Businesses were not prepared for the pandemic, warns IBM chief executive

Sreeram Visvanathan is the new chief executive of IBM UK and Ireland. The 53 year-old is from Bangalore in India and previously led IBM’s global Public Sector team.

In the middle of London Tech Week, he talked to the Evening Standard about the future – and admits many businesses simply were not prepared for the pandemic.

You’re in the first week of your new role. How does it feel to be the chief executive of IBM?

It’s a real privilege to be appointed. IBM has been a strong voice in the business and technology community for decades and I look forward to continuing that legacy. I spent a number of my formative years in the UK and have since worked with clients around the world. This has enriched my perspectives on the role of technology in shaping society and business, and has encouraged me to always challenge the status quo. For me, London has always been a city that shares that same outlook, and I’m looking forward to reconnecting with other businesses here, particularly as we work together to get through this pandemic.

From IBM’s perspective, how is current sentiment in the business world post-lockdown?

Now we are a few months down the line from the initial shock, organisations are undergoing an important process of reflection. A recent survey of over 300 business leaders we commissioned from Omdia discovered that the vast majority (78%) of business leaders believe their continuity/disaster recovery plans were inadequate or short-sighted. They simply weren’t prepared. They now need to move forward and apply the lessons learnt. The organisation of the future needs to be resilient, innovative, flexible and as agile as change itself.

Where should business start if they want to become more resilient?

As London’s businesses seek to emerge stronger, it’s critical they rethink digital and business models. Organisations must understand the data and insights they have gathered, factor in changes to customer behaviour, stabilise supply chains and ongoing operational conditions while working to mitigate against the possibility of further crises.

IT will be central to all of these processes, so it’s vital to review the role of IT in the business. Critically, the discipline needs to be seen as far more than just an enabling function or tool for survival. I firmly believe that, with the right approach, IT can become the leader of the organisation in terms of customer engagement, product development, agility, innovation and resilience.

In what ways has technology helped businesses thrive and survive during the pandemic?

The numbers speak for themselves. At a time when business infrastructure was severely disrupted, 88% of businesses we spoke to said technology had helped them mitigate the impact. Similarly, companies that were further advanced in their digital transformation programmes felt better equipped to meet the challenges of lockdown. This was most apparent in their ability to be agile, and to switch quickly to remote working.

Conversely, almost all (98%) companies who were in the early stages of digital transformation felt that they should have invested earlier in data-driven and cloud-based technologies. These organisations have learnt that digital readiness is key and it’s important to have the technology in place before you need it.

Which technologies should businesses prioritise?

This is a unique opportunity for organisations to refocus their digital transformation efforts on customers. Businesses would be well-advised to place greater emphasis on capabilities that deliver direct value to the business frontline – particularly in engaging customers and better serving the demands of remote customers.

It’s also an important moment to rethink workflows. Our research shows that the pandemic has led businesses to adopt hybrid strategies and shift many operations and offerings to the cloud. 95% of respondents agree that moving applications to the cloud had benefited their organisation during the pandemic, with 94% anticipating further investment to accelerate recovery. This will be augmented by investments in edge computing and IoT to further build out their digital platforms.

What role will AI play?

Increased use of data and AI has become essential to help organisations garner insights that allow them to be more agile and better serve customers. Our study confirmed this, with 57% of respondents intending to invest in business wide AI, both embedded in applications and as part of a business data platform, with supply chain and customer insights as primary use cases.

A great example of this was TSB seeing an urgent need to give customers immediate access to the measures the bank had introduced during the pandemic, so it launched a new Smart Agent function on its website. This gave customers the chance to ‘chat’ live online with TSB staff for the very first time.

What has London got going for it as a tech hub?

Well, I’m talking to you during a week where the capital is celebrating London Tech Week, which is a 10-day celebration (so not quite a week) of the innovation in London’s tech sector.

We’re at a really key point this year in shaping the future of our industry and our city through tech. Take our universities for example. UCL students used IBM Watson to develop a VR game which helps users, like the elderly, feel less isolated. And University of the Arts London held its Graduate Showcase through a digital platform created by IBM and hosted on its public cloud. What we do right now will define the future, and London Tech Week provides a common ground to start those conversations.

So, what exactly can London’s businesses do to make a success of the return to work?

Everything begins with your employees. 85% of the businesses we spoke to made new investments to manage the shift to remote working, and we know that evolving flexible working models continues to be important. However, Londoners are keen to get back to some sort of normality, and this must be balanced with the need to protect the health and safety of everyone while empowering people to get their work done.

How confident are you that businesses have learned from the lessons of the pandemic?

Personally, I’m convinced that tomorrow’s organisations will be more agile, fuelled by data, guided by AI insight and able to work in any cloud environment. Ultimately, I believe that technology can and should help everyone, and through this pandemic, we’ve seen that the possibilities of technology are endless. What we do with that realisation is now down to us.