Automating Your Business

Shaping The Vision of Watson Orchestrate – Talking with Allen Chan, IBM DE and CTO, Business Automation

By DAVID Jenness posted 12 days ago

  

Continuing our series about the creation of IBM Watson Orchestrate (here's Part One), I checked in with Allen Chan, the senior architect for IBM Automation and an IBM Distinguished Engineer (DE), who helped birth the concept. At IBM, Distinguished Engineers are appointed for their outstanding technical contributions and leadership. Watson Orchestrate is a great example of what a DE can do. I asked Allen how Watson Orchestrate came together.

“About a year ago, with the acquisition of WDG Automation into the IBM Automation portfolio, we knew we had all the elements to create a great “hyperautomation” platform. At the same time, we had a breakthrough in IBM Research in AI Platform that enabled us to use Natural Language to select and orchestrate automation skills.  So I said, ‘What do we get if we put those two together?’ I quickly realized that’s not enough to change the game. To do that, we need to achieve the goal of bringing Automation for everyone.”


        Allen Chan, IBM Distinguished Engineer

While a natural language-activated robot would be cool, Chan understood that it needed to be more than that.  To fulfil the vision of “Automation for Everyone,” the system must also use the same tools that everyone else in the organization is using, and, to foster trust, we must provide traceability, visibility and AI explainability in the system. “Think about it – Why don’t intelligent assistants, like Alexa, work in an enterprise architecture?” he asked. “At home, Alexa leverages your personal accounts to search, play music, and send a text. It uses your personal identity. But in an enterprise setting, you need separation of roles and you need accountability. Running in IBM, who's credentials is it going to use?”

Allen says that led the team to start exploring the idea of identity and organizational context, which is a big piece of what makes Watson Orchestrate unique. “We started thinking of it as a digital teammate – way more than a chatbot – It’s actually part of your team. You might even give it a name and a set of skills tailored to a specific job role, so that it can execute tasks on behalf of the team using all the automation tools in the Cloud Pak and other business systems like Salesforce, Workday, SAP, and ServiceNow.”

As the vision came together over a series of conversations between Allen and Ed Lynch, Vice President of IBM Digital Business Automation, they knew they would need to establish some guiding rules. Setting parameters has always been an important aspect of innovation. A famous example is Steve Jobs insisting to the Apple design team that the first Macintosh must have a footprint no bigger than a phone book.

For Watson Orchestrate, in addition to having its own identity, Allen and Lynch added an essential rule for the concept: it must not require programming to set it up. “It would be typical for us to solve the problem the usual way – by bringing in a design-build experience. We wanted to challenge the team to be truly different, so we said, ‘No Studio experience.’”

Innovation is borne out of open collaboration and once the concept began to firm up, Chan and the team presented the idea to IBM executive leadership, who immediately saw the potential. Next, they shared it with some of the leading analysts in Business Automation and the response was more than encouraging. “Once they understood that we were talking about a digitally-rendered “teammate” that can securely collaborate with others in the enterprise, these experts were very excited about it. They really encouraged us to build upon the ideas and bring this new innovation to the market,” he says.


As the concept evolved, diagrams like this helped the team visualize what Watson Orchestrate could do.

As the vision for Watson Orchestrate came together, then began a collaboration between IBM Research, Engineering and Design to turn the concept into a viable product. A lot of work had already been done around key capabilities, like using natural language to do a database query and creating a set of “skills” that a digital teammate could execute, but there was still much to do to make sure Watson Orchestrate understood context and memory and the ability to correctly sequence a set of skills to support a workflow.

In future posts on Watson Orchestrate, we’ll visit with other members of the team who continue to contribute to the evolution of this new capability. Later in June, IBM will start a program for select customers to play around with Watson Orchestrate to see how they might use a Digital teammate and what happens when they do.  To learn more about Watson Orchestrate, click here.

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