When people think about the most dominant tech giants today, many often overlook the granddaddy of them all, IBM. Having evolved profoundly since its founding over 100 years ago and grown into to 430k employee-strong, $100 billion/yr company, IBM continues to be a tech powerhouse, particularly in enterprise products and services (e.g. social enterprise, cloud computing, enterprise mobility services, systems and services, etc). Despite their mega-size, innovation continues to be at the heart of IBM’s goal to “make the world a smarter place”. They’re continuously developing new technologies, products and services and which is illustrated by the fact that they’ve been #1 in terms of US patents filings for the last 20+ years. In order to drive this continuous innovation, IBM looks both externally (130+ acquisitions completed since 2000) and internally, via such activities as with a network of Innovation Labs around the globe.
France plays a particularly important role in innovation at IBM via its IBM France Lab, one of the top 3 international innovation labs for IBM globally. With 500 developers/engineers and 200 experts in software services & support, IBM France Lab focuses on developing commercializable services in IBM’s key strategic development areas including mobility, operation decision management, and dev ops. Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Gentilly IBM France Lab site, which is home to many of their R&D activities in France, and was impressed to learn about the significant role IBM Lab plays in developing existing and new solutions used around the world. Here were some things that were big highlights for me:
Successful integration and continual innovation around acquired products and services
It’s quite common for large companies to struggle with post-acquisition integration. IBM, who as noted above have completed numerous acquisitions in recent years, seem to fare better than most. While I don’t doubt that they’ve had some hiccups integrating companies they’ve acquired over the years, the impression I got from the team is that their systematic, rapid approach to post-acquisition integration has largely been a successful one. One good example is ILOG which was acquired by IBM in 2008, and is an integral part of their business rule management systems solutions. Once ILOG was acquired and rapidly integrated, IBM continued to invest heavily and innovate continuously on ILOG products and solutions. A good deal of the innovation, research and development around operation decision management is actually done at IBM Lab France, including their work around enabling companies to automate many of the decision processes that we as consumers encounter daily. So, for example, helping Mastercard or Visa automate their fraud-protection processes or helping to make customs and border agents’ decision processes more efficient.
IBM Mobile First is far from a slogan…it’s rapidly reshaping their business
IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty was one of the star keynote’s at this year’s Mobile World Congress. Her talk this year was squarely focused on the importance of mobile for the future of the enterprise and IBM’s goal to have the leading open-platform for developers to create mobile apps built on their Watson technology. She even announced the launch of their Watson Challenge (deadline is March 31st btw!), a global competition to promote the development of mobile consumer and business apps powered by Watson.
But, of course, they already have a broad suite of mobile-focused products and services, which are also an important innovation focus area for IBM France Lab . For example, a great deal of the R&D around WorkLight, their recently acquired open mobile application platform for smartphones and tablets; MaaS360 by Fiberlink, their solution for secure cloud-based mobile device management; and mobile security solutions, is done in France. As they intend to continue to build out the range of products and services needed to move the mobile enterprise from a concept to the norm, IBM France Lab will undoubtedly continue to play a key role in making this vision a reality.
Forging a deeper link with the startup ecosystem
Up until now, IBM has generally been thought of as an organization squarely at the service of large businesses and corporations. However, as many large companies are now realizing, many of their future opportunities around innovation and business development will come from developers, startups and small businesses. As a result, they not only have launched activities squarely focused on these segments, such as their acceleration program IBM Entrepreneur, IBM SmartCamp, the SME Toolkit focusing on emerging markets and the aforementioned Watson Challenge, but are also developing various solutions more suited for them, such as DevOps for developers and JazzHub, which enables software development in the cloud. Of course, as mentioned, acquisitions continue to be an important part of their development, so they continue to be on the look out for fast-growing, innovative startups and SMEs to bring into fold. It’s a safe bet that new products, services and technology around mobility, connectivity, and areas like analytics will continue to be big areas of interest for them.
A great model for the types of business activities France is trying to attract
While one of France’s top long-term goals is encouraging its citizens to embrace and pursue entrepreneurship, the government also has another important economic-oriented goal…attracting high-value, foreign investment. With 8k employees in France alone, numerous R&D centers across France working closely with French universities and research centers, and very long history of investing in France (here and here), IBM, despite the occasional reorganizations, offers a pretty good model for what the government undoubtedly hopes other multinationals will follow. IBM has smartly leveraged one of France’s key strengths, its tech talent and, as a result, continues to demonstrate that, yes, leading-edge, commercializable innovation can come from France.