Irving Wladawsky-Berger's Insights on Technology
By Samuel Greengard
Few IT industry executives boast a résumé as impressive as Irving Wladawsky-Berger. After spending 37 years at IBM—where he was responsible for identifying emerging technologies and marketplace developments critical to the IT industry—the Cuban born engineer (who came to the United States at age 15) has worked on cloud, Internet, e-business and supercomputing initiatives for IBM and served as a strategic advisor to Citigroup since 2008. He is also a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a visiting lecturer at MIT's Sloan School of Management and Engineering Systems Division.
In addition, Wladawsky-Berger, who holds an M.S. and Ph. D. in physics from the University of Chicago, served as co-chair of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee from 1997 to 2001, under President Bill Clinton. He currently serves on the board of directors for four firms and is on the advisory board for USC's Annenberg Innovation Lab. Baseline recently caught up with Wladawsky-Berger and asked him to offer his thoughts and insights on current trends in technology and the IT field.
Baseline: What is your take on today's IT environment and how it's changing?
Irving Wladawsky-Berger: These days, technology permeates every aspect of business and every aspect of the economy. It is extending its reach throughout society. There is no longer a distinction between which parts of the business relate to IT and which do not. Everything relates to IT.
BL: What do you see as the IT megatrends?
IW-B: Over the last few years, things have gone to a whole new level with the advent of mobile devices, cloud computing, social media and big data. We have a remarkable array of apps, services and information available. These tools are remapping the way people interact and the way organizations approach a wide array of tasks.
Succeeding in this environment requires more than technology. Organizations require proper governance in order to address very real concerns about security, privacy and regulatory compliance.
BL: What is the effect of the technology convergence now taking place?
IW-B: The digital enterprise is here. It's not so much about how an enterprise uses any given technology as how it combines and intertwines them. The nexus points are mobile, social, clouds and big data. The equation is increasingly 1+1+1+1=44, for organizations that get it right.
BL: Where do BYOD and the consumerization of IT fit into the enterprise picture?
IW-B: In many cases, employees have daily access to technology that is more advanced than what they use in the workplace. It has been described as the Sunday night-Monday morning scenario. They play with the most advanced technology on Sunday night and then drop down a few generations of technology when they go to work on Monday morning.
Nevertheless, consumer technology is rapidly filtering into the enterprise and increasingly driving IT. And, in terms of BYOD, the cat is out of the bag. Employees are demanding that they use their own smartphones, tablets and other devices. As a result, organizations must develop the right processes and methodologies. They must ensure that these devices and tools are well-integrated and that the right security protections are in place.
BL: How does this changing technology landscape impact CIOs and other top IT executives?
IW-B: There is currently an interesting set of discussions taking place about whether the CIO position is evolving to become the chief digital officer. Traditionally, the CIO was viewed as the key executive handling IT operations across the company. This remains an extremely important function.
But somebody in the organization must take responsibility for pulling together all these digital strategies and technologies. Someone must take a strategic view and orchestrate all these different capabilities and services, including the cloud, with legacy IT infrastructure—especially as more and more executives in different departments dictate technology decisions or play a role in making key decisions.
BL: Clouds have clearly moved into the mainstream over the last couple of years. Are companies becoming more comfortable with the concept and less fearful about security?
IW-B: Many companies have recognized that they're a lot more agile and strategic through the use of clouds. This approach also allows an organization to bypass capital investments and the constant challenge of finding IT people with the right skills.
In many cases—particularly for smaller firms—cloud service providers offer better security than an organization can achieve internally. The most important thing is to focus on security and engage in the necessary review process so that the right protections are in place.
BL: What else should business and IT executives think about moving forward?
IW-B: Many of the most disruptive ideas come from the start-up world and then, over time, make their way into more established companies. Business models are evolving and changing due to the convergence of digital technologies. Data is at the center of everything. It's not so much about big data; the focus must be on smart data.
Organizations must go beyond merely collecting data. It's all about how they analyze it and put it into play. It can be used in so many ways: to understand customer behavior, introduce predictive maintenance or optimize revenue streams in ways that wouldn't have been possible a few years ago.
BL: How can business and IT leaders begin to get their hands around big data?
IW-B: First, it's probably best to move away from the term big data. In the end, it's all data. The difference today is that we've entered a high-volume and high-velocity environment. The challenges and opportunities are huge.
The key is how you approach and leverage the data. There's a growing need for data scientists and subject-matter experts, particularly in vertical industries. We are moving away from people using their gut to make decisions and toward more scientifically driven decisions. This is happening across industries and it's even affecting the design of organizations. It's truly a revolution.
BL: Any final thoughts?
IW-B: Radically different times demand new and different thinking. IT leaders need to take a very strategic view and help lead the organization into the future.