Complex engineering systems fascinate IBM's top strategist

I recently met with IBM's top strategist Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president, technical strategy and innovation. He was in town to appear on a panel at the AlwaysOn conference in Palo Alto.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor on

I recently met with IBM's top strategist Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president, technical strategy and innovation. He was in town to appear on a panel at the AlwaysOn conference in Palo Alto.

It's always a pleasure to catch up with Mr Wladawsky-Berger. I've been meeting with him on a regular basis from many years. Our conversations are always wide ranging and we compare notes on many different aspects of the IT industry and beyond.

We started off chatting about Withnail and I, a cult British movie that his daughter had recommended. (I am very fond of the type of characters in that movie from my upbringing in the UK.)

Then we moved on to my favorite subject, blogging and media. What is a blog or what isn't?

I said that the definition is very broad, and I like to remove the "b" word because it is universally confusing. It is about the ease of online publishing using a very robust platform, with the ability to publish outwards and publish back--it's a two-way media technology.

Mr Wladawsky-Berger said that blogging encompassed an incredible variety of types of content but that authenticity was a prime requirement. "You cannot have somebody ghost write a blog," he noted.

Mr Wladawsky-Berger said he likes to write long posts that explore a theme or idea; he references books, and other sources, rather than other blogs. He said he would rather be writing about the world at large than writing about what someone else has blogged.

I said it is good to spread some link-love but there is a danger of stepping into an echo chamber. I'd love to do more link-love but I'm out and about all day trying to get exclusives, scoops, any original material. It's in the tradition of you-can-only-get-it-here that news organizations have practiced for centuries.

The drawback is that I'm always behind in my email and in my blog reading. But when I do blog read, I start with my Technorati links (trackback is dead). We also agreed on another important point, salad nicoise for lunch.

I asked what was catching his eye these days. "I'm fascinated by complex engineering systems and how to apply the disciplines of engineering to ever more complex business systems such as customer service. It's relatively easy to do the back-end IT stuff that businesses need, but the front-facing stuff, dealing with people, is complex because people are unpredictable. And that's what makes this all very interesting."

Mr Wladawsky-Berger is a visiting professor at MIT and lectures on this, and related subjects. I asked Mr Wladawsky-Berger a question I've wanted to ask for some time: how much of a business can you outsource to IBM? IBM's services group is half the company's revenues and it has a huge high-end business consulting group that has extensive domain experience in many industry sectors and so can run large business processes.

"Well, if you just want to stay at home and have us run everything, you couldn't do that, there is more to business than that, culture is very important," he said. However, there is an Indian telecommunications company that has outsourced everything to IBM except customer service.

"Sunil Bharti Mittal, CEO of Bharti TeleVentures Limited made a presentation our company meeting in Rome and he has been incredibly successful. He has managed to grow revenues while the price of cell phone minutes has been dropping," Mr Wladawsky-Berger said.

I mentioned that keeping the customer service as a core capability was smart because this is about keeping the cultural interface. I changed the description of Silicon Valley Watcher to "reporting on the business and *culture* of Silicon Valley" because businesses exist within a society and they have to understand their culture interface with many different communities otherwise.

That is why it is easy to outsource back end functions, software development, but it is not possible to outsource the front-end cultural user interface; that has to be kept local. The cultural aspect is part of Mr Wladawsky-Berger's research work on complex engineering systems, trying to understand the unpredictable human elements that can determine the success or failure of a business.

It's interesting discussing these topics and seeing how sometimes we can come to similar conclusions through different routes.

Coming next: The only thing that saved IBM from the disruption of PC revolution was ... Find out in Part 2 of Lunch with Irving Wladawsky-BergerA collection of observations, news and resources on the changing nature of innovation and the future of information technology. Business as a Complex, Continuously Evolving System Reflections on blogging - one year later SVW: The remaking of IBM: A chat with IBM chief strategist Irving Wladawsky-Berger

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