This is the first in a series of blog posts exclusively for the IBM Communities all about the creation of IBM Watson Orchestrate, which was announced at Think today. We’ll interview the key players in the design, development and release of this important new capability for IBM Automation.
I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, where the biggest rock star at the time was Seiji Ozawa, famed conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 years. I recall a trip to Boston’s grand Symphony Hall to hear Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” We arrived early and took our seats to study the program while the 100-member orchestra warmed up onstage with little flurries of notes. The hall filled up with excited fans and then a hush descended. Ozawa entered with a wave, wearing his trademark tux with white turtleneck and beaded necklace, and the place erupted with jubilation.
Ozawa’s undeniable charisma helped a generation of students like me develop an appreciation for orchestral music. Standing front and center, guiding the orchestra with his fluid, ballet style of conducting, he enlivened and animated the passion inside the music.
Recently, I was reminded of Ozawa as I watched a demo of a new product being developed by IBM Automation, which was announced today, called IBM Watson Orchestrate. Modern organizations that have embraced Automation are discovering that the “Hybrid Workforce,” mixing RPA bots, intelligent automation and human workers, presents new challenges and opportunities. What they are discovering is that they need an automation version of a symphony conductor.
Salman Sheikh is the IBM Product Manager charged with helping to bring Watson Orchestrate to life as a product. In 2020, the IBM Research Lab in Cambridge, not far from Symphony Hall, surfaced new technology that provides an effective way to manage software robots, people, conversational AI and intelligent automation. Sheikh’s challenge was to coordinate a large team and create a viable product. “Once I got my head wrapped around all this advanced technology, I realized that this could be a transformative use experience. This could be a new front end to our automation platform, one that fundamentally changes how people actually work with automation,” he said.
Watson Orchestrate intelligently sequences automations into new workflows on-the-fly, without programming. Organizations can enable it within different functional teams, such as Sales, HR, or DevOps. Employees can interact with it using natural language, through email or chat, or it can respond to business events to run autonomously. Once it has an assignment, it will find the right skills and line them up in the right order to achieve the desired outcome. Built for the enterprise, it has its own corporate identity like any employee, so it can securely interact with end users using the business tools they use every day. It also maintains business context and it remembers past business interactions to make workflows more effective over time.
A lot of work was already being done at IBM, experimenting with the concept of AI-powered assistants and other forms of human-machine interaction, which means that Sheikh had a lot of talent and experience at his disposal (we will focus on the other participants as this series unfolds).
The biggest challenge for Sheikh has been coordinating so many diverse teams – AI researchers, development teams, designers, and architects - and keeping them focused on a single vision. “My job was to paint the big picture,” said Sheikh. “It’s been open collaboration and high communication the whole way.” He explained that much of the development of Watson Orchestrate has been done in parallel, rather than sequentially, with many moving parts. Certainly, they followed Agile development practices and used tools like Aha! and Jira, “But honestly,” admitted Sheikh. “the most helpful tool was Mural, the collaborative whiteboard application, to help us all keep a clear vision of what we are trying to do.”
Once the team understood what the product would do, they picked a use case and started to build a solution as a test of whether the concept would work in a business setting. “We began with an employee's journey with this technology,” said Sheikh. “For example, when a team works with Watson Orchestrate, they need to onboard it just like another employee and give it access to the automation tools. Then they need to collaborate with it, and it's got to complete various tasks, so it’s going to need certain skills. When gaps came up, we realigned and came up with ways to close them. It’s been really interesting to see how the product team responded.”
Watson Orchestrate represents the next big step for intelligent automation and it will continue to evolve in 2021. Watson Orchestrate is currently in preview as part of the IBM Automation Cloud Paks. To learn more about Watson Orchestrate, which was announced today at Think, visit the web page on IBM.com, read the press release or view the demo.