I’m at IBM InterConnect 2017 this week and CEO Ginni Rometty is doing the second day keynote. She was a day late because she was opening IBM’s 20th Cloud Data Center in China, likely the most important one for growth that they will have. What I think is fascinating about Rometty is how much she has improved in talking to large audiences over the years. She comes across as conversational and natural; she is talking to us, not at us, and her rehearsal is good enough that she clearly knows her material but does not seem bored with the material.
Now, people with political experience can certainly speak to a subject but there is often that subtle problem: They fundamentally don’t understand what the heck they are speaking about. The word vapid comes to mind when I hear talks like that. Rometty comes across as competent as a speaker, even one of the best, and competent with the material.
Let’s talk about some of the highlights.
One of the things that often makes an IBM talk different is that they often lead with something that isn’t based on technology but based on the customers who use it. Talking about the products that are Enterprise Strong is speaking to the promise that IBM’s solutions, now ranging from quantum technology to Blockchain, are designed not as technology showcases or to give IBM bragging rights, but because they fix real problems for real companies, and they have no problem showcasing each of the large branded companies who not only are using these technologies but helped create them.
This is a unique customer focus that continues to allow IBM to stand out in a field of peers and accurately say it is different.
IBM is a data company and much of what it does is all about data collection. But it must be recognized that there are all types of data and while there is value in data, the true opportunity comes in assuring its accuracy, because inaccurate data is less than worthless. Much of what IBM does is not about just acquiring data but in ensuring that what has been acquired can be relied upon, whether it is customer owned data, licensed data, or if the data is derived. But the data is largely worthless if it can’t be effectively analyzed quickly.
Cognitive at the Core
This is the pillar of the current IBM: the idea that it has Watson and that this tool can be used to analyze the data in real time, providing advice that decision makers need to make in the time frame they need it in. Watson in the cloud is IBM’s new killer application. Now multi-lingual and trained in an increasing variety of verticals ranging from tax preparation to medical consultation, it largely stands alone as the only enterprise-ready and recently cloud hosted artificial intelligence (AI) at scale.
Rometty moved to talking to large customers, starting with AT&T, which spoke to what it saw in the industry and what it needed. So, the talk began with a focus on customers and then proceeded to bring customers on stage to validate that IBM’s view was their view of the future, IBM and its customer in lock step toward a future that both agreed was coming faster than either could deal with alone. This is refreshing because this close coupling to customers is what often has been forgotten by IBM’s competitors. There have been times that even IBM has forgotten this critical skill.
Wrapping Up: It Begins and Ends with the Customer
When Rometty first started as CEO, she was a bit rough but she has matured into the job and on stage. The term stateswoman-like seems to best fit the quality of her talk, but for talks like this it isn’t just about the quality of the presentation, but the nature of the content. Rometty began and ended with a tight focus on the customer, going so far as letting the customer help her conclude the talk so the words were an IBM translation of what the customer wants but native from the customer.
I recall Thomas Watson Jr.’ s advice to the company he would soon leave that has been core to IBM’s amazingly long survival. “Be willing to change everything but who you are.” IBM is about serving its customers. It is clear at InterConnect 2017 that IBM hasn’t forgotten and that the best way to understand what its customers want is to listen to them. Today, we watched IBM listen.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+