Interview: Cognitive computing is only as good as what you put in

Rob Lee, managing director of IBM NZ, discusses how New Zealand businesses can learn from IBM's C-suite survey, cognitive computing for customers and how the firm is handling the skills shortage

In this interview, Rob Lee, managing director of IBM NZ, discusses how New Zealand businesses can learn from IBM's C-suite survey, cognitive computing for customers and how the firm is handling the skills shortage.

Q: What are the changes that you have seen since taking over? How are global changes in IBM reflected in the NZ market?

Rob Lee: I joined in May and took over an operation that was travelling quite well.

What we are in the process of doing is carrying on applying the global mission as it makes sense in NZ. So the key thing that I have been focussing on since I got here is taking that and making sure that we are taking what globally we have – the value that we bring to clients – and applying that here in NZ.

And making sure that we really look at that through the lens of the local market to see what makes sense. Because all markets in the world are different. There are a lot of similar things but we have our own – there are things that are New Zealand.

The thrust of the corporation is making sure that we are bringing value solutions to our clients. We are really looking to see how some of the key technologies can be applied to help them with some of the issues and opportunities that they have got, especially in cloud, analytics, the whole world of mobile and mobility, and the whole world of social and social media, and how all of this intersects to help them change their business.

That’s at the global level. If I bring that to a local level, you see opportunities and the desire from customers to be able to apply a lot of it there as well. I think the cloud in this market is alive and well. People are testing and trying it. It is not 'one size fits all'. [Customers] are looking at various opportunities to apply cloud computing techniques to whatever they do...

Other things are around analytics, social and mobile. I am seeing enormous opportunities for organisations to transform themselves as they start to look at the client-centric world that we are really heading into now.

Our recent C-suite study has really pointed to that: It is all around the customer-activated enterprise and getting the customer to be involved in influencing business strategy and being able to apply that. The NZ customers that we talked to saw that as a great opportunity.

[It is] probably a bit behind the rest of the world in terms of involving the customer and other stakeholders in actually developing a business strategy. So there are a few things that are coming out of that. That is one aspect of it. But when it comes to the other aspect of how they are thinking of reaching their customers digitally; the NZ companies in the main are ahead of the rest of the world in some of the stuff they are doing there...

We look at that and the opportunities that that brings to the market in terms of being able to provide analytics, mobility solutions and capturing what is going on in the social world — those are very important for them to be able to change how they take their businesses, or even public sector [organisation], to serve the client that is out there.

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Q: Where do they lack mostly in strategy and how can this be addressed?

RL: The C-suite study shows what NZ customers said. They are saying we are here, but we want to be here. So what are they going to do about it?

If you look about, the catch cry out of global study is the customer-activated enterprise. So how do you become a customer-activated enterprise? So while you can reach the customer digitally, are you engaging with them, understanding them, are you listening to them? Are you involving them in some of the decision process?

I think there is a way to look at how they engage with the client, how they have their business processes that are integral with the client, how are they using all that information that’s available to them in rows and columns, and out there in the world out there to make sure they are listening and acting on that stuff.

There is a transformation aspect that they can be embraced to bring the client into how they make decisions and that will involve those kinds of technologies.

So when they all come together they will be listening to the client and acting on what the client says.

Technology is always an enabler. It is not an end in itself; it's a means to an end. The way to be successful with that is to think through the business model.

Q: How do you see the adoption of cloud, analytics, mobility and social media among NZ businesses?

RL: A lot of this is generated or going to be driven by their desire or necessity to transform.

The adoption of cloud is something that can happen independently of a broader transformation. By the way mobility too — there is a lot that you can do to reach your employees or reach the customers that is going to be enabled digitally.

It is the other stuff that connects the customer or the employee all the way through to the business systems at an enterprise or public sector organisation that really makes all of that worthwhile. I think we are on the tip of starting the drive into that.

We are engaging a lot with customers in thinking about how they can take all of their data, really analyse that and turn it into valued information for the client or people working with the client so that they can make better decisions.

That is a big opportunity sitting in NZ. We are looking at potential of some broad transformation. A lot of the systems that enterprises are using — some of them are 10, 20, some of them are 40 years old and I think there is an opportunity to transform, applying these technologies together. The intersection will really revolutionise the industry.

Q: Do you see more functionality moving into the cloud and being delivered as services to mid-size businesses?

RL: NZ has a different profile of businesses than the rest of the world. We have some very large companies that operate on the global scale, we have a number of smaller businesses that operate within NZ, serving the country or making business offshore. It is very difficult – and it would be very brave for someone to say – this is what they are doing.

There are a number of opportunities for them to leverage computing techniques, not one size fits all. I can imagine, and especially with small businesses, they will be trying some of these as services for what they do. At the other end of the scale, very big organisations where they might have different concerns, or regulatory things that they might need to operate, with data sovereignty and security, they will think about it differently.

They will apply the cloud techniques differently in that environment. But they might also be able to use the other cloud computing techniques for other parts of the business where data sovereignty is not an issue. So it is not a one size fits all. I think there are a number of ways that people will look to applying the technology to what they are doing. That is happening here in NZ.

Q: What is the role of cognitive computing in the future for IBM and its customers?

It is a natural extension to the analytics portfolio that we have which is all around analysing data. The cognitive stuff is actually learning from the analysis. If you look at IBM globally and what we are doing with the Watson technologies, earlier this year we announced a specific division to focus on that.

So globally it is really important to IBM because we are seeing the value that this can bring to the market. And then you look at where you can apply this sort of technology. And if I look at in the NZ sense, I think we have enormous opportunity in the private sector and public sector.

A lot of the way systems are designed now, a lot of the processes that created the technologies that we have today, they have been geared around a response, a reaction. This way by applying the technology you can get a 'proaction'.

I would really see a huge advantage of being able to take all of this and learn and apply that and get it out there.

Q: Doesn’t this necessitate strong data integrity, data accuracy, timeliness and accessibility within organisations?

It does mean all of that.

Like anything you do, there are some prerequisites as to what you have to do. So standing alone, just cognitive computing on its own – doesn’t work like that.

Something that NZ businesses are very good at doing is thinking through how they apply the technology. Thinking through what they have to have in place in order to make tech is effective. So really thinking through the transformation. What are the processes that will be affected, what are the systems that need to change, are we getting the right data, is it secure and updated, so you know what comes out is going to be the best representation of what you got.

It is only as good as what you put in.

Q: How far are NZ businesses from achieving data integrity and then using it at a cognitive level?

RL: IBM is a data-driven organisation. We are seeing out there clients that are very focused on making sure they have accurate data leading to accurate information. But it is a journey. You need to put in place systems and processes, security around it because you are introducing mobility. You are introducing not only rows and columns vs some of the information that is out there that is text, or something in the social sphere. It is all data.

It is taking that data and using your systems to make sure that what you are dealing with will drive towards an outcome that the business is after, and those systems, those technologies and processes is always going to carry on maturing.

Q: Will you be looking for acquisitions in NZ?

RL: Never say never. I would be amongst a group of people making that sort of decision but it is the IBM corporation globally that would be making those decisions. For the right reasons, the right fit, the right requirements, potentially.

It comes back to whether it fits what we are trying to do globally. There are many acquisitions, if you look at analytics portfolio that we are building and have acquired – they come from all over the globe.

There is no reason why it could not happen. It just comes down to what it is and why.

We also want to make sure that we are giving our local developer community the best shot for them to be successful on the world stage as well. So our software development support community is working on making sure that we provide some of our technologies to these companies so they can be successful in what they do.

There is a local chapter here. It is part of the mission we have in ANZ and we have these developers that we work with locally.

Q: How do you grade your people strength in the country and will you be looking to hire more?

RL: The challenge we have is to make sure we have got the right people to listen and talk to the clients. We are always making sure about have we got the right complement of people to do that engagement. So as IBM changes, the skills that our people need to have will carry on – and the requirements of those will carry on – changing, and they will be more highly geared and continue to grow in the cloud, analytics, mobility and social.

With cloud momentum in this market, I see the rest of the momentum growing, and that means the profile of the workforce that we need to address that will change.

If the demand is there we will be looking to add on people in certain profile areas. But a lot of that comes down whether customers are buying products or are outcomes from us.

Q: What are your thoughts on the skills shortage in the country and how does IBM handle it?

RL: As an industry we all stare at this. The government looks at it, the education sector – primary, secondary and tertiary also look at it. I think there are a number of factors here. We need to make sure as a whole that this industry is seen as attractive to people to enter. That is the first thing.

Then it comes down to what we are looking for in this marketplace. Is there a shortage? I believe in some key areas there are. But I think how you fill those gaps are equally as important as identifying the gap. And in the long view, you don’t need just people who can work with technology. They can program, they can do stuff. You need people who can think about how they apply technology.

I am an engineer. The way I would talk about this is there is mathematics and there is applied mathematics. You are not an engineer if you know just mathematics; you have to understand applied mathematics. I can see a need for people who can do things, people who can apply things.

There is another angle. You need a new set of business execs who will understand the power of the application and what they can do. So I think there are a number of things we need to address as NZ.

We are excited about what we are doing with Unitec already, but there is opportunity to do even more in that style.

We will always bring in interns, bring in graduates.

We are always looking to help internal staff develop and grow. We have local and global programs that are supportive of where the corporation is going. To make sure they have the wherewithal to engage with clients, to discuss, and really making sure that they understand and put themselves in the customer’s shoes.

It is not an easy bridge to cross. To talk both languages is very tough.

I think there are some people in NZ with that skill to do that, but not enough of them. Some of those who do have the skills, often choose to move out of the country.

I think that it is up to industry to talk to government about what we believe is required, as opposed to other way around. We have a role in putting forward what we believe is a good environment for technology to help the nation, to help businesses flourish and to be successful on the world stage.

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