in technology are helping it weather the storm of COVID disruption and address organizational problems.

Kirby said, “Our goal, frankly, is to be more than just ‘make a difference at United’, but to show the path for others to do the same kind of thing so that when we look back 20 years from now, the world feels different than it feels today.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree.

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