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IBM’s global chief data officer explains why changing culture to support AI is harder in a traditional tech company — and one way it’s easier


Inderpal Bhandari

  • Alongside nontraditional tech firms like Walmart, industry behemoths like IBM and Microsoft have spent the past decade pivoting from their hardware and software product offerings to more cutting-edge technology like artificial intelligence.
  • The shift, however, can be more difficult for those legacy tech firms, argues Inderpal Bhandari, IBM's global chief data officer. 
  • While the in-house tech talent makes it easier to form teams around AI-based efforts, many employees can be stuck in the ways of the past, making the necessary cultural shift more difficult, he told Business Insider. 
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Legacy tech giants like Microsoft and IBM have spent the last decade pivoting from the bread-and-butter software and hardware that once defined their product offerings to more cutting-edge technology like cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

Doing so, however, often requires a major cultural shift internally — and not just at newly software-heavy organizations like Walmart. While it may seem counterintuitive, that shift can actually be harder in the historically technology-forward companies like IBM, according to Inderpal Bhandari, the company's global chief data officer. 

"In a tech company, people are also used to doing tech things in a set way. And if you try out the change, that's going to be tough," he told Business Insider. "In a nontechnical company, you come in, it's like you pretty much have a clean slate to start out."

Bhandari knows from experience. Appointed to chief data officer of pharmacy services provider Medco in 2006, he was one of the first individuals to hold the now increasingly common role.

Since then, he's worked in the position at pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts, which acquired Medco in 2012, and Cambia Health Solutions — giving him a wide amount of experience leading organizations through their digital overhauls. 

Operating as the 'change agent in chief'

IBM is pivoting aggressively to artificial intelligence. A big part of that is changing the culture internally, a job that falls to Bhandari and other tech leaders.

"If you actually had to ask me what is the shortest description of my job, it would be 'change agent in chief,'" he said. "Many CDOs will walk in totally proficient with the technical aspects of the job, but they won't understand that their role is really to be a change agent. And that will then lead them to great difficulties." 

A key way to overcome those obstacles is building the right team, one aspect that Bhandari says is easier to do in a legacy technology company.

"In the case of a non-tech company, you would probably have to build much more of the team using external talent and bringing people in," he said. "In the case of a company like IBM, you don't need that much by way of external talent, maybe three or four leaders, and then the rest you're able to attract internally."

At IBM, Bhandari uses an "adoption and value creation" team to encourage cultural change from the bottom up. The group's mission is to push AI adoption across business unit by explaining the advantages, including faster scale at less cost.

"They're empowered, if they find a like-minded crew in another business and they both want to do something, they can go off and do something," he said.

The hurdles that IBM must overcome on its own AI path shows just how difficult a shift it is, regardless of what industry the organization is in. Luckily, Business Insider has insight from experts that can help guide companies on their journey.

SEE ALSO: Accenture's head of artificial intelligence shares the 4-step plan every company should consider before investing in AI

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