Mumbai: Contrary to popular opinion, even technology companies have to invest continually to push digital so that they can innovate and stay relevant to their customers. International Business Machines Corp.’s (IBM’s) sharpening focus on digital is a case in point.
The company already had Watson, which it describes as a “cognitive” system that uses artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to “enable a new partnership between people and computers”. Yet, realizing that technologies alone do not help companies make the digital cut, IBM appointed Bob Lord as its first chief digital officer (CDO) last April. Lord now heads IBM’s Digital Business Group (DBG), and is responsible for overseeing the digital sales organization, digital marketing, and the company’s ecosystem and startup group.
Then, in a move that is “reflective of India’s importance in the tech ecosystem”, IBM performed a similar exercise and appointed Nipun Mehrotra as the company’s CDO for India and South Asia, and head of the DBG unit that IBM India had set up sometime in February. This was one of the first IBM CDO positions outside the US.
Customers are looking for innovation, and start-ups are looking for customers. “If we can bring these two things together, IBM can play a stellar role in the way we help transform the ecosystem, as well as transform IBM,” reasons Mehrotra who himself met about “500 to 600 start-ups last year”, and “closely mentors about 20-25 of them even today”.
When IBM executives talk about “ecosystem”, they refer to the company’s estimated 21 million developers globally, 3.5 million developers in India, the 5,000-odd technology start-ups in India, 120 venture capitalists (VCs), start-up accelerators and academic institutions “that feed tomorrow’s technologies”.
Building the digital edifice
DBG in India broadly mirrors its global counterpart, comprising four groups. One of these groups focuses on programme management with the ecosystem—working with developers, start-ups, and investors, etc.
With the rapid advent of cloud-based technologies, public cloud or hybrid approach, there is a lot of influence being garnered by developers in terms of making choices, says Seema Kumar, country leader (developer ecosystem and startups) at IBM India and South Asia, who heads this group. She explains that “there is choice in terms of choosing language, programming. Today, developers are experimenting and are not restricted to one domain”.
Developers, acknowledges Kumar, is a broad term—it could be an enterprise developer, student, or a start-up. IBM, she adds, focuses on some key areas for developers. Data science is one of them. Cognitive, AI and blockchain are some others.
Kumar points out that IBM India works with early stage start-ups, those growing and scaling up, and “extremely mature” ones too, that “have made it big and are now looking at the next level”. IBM caters to the needs (solutions, training, designing, etc.) of these start-ups through its Global Entrepreneur Program. Start-ups are given access to IBM’s platform and they can access its cloud and related services. “It is available at $1,000 credit per month. That is the basic one. Some start-ups come in our accelerator program and get even 10,000,” points out Kumar.
The company also runs an annual challenge where it invites nominations from start-ups, and the winners get to showcase their prowess in front of a panel of VCs and IBM.
The second unit is the technical group that focuses on “cognitive”. Headed by Prashant Pradhan, executive director of IBM Watson and cloud and the company’s chief developer advocate at IBM India and South Asia, it comprises data scientists and machine learning (ML) experts. “That group is actually a catalyst because it is helping push some of the use cases (industry jargon for ‘examples’) which customers are thinking about,” says Mehrotra.
Explains Pradhan: “This is basically deep testing. So we have machine learning and deep learning experts, and then there is a larger set of high calibre developers who are basically Watson API (application programming interfaces) and cloud developers.”
While Watson—IBM’s supercomputing system that even beat champion Jeopardy players in 2011—now analyses mountains of unstructured data for companies across sectors including healthcare and education, Bluemix is an implementation of IBM’s open cloud architecture based on Cloud Foundry (an open source platform as a service). All Watson APIs are available on the cloud along with Bluemix APIs.
Pradhan adds that the idea behind the structure is that IBM is basically trying to get its big clients like telecom services providers and banks to adopt platforms—whether it is AI or cloud—and give the “cognitive” push. The second group comprises independent software vendors, who build on this technology and get the benefit from AI. Finally, there are start-ups that mostly “tend to be applying AI in particular and cloud more generally”. “We are trying to see that how the platform can add the value to them so that they don’t have to start everything from scratch and rebuild on top of existing building blocks as far as AI is concerned,” he says.
The third group is the marketplace. This is a digital marketplace which has IBM products on it. The marketplace, says Mehrotra, allows customers to feel, touch and experience the products. “You can actually download the stuff and start experimenting with it. You can take a trial offer for the cloud or even Bluemix. But as you go forward, my intention is also to get third-party start-up products and their capabilities also featured on this marketplace. That is when it truly becomes a marketplace,” he adds.
The fourth DBG unit comprises its digital sales team which covers about 4,000-5,000 customers. “This is a very large sales team in terms of the breadth of customers. If you take away the top 100 companies in India, almost everyone from the rest is part of this group. And that is very sizeable,” notes Mehrotra.
The critical thing is that everyone talks about AI, Bluemix and the cloud. The problem that everyone faces is the lack of deep content. There are not enough use cases that people can take advantage of. “So, we have a team here to help our customers kick-start with use cases. At the same time, we are also working with a bunch of start-ups and helping them conceive their AI plans and thinking-through off their use cases using cognitive and AI,” says Mehrotra.
India is the second-largest developer market and has a growing start-up ecosystem. Karan Bajwa, managing director at IBM India and regional general manager for India and South Asia, believes the company’s solutions can help businesses develop a “differentiated model using deep insights”. “IBM can help start-ups co-innovate with our clients to tackle some of the real-world challenges using enterprise-level technology solutions and build a globally scalable model,” he says.
Working on AI with start-ups
Bengaluru-based Talview, a five-year-old human resources technology start-up, uses IBM’s mentorship and technologies to automate the hiring process using video assessments and algorithms.
“Our vision is to bring efficiency and automation to the hiring process, and deploy an objective evaluation framework. This automation is made possible due to cognitive APIs available on IBM Bluemix and Watson,” says Mani K. Talview, the company’s chief technology officer, who adds that his start-up has “processed more than a million candidates till date”.
Talview uses IBM Watson’s “Speech-to-Text APIs that transcode (convert) audio captured during an assessment into text”. This data, then, is augmented with data from others sources that are converted into text format using the Document Conversion API. The unstructured aggregated text is processed through a gamut of Language APIs (including Natural Language Understanding, Classifier, Personality Insights, and Tone Analyzer) for linguistic analysis, transforming free text into structured well-defined models.
These models are then fed into the Tradeoff Analytics API to create a “multi-objective ranking of candidates for selection”. The ML service enables the solution to be self-learning and provides the ability to fine-tune evaluation models tailored for geographies, sectors, roles and user specific requirements, according to Talview. Going forward, he adds, Talview wants to “eliminate” manual processes “using advanced ML tools with deep learning algorithms available in the Watson Machine Learning Service”.
Similarly, Shivaam Sharma runs a Bengaluru-based start-up, Trans Neuron Technologies Pvt. Ltd, which he describes as a “skill-tech and ed-tech company that has AI and ML at the heart of its cloud platforms”. The company has developed an analytics engine and an analytics platform to harness the power of Big Data and in-house data to help firms and institutions.
As founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of this company started in October 2015, Sharma uses “Watson Cognitive Analytics” to run the “Cognitive Counselor called eMitra and Resume Analyser”. eMitra is an ML algorithm that is being trained on data from different sectors including healthcare, agriculture and automotive. It, then, guides the youth to the right training centre and job role. “We hope to have eMitra available to the public soon,” says Sharma.
Trans Neuron Technologies’ eKaushal also has a Learning Engine called iTrack, which Sharma likens to “every student’s personal college on the cloud”. Students, he explains, can subscribe to iTrack and take courses, have access to practice labs (for programming languages like C, C++, Java, PHP, Python, HTML and Hadoop), do projects, and connect with mentors, besides applying for jobs and internships. The company, Sharma adds, has set an ambitious target to bring 30 million users on eKaushal in the next five years.
If a start-up is not using AI, it is already behind the curve, according to Mehrotra. “We should start thinking about data monetization and how to build data patterns using the vast amount of data with us. The true capability here is the ability to co-create assets with our customers—start-ups using IBM capabilities,” he says, adding, “They (the start-ups) use the Watson platform but we have not built an asset or capability for them. In some cases, we have helped them get started on their own. In some other cases, we have educated them, or we might build something for them just to demonstrate the process.”
According to Kumar, IBM has seen a “positive response from a large number of start-ups. The ones that we have spent time and invested in nurturing, really value our contribution—whether it is about the technology side or visibility by connecting them with the investors. We have got some very good relationships as a result of all this. We need to do much more. It is up to us how we take this forward”.
Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst and CEO at Greyhound Knowledge Group, believes the formation of DBG at IBM India to be a “welcome move”, one that augurs well for the “company’s intent to focus and invest in digital transformation opportunities”.
“Their decision to appoint Nipun at the helm, an experienced IBM hand, will allow them (in theory) to navigate the traditional IBM setup, make the most of it and still make changes to deal and people structures best suited to deliver on digital transformation projects. This appointment comes at a time when the India management is going through a change under Karan Bajwa’s leadership—an important moment at IBM India that signals their intent to transform into a new company,” says Gogia.
He believes DBG will now have to focus on “bringing together threads from different existing IBM business units and work at adding value to each of their deals in terms of adding cloud and cognitive. This will be a new way of doing things for the old IBM that is used to selling cloud and cognitive separately and not as part of the existing deals. To be able to allow for these changes, the new IBM will have to structure teams and deals in a new way, and hence requires them to transform within while it helps its clients transform”.
Mehrotra, on his part, acknowledges that there are quite a few challenges to becoming truly digital.
“Internally, we are still not at a point where everybody understands what should be done with the ecosystem. We need to understand how to get the teams comfortable with the work they are doing, how we should work with developers and the ecosystem, etc. Even how do I engage with the start-ups and work with them is a question,” he says.
According to Mehrotra, the developer community too has “very little awareness” about what IBM can do. “If you go back 10-15 years, we were always a developer focused organization. We have always worked with developers for so many years. But in the last 10 years, we have lost some of that capability. We just need to resurrect that,” he adds.
Externally, the biggest challenge is that IBM is “still not recognized as an ecosystem-friendly company”, according to Mehrotra. “We need to change that,” he says, concluding, “In the last one year, people have started recognizing that IBM is focusing on ecosystem. They feel IBM is moving fast.”
Consultancies too turn digital agencies
Consultancies such as Accenture Interactive, PwC Digital Services, IBM iX and Deloitte Digital are making their presence felt and also giving stiff competition to established advertising agencies like WPP, Omnicom, Publicis Groupe, Interpublic and Dentsu.
The 2017 Advertising Age’s ranking of the 10 largest agency companies in the world included the “marketing services units of Accenture, PwC, IBM and Deloitte” that had a “combined revenue of $13.2 billion”. The analysis is based on an evaluation of more than 700 agencies, networks and companies.
Accenture Interactive was declared the largest digital network, both worldwide and in the US, in Ad Age’s Agency Report 2017, released on 1 May. Accenture Interactive reported the highest worldwide revenue of any digital network, at $4.4 billion for the firm’s fiscal year 2016 (fiscal year ended 31 August), Accenture said in a press statement.
2016 was a milestone year for Accenture Interactive, including having launched the first 3D virtual car visualizer using augmented reality; Accenture Genome (uses customer interactions to create living profiles based on the most unique aspects of an individual), and one of the first customer service chatbots in the airline industry.