IBM’s Sreeram Visvanathan is digitally transforming the world’s governments
This story is part of Big Thinkers, a series of profiles on business leaders transforming industries with bold ideas.
Sreeram Visvanathan spent considerable time in South Africa in the early 2000s, a decade after its transformation from hostile apartheid to democracy. As part of his work, he developed strategies, reviewed business operations, and met with numerous clients as well as young South Africans. He observed a palpable energy and positivity towards the future.
In his conversations with South African youth, “They told me that the past was unfair,” he said, “and all they wanted now was the opportunity to succeed.”
Insightful observation and meaningful dialogue that lead to a better future: these are common threads in Visvanathan’s career, which has led him from IT through consulting and now to heading IBM’s government industry. He’s been the global managing director for nearly three years, imbuing his work with a thoughtful, collaborative approach that drives the transformation of governments around the world.
Visvanathan was born in Bangalore, India. He credits his father, who worked for the government his entire career, with fostering his already innate curiosity; the two would have elaborate discussions on various subjects. When his father was posted to an Indian mission to the UK, 14-year-old Visvanathan went with him, and stayed to attend undergraduate and graduate universities.
He spent the first part of his career in the IT industry.
“I was a client of IBM’s in that time,” he said. “Every time I called an IBM engineer, I would rest assured” that the work would be handled. Today, he works to bring that same rock-solid trust to all his interactions with both clients and employees.
After a decade in IT, he noticed that he wasn’t learning anymore. He entered the consulting world as a researcher, and immediately loved it.
“It throws you into situations you don’t know, and different cultures,” he said. “When you have the opportunity to engage with different environments, you learn.”
He spent a number of years consulting in the MENA region, including Jordan, Kenya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. He spent time in conversations with constituents—farmers struggling to get the most from their crops, for example—to understand the complexities of the region’s most basic yet crucial issues.
“We who live in fairly developed countries take things for granted what many people around the world don’t have,” he said. His most vivid memories include time spent working with MENA youth: “You learn from all these people.”
On the other end of that spectrum is his work in cities like New York and Washington, DC: “you see a different set of problems.”
Today, Visvanathan is working to help IBM tackle some of the world’s most complex issues, including human trafficking, disaster crisis management, and the aging workforce.
“We’re at the cusp of major, technology-led transformations in the government industry,” he said, due to numerous geo-political, societal, and economic forcing functions. These include the increasing gap between the have and have-nots, climate change, and the billions spent by governments each time there’s a natural disaster.
One of Visvanathan’s major projects for 2019 is a disaster management platform.
The year 2017 saw 330 catastrophic weather events globally, with 31 costing a billion or more dollars in recovery. The toll is staggering, and, Visvanathan said, cannot be acceptable any longer.
“Years ago, we didn’t have the speed or scale to help governments prepare the way we do today,” he said. That includes advanced hurricane warnings; communications to constituents (“most people listen, the people who tend to stay are older, can’t move, or are too afraid to lose what they have”); and coordinating activities among various agencies.
After a disaster, there’s the monumental task of recovery and rebuilding. Technology can help here too: blockchain, for example, can ensure transparency into every dollar that goes into rebuilding.
“These are existential, society-shaping opportunities,” he said. “We’re at the beginning of the Information Age, the fourth cycle of the industrial revolution.”
In each of those cycles, he believes, we face disruption that challenges societal norms. Today, AI and automation are among those disruptors, and they’re at the forefront of Visvanathan’s mind for 2019 and beyond. He believes governments have an important role to play in embracing these technologies. Equally important are governments’ roles in policies around data, the right to information, transparency, and bias.
“These are all very relevant and topical,” he said, “and I love engaging in these discussions.”
Another of his foci is the worldwide aging workforce, and how governments will attract and retain new generations of workers.
For Visvanathan, the answer goes beyond digital skills: “it’s a change of lens and responsibility” as governments move towards a customer relationship management model with their constituents.
He thinks a lot about the expectations of the citizens of the future, the next generation beyond the digital natives. Will they expect their governments to focus more on policy enforcement—or on topics like their wellness and happiness?
Back when he worked in middle and eastern Africa decades ago, the latter would have seemed like an improbable dream.
“You see people really struggling to find employment,” he said. “Is it just their problem? Can governments invest in creating the right business environments?” He believes they can: it’s about creating the fabric that allows for that type of transformation, and combatting the layers of complexities that often get in the way.
“Historically, governments have struggled to reap the true benefits of tech-led transformation,” he said. But that’s less about the technologies themselves, he believes, and more about the willingness to change and reimagine specific government processes. “The failures are human in nature.”
The challenge for him remains how to embolden government leaders to drive that charge, and challenge the status quo using technology as the enabler.
Ultimately, he wants to leave both his clients and employees with the message that anything is possible.
“With a problem that’s difficult to crack, I want to go after it,” he said. “I find that exciting.”