Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Inspiration At IBM Content 2015 In San Francisco

I scored a seat at last week's IBM Content 2015 conference at San Francisco's Palace Hotel.  I expected heavy product pitches because IBM is one of the sector leaders in enterprise content management.  Knowledge managers are drawn to this stuff because both structured and unstructured records end up in unsearchable archives without some architecture to sort them out.  I had to wonder how my own US Army knowledge management experience (Iraq 2009, been there, got the campaign decoration) would have been different if I had stronger search and archive tools.

Former NBA basketball player Mark Eaton was the morning keynote.  I was impressed at how he translated sports lessons into articulate business lessons.  He forever changed my perception of retired pro athletes.  There's a lesson there for military veterans making transitions to civilian careers.  The dude had four basic principles for functioning on a team:  know your job; do what you're asked to do; make people look good; protect others.  I guess pro athletes have something in common with retired military leaders, because both groups could riff those topics for hours.  What made Mr. Eaton's approach different was his storytelling ability that put each lesson into a narrative.  It was more than a rehash of old sports triumphs that made him likeable.  I detected elements of Joseph Campbell's mythological "hero's journey" in his narrative.  Storytelling through archetypes matters in enterprise sales.  It also matters to knowledge managers who have to construct corporate narratives (you know, like product positioning strategies) out of chaotically arranged enterprise content.

The IBM keynote immediately afterwards was another riff on storytelling as a business function.  I did not know that Kurt Vonnegut had three favorite story arcs:  man in a hole; boy meets girl; from bad to worse.  Searching the web reveals both written and video testimony for Mr. Vonnegut's theses.  Right on, narratives rule.  IBM's favorite story arc is "better and better," something we will all presumably hear customers say if we have the right enterprise content management systems.  I don't need to recap the rest of the IBM product seminars and partner pitches.  My business isn't the right addressable market for them anyway and my own content management needs are easily met with desktop solutions.

The final enterprise content management (ECM) keynote was more pitching, with enough "content" to provoke my thinking.  I learned from experience with MS SharePoint that enterprise search results can be either fast or relevant, but rarely both.  There's usually a tradeoff.  Search systems will improve as machine learning habituates them to the needs of a particular enterprise.  IBM sure is proud of its position in Gartner's Magic Quadrant schema of wonder charts.  The hive mind known as IBM's Watson supercomputer will absorb all of the actions IBM's clients take in their systems.  I have no idea how IBM is going to safeguard all of that proprietary information, unless they're only tracking the metadata from actions.  Knowing how frequently users query, share, store, translate, delete, and do other things with documents is enough for Watson to see without peering into things that would destroy a client's competitive advantage if hacked.  I keep hearing the catch phrase "move document capture to the edge of the enterprise" but it's not a cliche yet.  The payment processing sector has that one covered and now the rest of the economy can learn how to convert dirty data from imperfect image captures.  Any vendor that isn't scanning documents at transaction points right now is way behind their competition.

Chief knowledge officers and their chief information officer friends will either earn their pay or get themselves fired once they commit to branded ECM software.  It's all going to the cloud even if Watson didn't exist.  Building a hybrid cloud and keeping key developmental projects under wraps will be hard for anyone who hasn't learned about Cloudonomics.  The ongoing fight in ECM won't be pretty.

I'll close with one more lesson from Mark Eaton.  He said that if enough people tell you you're suited to do something, you should listen.  That's how he got back into basketball and found his optimal position on the court.  Well, you know something, a whole bunch of people have told me over the years that I have a natural voice for narration, and they ask me if I've worked in radio.  I'll take that as a pretty strong hint that I should add voice work or webcasting to the Alfidi Capital tradition of excellence.

Full disclosure:  No position in IBM at this time.