IBM reiterates commitment to Brazil despite uncertainty

Latin America head says the firm has gone through worse moments in the country - but calls for an overhaul in public innovation policies.

IBM has reinforced its commitment to Brazil despite the current economic, social and political disarray the country is currently experiencing - but the company wants to help shape policies to position the tech sector as a protagonist in the recovery.

The company has had a local presence for 101 years and it is well versed in the local challenges - so the current instability is nothing new, according to the general manager at IBM for Latin America, Ana Paula Assis.

"We have lived moments in this market that were way worse: we went through hyper-inflation, a dictatorship and all manner of crisis and we've never given up on Brazil. We remain committed to the country and that's how it's going to be in future," the executive told ZDNet, at the IBM Cloud Discovery event in São Paulo yesterday (8).

Local corporate spend in technology has suffered as a result of the recession - but according to Assis, the drop has not been as severe to the point that it would indicate a backwards move in terms of IT consumption. However, she concedes that spending patters have changed:

"Long-term commitments have been put on hold, but projects as a whole have continued to exist - what we expect is that strategic projects will come back in the coming years, as this gives us more security in terms of the level of investment that we can make and helps us with our projections," Assis says.

Influencing public policy

Innovation statistics for Brazil are also very bad and this is directly relevant to the company's business locally. Between 2011 and 2018 the country collapsed 17 positions in the Global Innovation Index (GII) by Cornell University, business school Insead and the World Intellectual Property Organization. The GII report ranks the country 64th, with the worst indicators across the BRIC countries.

In order to change that scenario, Assis points out that IBM is engaged in projects such as the Digital Brazil Movement, a lobbying initiative that includes other IT giants such as Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco and others, aimed at influencing the creation of public policies that position technology innovation as a driver for economic growth.

Changing the government's perceptions in that regard is a challenge though - particularly so in a climate of austerity: evidence of this is the merger of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation with the Ministry of Communications to reduce public spending. The department had already suffered several budget cuts in previous years. In that scenario, a different approach is needed, says Assis.

"If we are to talk to the government about technology for technology's sake the chances we will succeed are slim. But the point is not to benefit the technology sector, but get the technology sector to help Brazil become more productive," she points out.

"We need a change in focus in government strategy and this is what South Korea, China and Vietnam have done. They see technology as a key pillar of economic development and an integral part of the overall agenda."

When asked whether she thinks the two leading presidential candidates - Brazil will elect its new president on October 27 - might be able to comprehend that need for a better innovation plan for the country, Assis says it's too early to make any evaluations.

"We will have to wait and see what happens next year [when the elected president takes over]. What we can do at this stage is to stimulate the debate around the creation of policies, present viable proposals that are simple to implement and include the society in that process," the IBM executive argues.

Leading the way to inclusive tech workplaces

The leading presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, is known for its sexist, racist and homophobic rhetoric and human rights campaigners have been voicing their concerns over the potential corrosion of social equality in the country if he comes into power.

Women and racial minorities already represent a very small chunk of the local IT industry - so will Bolsonaro's possible presidency pose a threat to creating more inclusive workplaces in tech? According to Assis, businesses such as IBM must set the example:

"Corporations have always been propellers of progress. IBM introduced equal opportunities in the United States in 1953, a decade before the Civil Rights Act was enforced. Brazil-specific policies include medical benefits for same sex couples, which we introduced ten years before that became law," the executive says.

"The role of companies is to keep fostering that type of agenda, because as well as being socially responsible, this is good for our business. You don't get innovation and transformation if you don't have a work environment that is diverse and inclusive," she adds.

"If you restrict your talent pool due to gender, race, sexual orientation or religion, you are preventing your organization from accessing what is best in terms of talent. I think companies will continue to [push an inclusion agenda] as this is fundamental, especially in an innovation context. We have the mission of creating these conditions."