The head of IBM Global Business Services keeps an eye on the past in order to move forward
A degree in ancient history from the University of Oxford and a membership on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company aren’t the first qualifications you might want in a leader of the emerging world of artificial intelligence. But that’s just what IBM got when Mark Foster was hired as senior vice president of IBM Global Business Services® in 2016. “What’s happening now reminds me of when personal computers first began appearing in the early 1980s,” Foster says with a smile. “Artificial intelligence is an inflection point — and I wanted to jump back in.”
Foster, 58, has always sought adventure. Growing up just outside London and the child of two artists, he was drawn to history and studied classics at Oxford, figuring he’d pursue a career of academia or archaeology. But when a friend happened to take him to a job fair one afternoon, Foster was intrigued with the notion of the newly created personal computer — and the promise of free dessert. “My friend promised me Black Forest gateau, which is really good cake,” Foster says, smiling. “So I went along — and the next thing I knew, I began a 27-year consulting and management career in technology.”
These days Foster works with businesses around the world to help them harness emerging technology for the 21st century. “Because of my degree in ancient history, I tend to think in millennia, not quarters,” Foster says. “So I work on long-term strategies to enable businesses to create new markets for the future.”
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
How did studying classical literature prepare you for a career in technology?
I take a long-term view of things, which allows me to think about what really matters, to put things in perspective. Combine that with three decades in technology consulting and four years as a commissioner overseeing the UK's aid budget around the world — during which I visited huts, clinics, and schools in some of the poorest parts of the globe, from the Congo to Somalia to Bangladesh — and I think I understand the motivations of people. I understand how lucky we are in our lives and what it takes to succeed.
Why is now such a crucial time for businesses to embrace change in technology?
We all have to learn about new technologies, because if you don’t, you're going to be left behind. There was the era of the mainframe, the era of the PC, and the era of the Internet. And now we can say there’s another era: the era of cognitive enterprise, where artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and blockchain technology are going to completely change businesses again. This is a wake-up call. Every process, from the supply chain to a call center to a retail branch, is going be transformed. People’s lives are also going to be changed as the man-machine interface moves forward.
Why is IBM uniquely suited to help transform businesses for the 21st century?
As a technology company constantly working to reinvent itself, we have learned a lot about what works and what does not. So, we have something relevant to say to clients who are on the same journey. This is very different from other professional-services companies who haven’t been through the same transformational perils, who haven’t had to deal with the issues of going digital. What’s unique about IBM is that we have been on this journey for 107 years. If you looked inside the cupboards of what IBM looks like now versus three years ago, it's completely different than three years before that, in terms of the mix of business, the skills it has to have, the kind of leaders it needs to have. Yet, at the same time, individuals are having long-term careers here, and they’re just continually having to learn new stuff. That gives an extra resonance to our stories. It’s different from other providers who just know their topic. We’ve actually done it.
What services are you most proud of offering to business partners?
We’re interested in working with the leaders of the future — to help them leverage IBM technology to change the world. Right now businesses are uncertain about how to seize opportunity. They need a partner who can help them on the journey. The main thing we offer is to help businesses innovate safely. To do that, we bring a combination of smart technology — like Watson in AI, our own cloud, and unique assets like the Cognitive Garage — and smart people. We conduct workshops with businesses leaders to help push their companies forward, to ensure everyone is engaging in the change process together.
Most importantly, we work to help the clients shape their future, act as an advisor to them, and listen. It’s not about telling people what to do. It’s about engaging, co-creating an answer, and then going forward as partners to execute it.