Corporate Innovator Profile

Name: Warren Tomlin
Title: Chief Innovation Officer
Company: IBM
Experience: Accenture, Fuel Industries, Nortel Networks
Total Corporate Innovation Experience: 20 years
LinkedIn: Warren Tomlin
Twitter: @WarrenTomlin

Founded in 1911, IBM is one of the world’s oldest and most respected technology companies. Today, Chief Innovation Officer Warren Tomlin consults with various IBM customers on their innovation objectives and priorities. He recently talked to us about what enterprise innovation means for a tech leader; why corporations are now prioritizing employee experiences and about which technologies he’s most excited for in the future.

What does enterprise innovation mean for a company in which innovation is foundational to its business model?

IBM is such a large organization that it has several different areas of innovation focus, including software, hardware and services. My role is specifically within services, where I consult with partners and customers on how IBM can help meet their innovation needs. Today, I spend about 80 percent of my time consulting with customers on enhancing both their employee and enterprise experiences. This focus represents a departure from just a few years ago, when organizations prioritized the consumer experience and customer pain points above internal inefficiencies. This pivot is the result of large companies realizing that employees can be just as vital an asset as customers are. If you can innovate for employees, then you can transform employees into customer heroes, which is massively beneficial in itself.


What do you think is driving the pivot from corporate innovation focusing almost entirely on the consumer to prioritizing the employee?

For those of us who are 40 or older, we remember the commercial “birth” of the Internet and in software like Windows 95, which redefined how we worked. During the 90s and much of the 2000s, we would use these technologies at work and wish we had them at home, but internet speeds were too slow and software was mostly too expensive. Mobility seemed like a long way away. In contrast, the majority of employees under 40 (millennials in particular), who now make up a large percentage of the workforce, have benefitted from high-tech opportunities for most of their lives. So, to these workers, the office provides less efficient technology than they are accustomed to at home, and they are demanding to know why they cannot have great experiences at work.

In addition, consumer differentiation in technology is becoming commoditized. Every day there is new consumer tech introduced that is very similar to something that already exists. As an example, think about bank apps: how much differentiation is there between? The answer is not much. So, as innovation for the consumer has become harder to differentiate, organizations have shifted to think more about what they can do for their employees. If enterprises can empower their people, then their happiness and efficiency will trickle down to the customers.

Did organizations come to this realization on their own or did consultants such as yourself have to guide them to focus on internal innovation?

Some did, and some did not. I will say that about half of our customers rely on us to help define what digital transformation and disruption means for them, and then to show them how IBM can help drive their shift. The other half of our customers know that they need to change and modernize, however, we often see them being unsure or misguided as to what their innovation priorities should be.

For example, a global gas provider once engaged IBM for a mobile app for consumers to use at the gas pump. We said we could certainly build it, but that we did not think that an app was the type of innovation that that would drive change. What they actually needed was an entirely new consumer engagement platform. An app might be a feature of that platform one day, but it wasn’t the foundational innovation needed to help move the needle. We see these types of examples a lot. Clients often have an inclination, but we help them see the bigger picture.

IBM customers span many different industries, sizes, locations and business models. With such diversity, have you found any corporate innovation priorities that are important to all organizations?

The main commonality is that most companies know they need to do something, they just don’t know what that something is. What’s prompting such pressures is frequently either the board or C-Suite seeking a digital transformation strategy and reinvention story; customer expectations changing by the day and week, or the refactoring of an industry.

Thus, what I tell our clients is that they should expect that the last experience that any consumer has anywhere, becomes the minimum expectation for experiences that they want everywhere. That’s challenging to overcome for many companies. How can a B2B buying experience compete with a B2C shopping experience someone just had purchased clothes in a retail store? Talent and tech have blurred the lines between B2B and B2C so much that corporate innovation can no longer focus just on the consumer.

At IBM, we don’t use the term work-life balance; we call it work-life integration because we know that on any given day, work and personal life overlap. As an example, we recently consulted with a major airline that over-indexed its consumer app so much so that passengers had better access to data and information than the agents. In some situations, passengers knew about delays, new gates and canceled flights before employees. Embarrassed and feeling ill-prepared, the airline staff started installing the consumer app so that they could access information that wasn’t being filtered to them on employee technologies. This existential crisis for the airline showed its leaders firsthand why consumer-employee experiences can no longer live in a silo.

What are some of the emerging technologies that IBM is recommending to their clients or suggesting that they pay close attention to?

While I cannot get into too many specifics, on a high level we are very excited about the possibilities of blockchain, robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). All of these technologies will eventually be adopted, but for now, they represent major shifts to enterprises. We don’t believe that automation and cognitive technologies will replace human jobs, rather we think it will make humans do their jobs more effectively. It will help employees discover and analyze unprecedented amounts of data, find irregularities and even ensure nonrepudiation.

In your opinion, what characteristics constitute the ideal corporate innovation professional?

The best corporate innovators must master shifting back and forth between using their left brain and right brain and explaining things at 30,000 ft. overviews and 30-micron summaries. If you can use your right brain to imagine use cases, but can’t use the left to build out and sell a business model, then the innovation will fail to come to fruition because you won’t be taken seriously. Leadership in these intrapreneurial roles are very important, and the agility to constantly switch mental gears is primary characteristic of enterprise innovation leaders.


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