Illustration of three people on separate platforms using technology. L to R: grocery worker, office worker, healthcare worker

With 385,000 employees, how has global tech giant IBM responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Bob Lord, Senior Vice President, Cognitive Applications at IBM joins Sandra Peter for a discussion on innovating during a crisis, as well as surviving and thriving in a post-pandemic world of work.

Two people sitting at a table in a podcast studio smiling at the camera. On the table are microphones on adjustable arms.
Bob Lord and Sandra Peter at the University of Sydney in December, 2019


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Bob Lord is Senior Vice President, Cognitive Applications at IBM. He was previously IBM's Chief Digital Officer and President of AOL.


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This transcript is the product of an artificial intelligence - human collaboration. Any mistakes are the human's fault. (Just saying. Accurately yours, AI)

Intro I wanted to ask you first a bit about whether or not IBM had a business contingency plan for dealing with such a pandemic.

Bob Being a global company, you know, 385000 people. You've got to think of all these different conditions and have a playbook around them. So we do have a crisis management team that helps out in all different kinds of crises, and that team was activated.

Sandra That's the voice of Bob Lord talking to me from his home office in New York. Bob's a senior vice president with IBM, and there are many excellent reasons to talk to him about topics such as the future of artificial intelligence and how it will change jobs and workplaces, and how technology can help solve the number one problem facing the world today, climate change. But in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a more urgent topic. IBM's crisis management plan and the company's role in facilitating solutions for the world at large, including through their search for the best ideas from the coding community via their Call for Code competition. It's interesting to reflect that of the top technology companies in the world today, IBM is the only one that was around during the last global pandemic, the 1918 Spanish flu. Today, the tech world is a much more crowded space, and IBM is much more than a hardware company. These days IBM is a leader in AI, blockchain, the Internet of Things, cloud computing and quantum computing. And for the last 27 years, IBM has held the record for the most number of patents issued by the US Patent Office. In 2019 that was more than 9000 patents. I'm Sandra Peter, and I'm talking about surviving and thriving in the post-pandemic world of work with Bob Lord, IBM Senior Vice President for Cognitive Applications and Developer Ecosystems.

Intro From the University of Sydney Business School, this is Sydney Business Insights, the podcast that explores the future of business.

Sandra When reports of COVID-19 started popping up in China in January, IBM moved swiftly.

Bob We created a crisis plan about what we thought was going to happen, which I think really helped us, just in general, by having a crisis plan that we felt confident in, which then we could talk to our employees about, talk to our clients about and put plans in place. And that ranged from having people working at home, to how they interfaced with clients, what were the protocols they needed to have? And as it went through the world, those plans were activated. First, obviously starting in China, and then second in Europe, and then ultimately coming, you know, around the world, but into the United States. So though we were waiting, in a lot of places, for the government to give directives, IBM and their Chief Medical Director, Lydia Campbell, really took a lead in what were our options and how should we respond to our employees. And here in the United States, within a very short time, a few days, we were all notified to work from home and we had about 98 percent of our folks working from home, almost immediately.

Sandra So did things go according to that plan, or did some of this take you by surprise as well?

Bob As you know, we own The Weather Company, and the first thing we did was to try to find the true source of information that we all could share. And the true source of information was how many cases are there? You know, how many people are affected, where are they located? And we tapped into public records, specifically in United States and then in Europe, to actually highlight on our Weather app getting information to people because I think there was so much misinformation going on, that you didn't know which way to go. So we launched an enhancement to our Weather Company application where people check weather every day, which you know, and put a particular module on there that provided them with insight about their local community and what was happening with COVID, and we used Watson as a chat bot to answer basic questions. You know, what's proper handwashing? What does it mean to be social distanced here in the United States, and what are the rules around that?

Sandra You've touched upon a few of the projects that you've started doing the pandemic. Can you give us a bit of an overall view of how IBM sees these challenges, both through its business model but also to its employees and its customers? You've mentioned Watson Assistant, but you've got a whole range of these initiatives.

Bob You know, what I experienced here at IBM was the best of IBM, I have to say. In a very short timeframe, I think everybody looked at their own business unit and said, how can we help the world handle this crisis that's going on? The first thing we actually announced was a high performance computing consortium, where we bought forth like an unprecedented amount of computing power to help researchers understand COVID-19. That was really just stitching together all the computing power that we have, We did it in collaboration with the United States White House of Science and Technology Policy, and we created this consortium. This gave researchers access to high-performance computing power that would allow them to run calculations around epidemiology, molecular modelling, that honestly would take years if they just use their own computing power or, you know, used hand models. And it is actually enabling the most powerful supercomputer on the planet. So that was one area that we went after. The results have been, you know, discovering almost 77 promising drug compounds that are being tested to find a cure for COVID-19.

Sandra The other public facing program that IBM swung into pandemic service is its Call for Code competition. Each year, this competition focuses on a major social issue and challenges software developers to come up with a solution. In return, IBM promises to bring the winning project to market. This year, the nominated challenge was climate change until...

Bob COVID hit. And it hit hard. And we decided at IBM that we wanted to use the Call for Code platform as a way of getting ideas from the community, from the developer and the data science community to figure out how we could use our technology to help in the crisis, the pandemic that we were having.

Sandra Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, announced the first winner in the first week of May.

Chelsea Solution one, which I'm really excited, about is the Are You Well app, which is created by a team from Altran in India. It's a mobile app that will help individuals evaluate their symptoms and it's aided by IBM Watson Assistant. The solution will leverage a global dashboard that assigns cases a high, medium or low level of risk based on thresholds set, designed, developed by healthcare providers. And then it will connect the people who are using the dashboard with medical professionals who can use the data to prioritise cases and offer care in a safer and more efficient and effective manner.

Sandra The second winning solution is an app that informs people, who would otherwise be standing in the queue, when it's their turn to enter a shop, a polling booth, government office, any place where waiting in line is now a potential health risk.

Bob And then the third one, which I thought was really, really interesting, it was called COVID Impact, and this was created by a global team out of the University of British Columbia. And it was all about, if you're a small business, you know, there's lots of government programs that are being ushered into the world right now, and how do you know whether or not you qualify for them or not? Basically, you have a list of questions, and if you as a small business owner could get access or understand what your rights were, were you getting funding from the government, how could your local community help you have your business survive? And I thought that was really another interesting thing, because a lot of this data that these developers and data scientists tapped into for all three, was publicly available data, but it's just hard to synthesise and sort of collect together, to provide you with information versus just searching around for data itself.

Sandra None of us know what the other side of this pandemic will look like. Bob Lord says he's an optimist. But whatever our post-pandemic working life looks like, it won't be like it was before.

Bob My instinct is the world will never go back to the way it was. I think this is a moment in time in anyone's life where people are going to re-evaluate how they spend their time and where they spend their time. Just in general, I don't think it's going to be one way or the other, though. There is a really important human characteristic about being close to somebody and being associated with people that working from an office is important. There's a really big socialisation component there, but that doesn't mean I have to be there five days a week. Given that I'm learning about these digital tools and seeing how effective my meetings are. Quite honestly, Sandra, my meetings are probably 15 percent shorter when I'm doing them online, than if I did them in person. Because you get right to the facts, you have an agenda, you get things done, you make decisions, then you move on. So there's a real nice benefit.

Sandra Do you think there's any a risk in implementing many of these things long term? I find, for instance, with my team that usually when we have face to face meetings, and I would agree with you, some of the online ones are a lot more efficient. We would spend time beforehand just talking about, you know, what people are doing and how they're going and having some interactions that were not work-related. But also, we were using some of the time before and after meetings to just, you know, make sense of the world together. And in these times, there seems to be such a fragmentation of how people see the future and how people see how we should come out of this, or how we should make sense of what's happening to us collectively.

Bob I agree with you, and that I think there is this human need to have the in-person contact with people, because there are serendipitous conversations, even you and I, getting to know each other, right. We can have a better conversation now because you and I met in person in Sydney and got to know each other prior to us having this conversation. This is a trusting conversation for me, versus it was the first time you and I were talking online. Right, so I do think it's a balance, I mean I think you need both, not one or the other. So to your question, you know, will we go back to the old normal? I think the answer is no. Will we come back to a better normal in a more balanced normal? I think yes. And you know I'm an optimist.

Sandra I was going to ask a bit of a broader question around your strategy with IBM. There've been a couple of stories coming out over the last few weeks on how your business is reorganising or re-prioritising strategy in the wake of COVID-19. Can you speak about that a little bit?

Bob Well, look, I think there's a couple of things going on. I don't think it's about COVID-19 as much as it really is about us moving. You know with the acquisition of Red Hat and the new CEO that's come in, Arvind Krishna, I do think looking at the fundamentals of IBM and who we are and where we're going. And he was pretty vocal about us moving from a products company to a platform company. And that may sound a bit trivial to someone who doesn't know the software business very well. But when you say you're going from a product company to a platform company, and you say that you're going to be a cloud and AI enabler for a platform, that means a platform is ubiquitous to all businesses. And there's not even necessarily a pinpoint need. It's about creating the infrastructure layer for businesses and enterprises for the future. So I personally am really, really excited about the new direction of the company and where we're heading. And I think a lot of these enterprise businesses, now that they've sort of gone through this experience of the pandemic, realise that technology and having a really, really solid enterprise grade infrastructure is a really, really important consideration for their business competitiveness that wasn't there before. What that means technically for Red Hat, the technology of Red Hat to establish itself as the new Kubernetes and container standards and making it the default choice for the hybrid cloud enterprise world. But it's about as an enterprise, getting ready for the future and preparing yourself with an open, secure and flexible infrastructure.

Sandra You know that meme that's been going around with what's sped up your company's digital transformation? And it's got, you know, CEO, CTO and COVID-19.

Bob But Sandra, think about what just happened in the last eight weeks to us, right? All the digital tools that we have totally talked about for years, right, all of a sudden got activated. Like, in order for businesses to actually behave, and e-commerce engines were stretched to their limits. And people had to use cloud computing technology at a scale that they've never done before, people had to use video chat at scale. So it is how you do business differently than you have ever done it before? I don't think we will ever go back to the old way. I think there will always be some kind of digital component to it, and this was absolutely a forcing mechanism.

Sandra Well, thank you so much for your time again today, and we'll chat again soon.

Bob Alright, great, thanks Sandra.

Sandra This program was produced in isolation by Jacquelyn Hole, and edited by Megan Wedge.

Outro You've been listening to Sydney Business Insights, the University of Sydney Business School podcast, about the future of business. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and you can visit us at, and hear our entire podcast archive, read articles and watch video content that explore the future of business.

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