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Tech Week: How Big Blue went remote overnight

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 28 July 2020, 9:56 am
Tech Week: How Big Blue went remote overnight

 

IBM's New Zealand managing director Mike Smith, says the Covid-19 pandemic had been "unfair in how it dished out rewards and pain" with many tech companies thriving as other sectors of the economy were devastated.

Smith was talking in a session as part of Tech Week, which is being held virtually this year and features dozens of talks and panel discussions on all aspects of technology in New Zealand.

He said that IBM's New Zealand division was the first to go into lockdown, a move that was soon followed by around 350,000 IBM employees around the world.

"Weirdly and thankfully, there was very little impact to our business during lockdown," Smith told the Tech Week audience. 

"We went to remote working very quickly. We also managed to close four very large deals in the second quarter to [June 30] including one of our largest deals ever. I never would have predicted we'd be able to do that 100 per cent online," he added.

Setting up 35,000 Kiwis to work from home

IBM, an iconic US tech company known as 'Big Blue' in corporate America, had assisted 35,000 Kiwis into remote working in the weeks following lockdown through providing a mix of online services, software, hardware and advice, including many essential workers.

Smooth said that those companies that had already moved much of their operations to the cloud had navigated lockdown relatively well.

"They were able to go remote, were able to easily scale workloads and could adapt the customer experience model to online and digital," he said.

He pointed to wine company Delegat, which saw many of its export markets temporarily inaccessible as other countries went into lockdown. It also faced the complicating factor of having to harvest its grapes during the lockdown.

Delegat had moved to IBM Planning Analytics, a cloud-based software suite so its remote workforce was able to continue to forecast sales and adjust production as needed. Delegat this month reported an unaudited profit after tax of $64.1 million for the year to June 30, up 37 per cent on last year.

Another wine company, Auckland-based Fine Wine Delivery Company, had seen 60 per cent growth in online sales since Covid-19 hit. Prior to the pandemic, the company had digitized 22 years of wine tasting notes and used IBM's Watson artificial intelligence platform to analyse them.

"They fed them into Watson and created a virtual sommelier to help customers using natural language to help them find their favourite wine," said Smith.  

He calls companies applying such technologies "cognitive enterprises" and said the priority now was for businesses to leverage technology to standardise operations that had been established as a response to the pandemic, reduce costs and gear up to be more responsive to the next crisis.

IBM's own surveying showed that most businesses would continue to use a hybrid home-office working model or move closer to a 100 per cent 'work from anywhere' policy, which would only increase the use of cloud-based software and apps and increase the need for cybersecurity.

Preparing for the next shock

"The economic model for cloud is really simple - use more, pay more, use less, pay less. So if your business ran on cloud and your business reduced 50 per cent during Covid, well so would some of your costs automatically. That's the model," he said.

Longer-term, New Zealand businesses would been to think more about supply chain vulnerabilities with future global shocks in mind and address skills shortages in high-value areas of technology.

The pandemic had shown we wouldn't always be able to rely on immigration to supply a skilled tech workforce and recent government initiatives to upskill people had a trades focus.

"That's really focused on trades-based skills for the infrastructure projects. We have to add to this a national reskilling programme for digital skills," said Smith.

Three things had got IBM through the lockdown, said Smith: dedication to the client's success, innovation that matters and trust and responsibility in its relationships.

Said Smith: "This is all connected and becomes your North Star."


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