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Executive interview: Harriet Green, IBM’s internet of things chief

Former Thomas Cook CEO is leading IBM's charge into the IoT, and is pushing its Watson AI technology as a unique differentiator

The internet of things (IoT) is understandably viewed by technology companies large and small as the next great wave of development in the digital age.

For IBM – perceived by some as a lumbering giant that was slow to respond to major IT trends such as mobile and cloud – it is essential to take an early lead in this emerging market. Perhaps that explains the decision to look outside the company for a high-profile business executive to head its IoT charge.

Step forward Harriet Green, previously group CEO of one of the UK’s best-known consumer brands – holiday company Thomas Cook – and formerly chief executive of electronics distributor Premier Farnell. Green is a big hitter – a former Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year and Leader of the Year in the 2013 UK National Business Awards.

Sadly, but not untypically for tabloid coverage of successful female business leaders, she has also been the subject of some intrusive British national newspaper reporting that focused on personal matters over the fact she grew Thomas Cook’s market worth from £148m to more than £2bn in little more than two years.

By the time she left the travel firm, her reputation in the City was such that £350m was wiped from the value of the company’s shares when she announced her departure in November 2014.

Such a high-profile background might also explain why IBM CEO Ginni Rometty personally hired Green last September into a global role as general manager for IBM Watson internet of things, commerce and education.

Combining Watson with IoT

Watson is IBM’s artificial intelligence (AI) engine – famed for beating humans on the US TV quiz show Jeopardy – a capability that the supplier sees as a distinctive difference to its IoT offering.

“You always want to be in a position where you have something that no one else has, and no one else has Watson,” Green tells Computer Weekly in one of her first major interviews in the new job. “No one else has cognitive capabilities in the way that we do, so that’s really exciting.”

So why did she choose this role after running Thomas Cook, and why IBM?

“If you look at what I’ve done in my career, it’s been a lot of transformations – businesses that either aren’t well or need to be made global or digitised. So when I finished the first phase of the Thomas Cook transformation and made sure the business was not going into demise and made it robust, then what I was attracted to at IBM was the intensity of transformation,” she says.

Harriet Green, IBM
“It’s not so much about the emergence of new technology, it’s the convergence – the ability to use sensors for everything in the world to basically be a computer, whether it’s your contact lens, your hospital bed or a railway track”

Harriet Green, IBM

“IBM is one of the few companies in the world that has reinvented itself – three, possibly four major transformations in its tenure. I was very attracted to that intensity of change. I love tech and I’d missed it.

“To add to that, you get to run the internet of things [for IBM], which is possibly one of the most important digital movements since the founding of the internet. And, of course, with such an iconic and effective female CEO in Ginni, who I’ve known for a while, for me it was a fantastic job.”

IBM’s IoT strategy has evolved out of its “smarter planet” campaign, first announced in 2008, which brings with it a track record of innovation and customer case studies that offer some real-life examples of the technology in action. The firm last year set up a global headquarters for its Watson IoT business in Munich, recruiting 1,000 researchers, developers and designers.

“IBM has 750 IoT patents – that’s three times more than any other country, let alone any other enterprise,” says Green.

Huge amounts of data

She cites customers such as the city of Beijing and Airbus as examples of an approach that combines what IBM calls the “cognitive computing” capabilities of Watson with IoT networks to take the huge amounts of data generated by sensors and interpret that into something meaningful and useful.

“The first thing people want to talk about is all the data they are collecting,” says Green. “It’s not just structured data, where you can put it into your computer and write code and analyse it – a very large percentage of this data is unstructured.

“Their questions are around what can we do with this data to make us more efficient or to create new products and services that we can sell to optimise what we’re doing or to create amazing things for clients.”

According to research by McKinsey, companies discard 99% of data before their decision-makers have a chance to use it.

“The first discussion is around how much dark data you have, that only Watson and cognitive can really interrogate,” she says. “You know the amount of data being created on a daily basis – much of which will go to waste unless it is utilised. This so-called dark data represents a phenomenal opportunity.”

In Beijing, an IBM initiative called Green Horizons takes real-time data from environmental monitoring stations, meteorological satellites and traffic cameras to predict air quality and find ways to tackle the city’s serious pollution problems.

Watson helps to predict the effects of weather and traffic flow on pollution levels so that city authorities can take action. According to IBM, the Beijing government was able to reduce levels of harmful particulates by about 20% in 2015.

At Airbus, the number of sensors on a plane can generate up to half a terabyte of data per flight while monitoring up to 300 million parts in the aircraft. The company is using Watson IoT systems to improve predictive maintenance, and is working with IBM on what Green calls a “cognitive cockpit” for better air safety.

“For Watson to be able to help solve the problems of the world, and to be given the data to start crunching and correlating – I think that’s tremendous for the next wave of human development,” she says. “Why wouldn’t you want to be involved in that transformation? If you love tech and you love digitising and you love high-intensity change, why wouldn’t you want to be part of that?”

Lifting our experiences

IBM, of course, is not alone among large suppliers in targeting the internet of things, nor is it the only firm trying to combine IoT with AI. Microsoft, for example, is using its cloud-based Azure Machine Learning offering to analyse real-time data from IoT networks. It cites ThyssenKrupp Elevator as an early user, collecting and analysing sensor data from its lifts.

IBM, meanwhile, counts rival lift maker Kone as a client for Watson IoT, using cloud to connect, remotely monitor and manage its global maintenance of lifts, escalators, doors and turnstiles. “We will use the IBM Watson platform to store and collect the data coming from over a million units up and running in the field,” says Teppo Voutilainen, head of new services and solutions at Kone.

Green says the examples of Kone and Beijing city show how IoT and data analytics can help to rethink our everyday experiences of buildings and cities.

“Think about the billions of people a day being moved by escalators and elevators and how to make those experiences as positive as possible, right the way through to people in their cities, people worrying about pollutants and sharing information that makes it better to live there,” she says.

Read more about the internet of things

So IBM can point to an established base of IoT customers, but can it compete with the numerous, faster-moving tech startups targeting this growing field?

“Of course, there’s plenty of space for lots of innovative startups and also lots of space for companies who are very much more established, which are themselves being innovative and looking at things in a very different way,” says Green.

“It’s not so much about the emergence of new technology, it’s the convergence – the ability to use sensors for everything in the world to basically be a computer, whether it’s your contact lens, your hospital bed or a railway track,” she says.

“You need companies that are able to do things at scale; companies for whom security is a given; companies that are proven to protect data, whoever’s data it is. This company is perfectly positioned to lead a global movement like IoT because all of those questions are what we’re capable of doing.

“I cannot think of another company at scale that is able to support the human factors, right the way through to the largest companies.”

IBM is also hoping to woo developers and startups by building an ecosystem around its offerings – Microsoft is trying to do something similar.

“The key thing for IBM’s Watson strategy is that we are opening APIs through to our IoT platform, so it’s incredibly open and incredibly useful to [startups] as we [aim to] attract thousands and thousands of developers to be part of this environment,” says Green.

AI scare stories

For all the opportunity presented by AI and IoT, it is also a technology that worries a lot of people – what with all that data being stored about our lives and the world around us, and scare stories about jobs likely to be automated by AI. But Green sees the opportunities outweighing the potential negatives.

“There is scaremongering that goes around about some of these technologies, and particularly in Europe there is a very real concern around data protection,” she says.

“But these sorts of worries and concerns have been a precursor before, whether it’s the mass production of electricity or factory automation – we’ve had every form of Tolpuddle Martyr and people worrying about jobs.

“If you study each one, you will see that in every new era and genre of technology, what has developed is people working together with machines more effectively. People have gone on to do other things which are more value adding, less dangerous, than they might have done before. But such fears are totally understandable.

In every new era and genre of technology, what has developed is people working together with machines more effectively
Harriet Green, IBM

“Our job as a company is to ensure we are involved in setting standards, and that those standards reflect how consumers and our clients think. As we have always done, we will ensure that however someone wants to protect their data, we recognise it is their data and they get to choose how to do that.”

IBM is clearly placing its bets on Watson, IoT, and a combination of the two, as a big part of its further transformation away from its history as a big hardware provider, to the software and services future it wants. As its traditional rivals – the likes of HP and Dell – have found, that is still a tough transition to make. But for Green, as a new recruit, the measures required for success are in place.

“One of the first measures through all of my experiences around the globe transforming businesses, is does everyone inside of IBM have the same end in mind?” she says. “Do they understand their part in the relentless reinvention? And is there enormous drive around cognitive technologies?

“Absolutely every part of the business knows, and each individual knows their part in the future.

“In my experience of doing transformations, you can have the most amazing strategy in the world, but if everyone doesn’t know their part in it, it won’t get executed, and absolutely here we do.”

Read more on Internet of Things (IoT)