IBM’s Ginni Rometty – Innovation, Discomfort and Growth

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  November 30, 2016

One of the more unusual and impressive sessions at IBM’s recent World of Watson (WoW) customer and partner event in Las Vegas was the closing day keynote by the company’s chairman, president and CEO, Virginia “Ginni” Rometty.

Why unusual? Because for many years, IBM’s senior-most leaders have seldom presented at its public-facing business conferences, mostly leaving keynote responsibilities to unit leaders or product, service and sales executives. In many cases, that was simply a matter of personal preference or reflective of the intense time and scheduling pressures that come with being IBM’s CEO.

But Rometty has chosen a different course, especially since May 2015 when she keynoted at the first WoW conference and then a few days later the IBM Security Summit, both in New York. This year, Rometty keynoted at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas (a first for an IBM CEO), the World Health Care Congress, WoW and the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing (GHC).

Why do I call the WoW keynote impressive? Because Rometty, quite simply, “owned the room,” speaking forthrightly with confidence, intelligence and humor. She also demonstrated a gift for exemplary timing that set guests, including GM CEO Mary Barra and U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. at ease and left the audience both satisfied and wanting to hear more.

That’s never an easy task but Rometty achieved it with so little apparent effort that she left more than a few of the tech industry’s intensively self-cultivated and self-conscious “rock star” CEOs in her dust.

On November 9th, Rometty traveled to San Francisco to speak at IBM’s annual Watson Developers Conference, followed by a dinner hosted by the Churchill Club, a Silicon Valley-based organization that facilitates the exchange of ideas, opinions and viewpoints among business leaders and technology innovators. Prior to dinner, Rometty engaged in a Q&A session with Promod Haque, a senior managing partner at Norwest Ventures. Following are a few thoughts on their exchange.

Cognitive origins

Not surprisingly, Rometty focused many of her initial comments on IBM’s Watson platform and cognitive computing issues but she delved into areas beyond those she touched on at WoW. For example, she noted that IBM’s choice of “cognitive” computing to describe Watson’s innovations arose from the concept of “cognitive overload.”

That term relates to research on problem solving performed in the late 1980s by educational psychologist John Sweller who believed that instructional design could be used to reduce cognitive load and thus improve the performance of students and other learners. Since heavy cognitive load or overload tends to increase errors and interfere with tasks, finding ways to reduce it or mitigate its effects can be valuable for individuals and organizations alike.

In the case of businesses, Rometty stated that cognitive overload is tied to the massive, ever larger quantities of data that organizations continually create, store and manage. Those processes carry inherent burdens of their own but the greater concern is what you can make out of that data that will benefit the business and its customers.

The Watson difference

To that point, Rometty noted that IBM considers its cognitive solutions and services to be advisory in nature, augmenting human intelligence and intelligent processes. That makes IBM Watson a considerably different proposition than the work some other vendors are doing in developing artificial intelligence (AI) technologies meant to replicate or entirely replace human interactions.

How does IBM can assist its customers with these offerings? Rometty mentioned three specific areas;

  1. Provide cognitive services that augment and improve specific tasks and processes, like speeding the efficiency and accuracy of healthcare diagnoses and treatment options, thus increasing positive outcomes for patients
  2. Help clarify data ownership issues, especially reinforcing how organizations do and should own their information assets and related insights, not the advanced analytics vendors they engage
  3. Use its considerable reach and influence across multiple global industries to develop the diverse and robust partner ecosystem needed to deliver innovative, replicable cognitive solutions and applicable data sources

The coming Cognitive Era

Rometty noted that IBM made a large early bet on cognitive (in the shape of its Watson R&D efforts) that was also highly risky. But after examining the potential of numerous new business and development opportunities, the company determined that cognitive was the one technology that was likely to become worth more rather than less over time.

In a way, you could say that IBM chose to invest in itself since cognitive complements the company’s human and technological resources particularly well. As a result, it was no surprise that Rometty expressed her optimism about what the company has accomplished with Watson to date, as well as her belief that along with being a valuable business resource cognitive will mark the next era in technology.

Embracing discomfort

Rometty and Haque’s discussion was wide-ranging but I found her comments about IBM’s work in Blockchain to be particularly interesting and relevant. In essence, Blockchain provides a foundation for creating and managing easily accessible yet entirely secure business interactions. In fact, Rometty noted that Blockchain is applicable to literally any kind of supply chain, along with other complex business processes that involve multiple parties and/or transactions.

Rometty described the success of Everledger, a U.K.-based company that is using IBM Blockchain to record, track and protect Kimberly Process diamond transactions. She also referred to a recent deal IBM struck with Wal-Mart to secure and enhance the supply chain for its outlets in China. Rometty concluded her Blockchain comments by saying she believes the technology will eventually “do for business interactions what the Internet did for information.”

Toward the end of her conversation with Promod Haque, Rometty became reflective, detailing some of the challenges of leading a company of IBM’s size and complexity through the ongoing, dynamic shifts in key markets and industries. She noted: “What’s true of people and companies is that growth and comfort cannot coexist. The challenge for both companies and people is to willingly embrace the discomfort that is a natural part of growth.”

Final analysis

What did I come away with from the Churchill Club event? First and foremost, that IBM is lucky to have so able a chief executive and representative to publicly present and defend its strategic vision. That’s particularly important with technically complex subjects, including cognitive computing, associated augmented intelligence and emerging areas like Blockchain.

It’s entirely too easy for IT executives, especially those who love their products and development efforts, to get lost in the technological weeds, baffling or entirely losing their audiences in the process. What has set apart IBM’s efforts around Watson in this regard is the company’s careful coupling of substantial technological advancements with their practical effects.

In essence, it isn’t enough to do cool stuff—you also need to demonstrate how and why people’s lives will be better because of your organization’s efforts. IBM understands that and Rometty is an able, even gifted communicator of her company’s viewpoint. As a result, I expect most of the Churchill Club attendees came away from the evening with a better understanding of IBM’s positions and accomplishments.

Did Rometty paint a bold picture of IBM’s strategy, and how the company views and plans to ensure the future of the industry? She certainly spoke expansively about the company’s accomplishments which is what you’d expect from any CEO. Rometty’s statements about the coming “era” of cognitive computing, and about Blockchain doing for business interactions what the Internet did for information were hugely bullish by virtually any measure.

Then again, considering IBM’s performance on her watch, those are claims I take seriously. Despite rapid, often unprecedented changes in its industry and core markets, the company continues to profitably deliver innovations critical to its customers and partners. Ginni Rometty’s comment about willingly embracing the discomfort that comes with growth could well be the key to understanding IBM’s remarkable longevity and the continuing vitality of its executive leadership.

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