This is why IBM is interested in Africa

June 9, 2014, 3:08 PM UTC
Bridget van Kralingen, SVP, IBM Global Business Services
Bridget van Kralingen, SVP, IBM Global Business Services
Spencer Heyfron for Fortune

Bridget van Kralingen runs IBM’s (IBM) 100,000-person-plus consulting business. In an expanded version of an interview in the latest issue of Fortune, van Kralingen explains IBM’s marriage of research and consulting, its new digital agency, approach to Africa, and plan for growth.

On research + consulting

What happened in the past is that you’d really co-work with research on one-off projects. But what we’ve identified is that some of our clients are now looking to experiment with how to engage and how to use data for engagement with their customers, how to make sure that they are actually personalizing and segmenting. A lot of the mathematical research concepts that we use, if we actually blend them and fuse them with consulting, we’re able to take them and really scale them across many, many clients.

So we started this concept called the customer experience lab, which we launched last year, and within three months of starting it had 90 projects going because our clients really wanted to start to experiment. And it was all sorts of interesting things, like building psychographic profiles and understanding different ways of suggesting next-step actions.

It’s almost an era of runaway innovation. If you’re focused on innovating with speed, this is a very interesting capability for you to use as an organization.

On running a digital agency

Our digital agency works with sales, with marketing, helps build campaigns and helps build beautiful designs. So if you’re a golfer and you ever get onto the Master’s app, or you love tennis and you go on the U.S. Open app, and those experiences you have on there, that’s the design capability that we have, which is interaction and the design of the application to pull you in and engage you in the data and suggest a next-step action for you.

So when I think about the way I would describe our interactive experience, it’s being able to design experiences that are engaging and really pull users in and make them want to engage and involve a reciprocal interaction between our client organization and these customers and make sure that our clients can actually deliver that experience and do it in a way the design’s great, it links into the backing system, so they can use the data, and that it’s safe and secure.

On Africa

We really have strong long-term growth in Africa. So we announced earlier this year a $100 million investment to bring Watson to Africa. And we will basically put the very first instance of Watson in our Kenya lab. We call it Project Lucy, and we will start bringing cognitive systems to Africa. So that’s a big thing. We actually already have 12 research labs in the world. We announced one in Africa early this year as well, our Kenya lab. So that’s the only one in Africa. And obviously 12 is a very small number, so for us that’s a very important strategic investment. We are focused in that research lab on what we call the grand challenges of the African continent. We’re trying to really mine data to help find solutions to energy, water, transportation, agriculture, and health care issues in Africa. That’s a very important investment for us.

We also made all our software available to African users free of charge. They can experiment and build on it and play with it. And the reason we did that is partly to help build skills, and partly to get people in Africa aware and comfortable with IBM software. So that donation obviously has a long-term impact in building skills on our software, but it’s a very, very key one.

And then over the last couple of years we’ve set up offices in Angola, Mauritius, Tanzania, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya. And then we added as well as those another 17 countries as part of a network to provide one of the continent’s leading telco leaders with IT services that it gives at the present in 17 other countries around those.

And then we really focus on I think some very interesting areas in Africa. So we did—actually I ended up chairing IBM’s work on microfinance. We did some work with the Grameen Foundation, a lot of pro bono work. And that’s led to us doing a lot of work around banking and mobile payments around Africa, cloud solutions. We work with a number of the mobile providers on mobile payments and help expand mobile-based services.

On growth

We’ve worked hard on our portfolio, and really if you think about the portfolio as really reflecting a set of marketplace shifts and having three co-pillars: data will be the source of competitive advantage, hence the investment in analytics. Cloud will be the basis of new business models. It will be the way businesses are run. And engagement at this more personalized, real time, mobile, individualized level will be the way in which companies get and gain both customers and employees and will become everyone’s expectation.

So essentially if you really boil it down, those are reasons that we think and areas, and they are what drives our investment. So in some ways, we probably cut and trimmed a lot of things that don’t pertain to those things. And each of these initiatives — our analytics capability, our cloud capability, and our engagement capability — are the agents of the investments, and those are the ones that we believe will drive both, and we’ve prioritized them.