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Home >Companies >People >Firms need to invest for a cool computing era: IBM India’s Narayanan

Vanitha Narayanan is an International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) veteran, having served the company in various roles for about 25 years. In an interview last week, Narayanan—who took over as managing director of IBM India Pvt. Ltd from Shanker Annaswamy in January 2013—underscored how technology firms are moving beyond mere automation to mining data and analysing it to help companies grow. IBM has about 9,000 consultants around the world who do analytics-based projects, with almost 50% of them based in India, she pointed out, adding that the company is also encouraging private developers in India to use the power of cloud computing when building townships. Narayanan also spoke about Watson, IBM’s artificially intelligent computer system, the implication of the renewal of the outsourcing deal by telecom services provider Bharti Airtel Ltd and the way ahead for IBM in the country. Edited excerpts:

How is IBM coping up with the shifts in computing—from a personal computer-based architecture to one based on mobile devices and cloud?

Traditional IT (information technology) over the last 100 years has been about merely automating. It has moved on to processing data. However, this is not a differentiator.

Data is a differentiating factor, lending a competitive advantage that will change industries and how we react and respond. Everybody is talking analytics today, but it is useful only when you put it in the context of industry and in the context of the function. For example: how do I leverage analytics to improve supply chain in an automobile context? How do I use analytics to improve risk management in banking? This is historically IBM’s core expertise and the way we have gone to market for many, many years.

Cloud changes business models and lowers barriers of entry for people to do business—locally as well as globally. It is more than a technology—be it private, public or hybrid. It is about the business model and here in India we have seen it pick up in an extraordinary way.

Third, the mobile and social system of engagement is becoming a very important pillar. Social and mobile has completely changed how we do business. Look at India—50% of our population is below 25; two-thirds are below 30. We have a generation that has really grown up with the Internet, and a huge percentage is very social and mobile. So when they come to the workforce, we are not going to get completely different patterns and behaviours. The smart device will transcend and cut across both the professional and personal persona at work and home. This is probably one of the biggest changes happening today—the way people expect to consume IT capability.

How is your India business doing?

Our conversations are always about high-end investments. And we continue to look at India as a destination and a talent hub. (IBM does not provide a break-up of its India revenue, but according to Dataquest, a Cyber Media (India) Ltd publication, IBM India’s revenue was 18,033 crore in fiscal 2013, up 17% from a year ago. It has an estimated 150,000 employees in India). We might have had some slowdown in the recent past, but in the medium- to long-term basis, the number of cities that will be built, infrastructure around roads, energy, power, water and electricity (in India) is huge. This is where I think our whole “smarter approach to building" comes in. The best way to optimize is to make sure that you don’t waste any supply at any point of time, whether it is water or power.

So our whole Smarter Planet, Smarter Cities continue to be very relevant in India. We are working with several private developers who are building townships for both commercial as well as residential services. Cloud gives them another option in terms of how they leverage services and capabilities.

One of the things that IBM did with industry bodies like Siam (Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers) and Acma (Automotive Component Manufacturers Association) is to actually create a platform for cloud-based software solutions. This solution really drives value to the industry, because if you are a small auto supplier, you are no longer disadvantaged while interacting with big OEMs (original equipment manufacturers).

We also have a cloud computing centre in India. We have got private clouds that we are building for customers here. We have IBM data centres that support cloud initiatives and we have SoftLayer (an IBM company that provides cloud infrastructure as a service from 13 data centres in the US, Asia, and Europe).

With regards to data, we have got 9,000 consultants around the world who do analytics-based projects. About half of them are in India.

Where does Watson fit into this picture?

We do development in India for global customers and we have got an initial product release from India via the Watson engagement adviser. There are tremendous capabilities in some of the areas like education and healthcare; the possibilities of applying in India for both business and social conversations are also huge. (Watson combines natural language processing, does hypothesis generation and evaluation, and evidence-based learning to get smarter with each iteration and interaction). The possibilities are so alluring that everybody is interested. But we haven’t found organizations here (in India) to make the investments in terms of laying the foundation, and building the capabilities (for Watson).

Organizations need to invest in data, people, skills and resources to build a cool new computing era.

You recently renewed your outsourcing deal with Bharti Airtel (for five years, reducing the order by more than half the size of the 10-year one that expired at the end of March). Are things panning out differently in the telecom space?

It’s a significant journey with a client (Airtel) for a decade, and then for another five years. Over the last few years, telcos invested effectively in 3G (third-generation services), but the next part of the journey is about data services, social and mobile, and how information is delivered. Our journey with telcos will be about data, customer experience, data services for customers as well as (analysing) the enormous amounts of data that the telcos have, and mining it in really creative and innovative ways to give them a competitive edge. We also work with telecom clients in terms of how they support mobility.

What is the way ahead?

You will see IBM leading and changing the conversation on how cloud is being used in this market. You will see us continue to work with clients—CIOs (chief information officers), CFOs (chief financial officers), different stakeholders—on using analytics to drive relevant business outcomes. We are seeing many more CEOs (chief executive officers) today who are taking a position to say data is a corporate resource. We are also seeing CEOs look for chief data architects and chief data officers.

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