IBM changes leadership just in time to survive in today’s punishing IT services market

January 31, 2020 | Ollie O’DonoghueJamie SnowdonPhil Fersht

Gini Rometty, the queen of Big Blue is stepping down after a turbulent few years at the helm, where her “imminent” retirement has been one of the industry’s most discussed topics since the failure of Watson to reach its early potential.  However, the rapid shift in direction towards hybrid cloud - with the Red Hat acquisition just over a year ago - has rapidly paved a new direction for Big Blue and, perhaps, leaves Gini with a lasting legacy that won’t be all about her supercomputer that found fame on Jeopardy!

The appointment of Arvind Krishna, the architect of IBM / Red Hat, signified its full-throttle scramble to take the Global 2000 into the hybrid cloud

And in here place steps up the head of the firm’s cloud business, with Jim Whitehurst, the CEO of Red Hat, moving in as president, but more significantly, Arvind Krishna, IBM’s architect behind the deal, being voted in as the new CEO.  With Krishna being the brain behind the Red Hat double-down, he knows how to take the calculated risks which IBM must take if it’s going to turn the aircraft carrier around.  Moreover, he can move fast, with the Red Hat play being barely more than a year old and the emerging IBM cloud business quickly becoming the most coherent and unified of all its business units that HFS has encountered.

This speed and clarity of direction speak to Krishna’s ability to pull what was a rapidly evolving team together with a clear mission and vision.  Again, if he can replicate this at scale across IBM, it might be able to solve the firm’s biggest challenge - rationalising a sprawling estate that has been left to grow wild for almost a decade.

Hybrid Cloud is where IBM has made its bed, and the new IBM leadership team is determined to take full advantage

New HFS Research shows this market is expected to ratchet up by more than 20% this year to $72 billion as the market for hybrid private/public cloud becomes the most vital progression corporation need to make to scale and survive in today’s global digital business environment:

 

Source: HFS Research 2020,  Click to Enlarge

While all the cloud talk has been about the rampant growth of the digital juggernauts Microsoft, Amazon, Alibaba and Google, no one has stepped up to support complex hybrid public/private cloud transitions better than IBM in recent times.  It’s one thing providing the capacity, containerization and scalability, but another to layer on all the global support to tackle the complexity of integration with corporate legacy IT systems, along with all the ongoing support and security needed to manage this transition effectively.

The new leadership must unite the warring factions within IBM

IBM’s new leadership team has a wealth of experience and can reverse the fortunes of the firm – but they have their work cut out for them. It may have been the king of the services market a decade ago, but the firm has been too pre-occupied with siloed business units scrabbling around on their own initiatives trying to be the next big thing. Over the years, IBM has moved from a trusted dominating force to a whale gradually bleeding out as IBM Watson became somewhat less relevant in a world where business leaders were struggling to make RPA work, and newer faster rivals in the mid-tier started eroding their market share with competitive pricing and flexible delivery. Above all, IBM needed a clear vision, one that cuts through the digital drivel that pre-occupied buyer mindshare. And sadly, that just didn’t come under Rometty.

Battling the complexity of IBM is something clients of the firm tell us is a major inhibitor to contract growth. Disparate sales and delivery teams make it, at times, impossible for clients to expand engagements into new areas and as analysts, we’re often told ‘seriously? I didn’t even know they did that?’ when we talk about IBM’s broader capabilities. If the new leadership team are going to reverse the fortunes of the leaking oil tanker, they’ll need to address this first. And can do so by implementing the following:

  1. Incentivizing sales teams to cross-sell across the whole of IBM’s services. Clients dont care which business line recognizes the revenue or which sales team gets the commission.
  2. Build a layer of consulting as the window to the rest of IBM. Simplifying a complex and sprawling empire will take time, and while important won’t change quick enough to match buyer expectations. Building genuine service-agnostic consulting capabilities to lead engagements across IBM will go along way to plastering over the cracks while the rest of the business is modernized.
  3. Loosen the purse strings and be prepared for flexibility. The services ecosystem has changed rapidly, and IBM’s now competing with firms willing to take a gamble on client engagements and offer flexible pricing models. IBM can’t rely on its reputation alone to compete anymore, and must be willing to invest in clients and take risks – at least to a greater extent than it has in the past.

IBM has a powerful reputation – but this is no time to be complacent

The phrase ‘nobody got fired for bringing in IBM’ has been a boon for the firm and isn’t far from reality. The firm’s reputation for delivery and innovation proceeds it which means sourcing teams get off the hook, even for disastrous engagements. But over time even this lofty position has become hard to maintain as a new generation of buyers pours into senior positions and competitive pressure force enterprises to look for partners outside of the usual suspects.  

The new IBM leadership team has a unique opportunity under Krishna, to re-position IBM in the market as a dynamic and modern services firm, leveraging its heritage brand and reputation to push a clear message. If you pulled a representative sample of the market and asked them what IBM’s strategy is, its vision for the future is, or even what their big bets are, you’d be met with stony silence. IBM must urgently figure out what its story is, and what it wants to be in the future if it’s to claw back its position as the IT Services firm of choice.Is the new leadership team a warning shot for the hyperscale cloud giants?

In cloud, however, IBM has always had a relatively consistent story, supported by an enviable track record of delivering complex infrastructure services to clients. While the emphasis on public cloud pushed IBM out of the limelight as executives piled into hyperscale, IBM has made a killing pulling together the full-stack enterprise infrastructure. The Red Hat acquisition showed IBM was ready to put its money where its mouth is and commit to targeting the hybrid cloud market – a rapidly growing segment as the lure of ‘cloud only’ and ‘all-in-with-AWS’ became recognized for the fantasy that it is for most enterprises.

The debate will no doubt rage on over whether IBM has a place amongst the hyperscale firms – AWS, Google, Microsoft, and more recently Alibaba Cloud. Whether born-in-the-cloud purists like it or not, IBM’s infrastructure and enterprise cloud business puts it firmly in with the biggest of the bunch on PaaS revenues alone. The Red Hat acquisition in 2018 bolstered this even further and fired a warning shot in an already punishingly competitive cloud war.

The new leadership team can bring a level of focus and commitment to cloud – with senior representation from IBMs Cloud Business in Arvind, and Jim from Red Hat as President. With this combined experience and a commitment to hybrid cloud, there’s every likelihood IBM is in a position to bite a huge chunk out of one of the fastest-growing enterprise services segments. And while it’s unlikely IBM will need to go to war with the major cloud giants to make its mark – the hyperscalers would be wise to watch the new strategy market out by IBM’s new leaders – this may be the most valuable partnership they ever have.

Bottom Line: The change in leadership will provide the jump-start IBM desperately needs to survive this punishing services market

Gini stepping down is a big moment for IBM – She has had her hand on the tiller for close to a decade. But IBM has continued to struggle to return to growth, even with a reputation and trust in the market that it’s peers envy. The new leadership must leverage this reputation, and return some meaning to the brand – by swiftly unifying disparate IBM functions and modernizing the structure of the sprawling business. IBM simply cannot survive another 8 years of tumbling revenues.

Posted in: Cloud ComputingIT Outsourcing / IT ServicesCloud and Business Platforms

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1 Comments

1 Comments

  1. Tom Fitz
    Posted Jan 31, 2020 10:10 PM | Permalink Reply

    MIGHT awaken a sleeping giant. Time will tell. Good article.

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