Matthew Candy is commendably straight talking when I express my profound ignorance of how committed IBM is to the new services world where skills in cloud, digital experience and design have become as relevant as understanding relational databases, datacentre management and ERP were for the previous technology generation.
“We’ve been in this space for some time and maybe we haven’t done a good enough job talking about it,” he sighs. “We’re starting to appear on people’s radars. The power of the IBM brand is valuable; everyone will know who we are but it will mean different things to them.”
That’s surely the nub of it. IBM is a grand marque in hardware, software and outsourcing but most of us don’t associate it with the sorts of creative, design-centric, marketing-friendly services that are so much in demand today. But that’s exactly the space IBM is addressing into with the Interactive Experience (iX) division of which Candy is VP and European leader.
IBM used to be commonly known as Big Blue and it remains a vast beast. About 125,000 people worldwide work for IBM Global Business Services and the business is criss-crossed by vertical industries and four horizontal units, one of which is iX. This has been a big year for iX too, with IBM on an acquisition spree that has seen it add Salesforce.com consulting pioneer Bluewolf and design-centric firms such as German pair Aperto and Ecx.io.
While IBM in traditional IT services might be seen as a rival to Accenture and CSC, the charge in what Candy calls a “global business design practice … shaping and designing new experiences” is seeing it go face to face with other peers that work at the intersection of design, application development, end-customer touch points, marketing and e-commerce.
“We’re starting to come up against a different set of competitors like Razorfish or elements of WPP or Publicis,” says the IBM veteran who hoined with the acquisition of PwC’s consulting practice in 2002. “I do think these jurisdictional boundaries are changing quite quickly.”
IBM has a couple of aces in the hole when it comes to bridging between its heartland IT services and the demands of the new world. One of them is its partnership with Apple that sees it applying the Cupertino company’s technologies to the enterprise. Another is its deep experience in data analytics that can help companies reach insights faster. These, together with an outsize portfolio of technologies, people and contacts, give it a fine chance of prospering at a time when cloud-first, highly mobile and flexible companies are prized.
“Digital content, e-commerce, cognitive, the digital experience, the Internet of Things… all those things are in our DNA and lifeblood,” Candy says. “That’s really focusing changing the nature of how work gets done and how we enable, say, field service engineers and flight service personnel to see what they can do with a tablet infused with insight and analytics.”
Also, Candy believes that the digital experience is an area that’s maturing and going deeper into mature enterprises.
“There’s a bit of a race to the middle taking place: moving from one-off digital experiences and microsites to things that are core to the enterprise,” he says. “Everybody needs to think like a designer so we’re hiring designers, putting in place new career paths, bringing in senior designers from [companies like] DigitasLBi and Razorfish.”
The big SAP implementations, re-platforming projects, datacentre refreshes and operating system upgrades are still a huge part of IBM GBS but the work that iX specialises in moves to a different rhythm and has a different set of expectations.
“There’s still lots of that going on but here [in iX] it’s shorter cycle times, sprints, DevOps, Agile and design thinking, and helping clients change. I spent my entire career in the customer management space and at the end of the day the principles of what companies are wanting to achieve have not changed. But I don’t think we’ve ever had a bigger canvas to do these things.”
In this sphere the race for talent and hiring the smartest people is a large part of what will define success – hence the acquisitions. But one challenge, I suggest, might be to attract the brightest (often alarmingly young) people to work for a mature brand like the 105-year-old IBM, and to ensure that acquired companies don’t lose the thrust that made them attractive in the first place.
“I’m sure we won’t be everybody’s cup of tea but it’s important to retain DNA and culture when acquiring,” Candy says. “But at IBM we do some incredible things like Watson and [cloud development platform] Bluemix and it’s about making sure we get the right people and the right expertise.”
But being of a certain age has its advantages too. After all, how many digital design/development companies know what it’s like to have pioneered business sectors and then had to cope with rivals trying to displace them? Candy says IBM can help identify “ways of working that need to change and to help them disrupt before somebody disrupts them”.
Everybody talks about digital transformation but there might be a better term.
“It’s not transformation but reinvention because there’s never been a tougher time to be in business,” he says. “This is the new normal where the world is constantly in beta.”
It’s a situation that is new in some ways but familiar to IBM watchers. Under Lou Gerstner IBM repainted itself for the Nineties and beyond, relinquishing its dependence on hardware in favour of software and services. Today the company is once more attempting to show that, to use Gerstner’s phrase, “elephants can dance”.
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