IBM executives no longer strictly conform to the black suit, black tie dress code. As the company transformed, so did the way its people dress. Dashes of informality — popular with the tech crowd — are the new norm.

Even so, it was an eye-opener for Martin Chee, a two-decade-old IBM veteran, to see some of his colleagues decked out in full personal protective equipment gear in recent months. They were at hospitals and other facilities to help set up IT systems — without which modern medical facilities could not function. By doing so, they are directly contributing to the fight against the Covid-19 outbreak. “These guys are out there, supporting the community. It was heart-warming,” says Chee, managing director of IBM Singapore, in an interview with The Edge Singapore.

Chee took up this role just three months ago, but supporting Singapore is a role IBM as a company has played for nearly seven decades. Back in 1963, holes had to be knocked on the walls of the CPF office, so that bulky IBM mainframes could be installed to store data related to the retirement of millions of citizens.

The IT world has changed drastically since then. Now, as entire economies try and deal with the fallout of Covid-19, the pace of change has quickened even more. “Some organisations have adapted really, really well, but some maybe have been realising, ‘I need to speed up’,” says Chee.

While he is excited with the technology and how that can help win the market, he is more motivated by the bigger purpose: how IBM can contribute to the community and to the country. “That is something that keeps me going,” says Chee.

Big shift to cloud

One recent big shift, from IBM’s perspective, is the move towards cloud computing. Companies, instead of running their IT applications using computers and servers they own and run themselves, now do so by tapping computing power and capacity over the “cloud”. By doing so, the users have greater flexibility in varying the amount of computing capacity they need to buy, in line with the fluctuations of their operating environment.

Some industry rivals are advocating for everything to be done over the cloud, but Chee maintains that it is not so straightforward. This is because different users have vastly different requirements. Certain valuable data, or digital assets, are better off left in premises secured within the users’ own real estate instead of putting into public clouds. “Yes, cost is a factor, but security and regulatory issues too,” he says. Thus, IBM believes that a “hybrid cloud” is what makes the most sense. Certain computing needs, such as storage of specific data, have to be within a certain jurisdiction, as required by law.

The financial services industry, typically the most heavily regulated sector of any country, is one prime example of how a hybrid cloud approach will work. IBM believes it has the right range of capabilities to offer banks, insurers and other constituents of this industry — different types of hybrid clouds, for different uses, says Chee.

On July 22, IBM announced growing momentum for its IBM Cloud for Financial Services. BNP Paribas, one of the largest European banks, has joined this growing ecosystem of financial institutions using IBM’s cloud services. On the same day, it also announced a stepup in its collaboration with Bank of America to introduce the IBM Cloud Policy Framework for Financial Services. This serves to form a nexus for the ecosystem of banks and technology providers to work and grow together, based on common operational criteria and within the streamlined compliance controls framework of the financial services industry.

To be sure, there are quite a few fierce rivals in cloud computing. Each of them tries to offer something different, be it bundled applications, or ease of payment. One of the competitors famously made it easy for users to sign up for cloud computing services with just a credit card. Others compete on price.

IBM, according to Chee, is distinct from many other tech companies in its deep, collective pool of industry and subject matter expertise of various kinds built up over decades. In short, IBM will not just push to its customers what is in its catalogue, but is able to offer advice on the kind of products and services most optimal for the dynamics of a specific industry sector.

And of course, IBM has the technological capabilities to offer. “At our core, IBM is a deeptech organisation. We do a lot of research, we have a lot of patents, we have a lot of engineering capabilities, that’s IBM. Yes, there’s the marketing and sales engine, but there’s always the deep tech which cannot be replicated easily,” says Chee.

Yet, IBM has not shy away from making decisive, game-changing acquisitions where it makes sense. Just a year ago, it completed the US$34 billion ($46.8 billion) acquisition of Red Hat. By undertaking its largest deal ever, Big Blue wants to double-down on both the cloud and the open-source software, which powers it. With just some 20% of computing workload in the cloud now, there is plenty of growth potential, and Red Hat’s capabilities can help drive that.

Artificial intelligence

Cloud computing allows organisations to be flexible in their computing needs. However, to gain additional technological advantage, organisations should be equipped with the next big trend in tech: AI, or artificial intelligence. “Every company is going to be an AI company. If you are not, yes, you can exist, but you will not succeed. That’s because the one with AI will do better than the ones without,” says Chee.

He goes as far as describing the difference between the haves and have-nots of AI as akin to a company still using pen and paper, versus one that is already using PCs and running Excel spreadsheets. The latter will do better because it is more organised and does things faster, says Chee.

To be sure, not every organisation will be jumping right in and starting to invest in AI capabilities. This is a process — a process which IBM will undertake with its clients, the way it is doing in cloud.

The “engine” that runs AI, according to Chee, will of course be the domain of highly-trained scientists and tech wizards. Rightfully, the technology driving AI will have a lot of complexity. However, the “interface” of using AI should gradually evolve into something much simpler and user-friendly, so that more people within an organisation can use it. “Click a button, and companies and employees will have AI at their fingertips,” he says.

Chee believes that this journey to AI is very critical. Many organisations possess all kinds of data, and in copious amounts. However, a lot of the data exists in an unstructured manner, and even if they are somehow organised, they exist within specific silos. What’s sorely lacking is the capability of organisations to better analyse and form insights drawn from across the different databases.

If the various databases can be analysed in the combined entirety, it is not about one plus one equals two; it is one plus one equals a lot more. “If you combine the silos of data within companies, by getting the subsidiaries to work together more tightly, more closely, by sharing data, you are extracting value from the data. The growth, the value created, will be exponential,” says Chee.

However, Chee warns that while this premise is sound, the actual execution is not as straightforward, and most organisations are not there yet. “The management of data is not easy. You got all sorts of issues, from the way you collect data to how you organise data, to how you analyse data, to how you infuse that model or insight into your process, your applications, and then give it to the person when he needs it as part of his job. That’s the difficult part, but we are making it easier,” explains Chee.

Growing future unicorns

Traditionally, IBM’s target market is mainly the large organisations, both public and private. Many of these organisations, by their very nature, need the kind of products and services IBM can offer, for example, public-sector organisations, with vast amounts of data of the citizenry; healthcare industry, with lots of research data; telcos, with their hundreds of thousands of subscribers. And of course, financial services industry too, where reliability and security of their IT systems is critical. “Modern banks won’t exist without tech. So, these are all the industries which we play well in,” says Chee.

Now, according to him, IBM is keen to expand its presence in the SME market as well. The cloud computing capabilities IBM offers are not just tailored for large corporations, but because of its flexibility, they are very suitable for SMEs too. The logic of paying attention to this non-traditional market segment is very simple: Many of the SMEs today grow to become MNCs of tomorrow.

Of course, Chee is realistic to know that not all SMEs will buy a wide range of products and services right away from IBM. But with IBM’s cloud computing and more flexible offerings, this is a good way for SMEs to start, and then expand further down the road. According to Chee, a key reason why SMEs turn to IBM is the same reason shared by many large organisations. “They feel more comfortable in the way we are able to secure their data,” he explains. “So yes, absolutely, we work with the SMEs and we hope some of the SMEs grow to become unicorns.”

After all, IBM has plenty of experience doing this. “We’ve been in Singapore for so many years, we’ve grown together with Singapore and therefore will continue to support and help. We will help Singapore and cement Singapore’s position in the world. That’s a wonderful thing to do,” says Chee.