Harriet Green is currently general manager of Watson customer engagement, Watson Internet of Things (IoT) and education at International Business Machines Corp. (IBM). Prior to that, she held numerous leadership positions including that of chief executive officer (CEO) of Thomas Cook Group, CEO of Premier Farnell Plc, and senior vice-president of Arrow Electronics Inc. A recipient of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to electronics in 2010, Green was in Mumbai last week to announce IBM’s partnership with Unlimit—a business venture of the Anil Ambani-owned Reliance Group—to jointly develop IoT solutions. In an interview on the sidelines of that event, she explained why she is excited about IoT, the role that Watson has to play in this space and her thoughts on gender diversity. Edited excerpts:
What made you join IBM after Thomas Cook?
IBM was so much of an obvious choice. I was a client of IBM for two decades. So, I knew the quality of technology and people. The thing that is central to IoT is data privacy and security, and these are at the core of IBM’s value construct as well as system. I interviewed with many companies and thought that you cannot do this type of job globally if you are worried how the data is protected and this morning in the session, we talked about how special we are in that area and also the embedded security in our capabilities. I was very excited to come and help IBM in its transformation, knowing many senior members and having been its client taking new technologies global as well as new PoCs (proof of concept) of technologies.
What exactly excites you about IoT and digital transformation?
I think that this (IoT) is the fourth wave of digitization—connecting things to things, and things to people involving a huge wave of connectivity, information and data. There is so much data, information and insights, structured and unstructured, and IBM Watson was designed for this type of problem because only 20% of the world’s data is searchable. The remaining 80% belongs to the archives. When we are connecting people, this sense of data privacy and absolute security is central. Watson is able to not only take the structured data like spreadsheets, which are processed and programmatic, but also the unstructured data—(like) the streams of video content. It feeds all this back to you in natural language. This is so much more than speech to text.
Can you provide some examples of how Watson is helping customers across sectors?
Watson extends way beyond healthcare, though its capabilities in health have been phenomenal. For instance, during the horrific weather that was experienced in Mumbai, Bangladesh and the eastern seaboard in North America, we provided almost half a trillion insights from the weather companies that we own (in October 2015, IBM acquired most of the Weather Co. including Weather.com), trying to ensure that airlines get the latest data—weather maps, pictures of the atmosphere and some other data. Inside Watson IoT, it is how you take the greatest skills of, say a robotic company, ABB, that has huge manufacturing plants for robotics, and then take the cognitive capabilities of Watson to be able to check to a much higher quality than a human can learn with augmented intelligence.
For example, even with Reliance (Anil Ambani group), we are building transformer predictive maintenance. You have distribution transformers which are spread out in all the localities but there are so many people tweeting that there is no electricity in my area. This involves not only doing a real-time analysis of what is happening but also using that to predict the average life of a transformer. Similarly with Tech Mahindra, we are building asset tracking solutions. It could be any asset on the shop floor. It could be a people or machine issue.
IBM’s Green Horizons initiative is taking (and analysing) government data, satellite data and local weather station data, to help tackle issues related to air pollution and climate change. The results may help the governments in Delhi and Beijing to identify and reduce the pollutants.
Some clients in India say IBM Watson is expensive and needs humongous amounts of quality data to justify its use. What’s your take?
From a technology perspective, we are breaking down the overall functionality of Watson into simple developer APIs (application programming interfaces). Watson’s APIs have been ubiquitously available for anyone to work with. We have made a huge set of APIs which could be speech to text, text to speech, natural language, video analytics, image analytics, chatbots, etc. It is not a large monolith that is expensive.
It is about openness of the environment and India’s role is important. We recently launched a machine learning hub in our Bengaluru lab where we invite our customers to use just the machine learning services because that is what they are interested in. There is a (tremendous) amount of digital knowledge and capability in India. I do not know if it is factually true but the number of chief digital officers in India, which is a very significant part of the transformation, is very high.
What are your thoughts on the barriers to women rising to the top in the technology space?
I think it is a very important question and another reason for joining IBM, which was one of the very first companies to embrace equal pay before the equal pay Act came in. We were one of the very first companies to employ a female VP (vice-president), and an African-American VP. In the over 100 years we have institutionalized, within the business, a very strong sense of diversity and inclusion. This means that regardless of your age, sex, colour, breed, sexuality and your physical ability, if you are good, you will get it (job or position). I, for example, do not have a technology degree but that is part of the culture at IBM.
How did you feel when you received OBE for services in electronics? Is there anything specific you are supposed to do as an OBE recipient?
No one exactly knows who puts you forward for an OBE. It is part of the British societal secret fabric. I was rewarded for my services to global electronics and I was lucky enough to go and meet the Queen at Windsor Castle, and I actually took my mom with me. You stand in a long line and it is very nerve-wracking. It is a beautiful palace. When I got to be in front of the Queen, she said, “Hmm, electronics. Is that like iPads, etc.?" and I said yes. She said “Well done" and gave me the beautiful OBE. It was a very special moment. My prior work had been in selling and supporting semiconductors globally. So, I think it was around women in tech, even then, from a British perspective.
As an OBE recipient, you are supposed to be an ambassador for whatever you receive your OBE for but also being a helpful British citizen. I did join the British Chamber of Commerce advisory board. I sit on that board.