Sanjay Rishi was working in the auto industry when he had an epiphany — and wrote a visionary plan that would change his life forever
In 2008, Sanjay Rishi was building technology systems for automotive companies when the impending rise of connected automobiles inspired him to write Automotive 2020: Clarity Behind the Chaos. The groundbreaking manifesto, created and published by Rishi’s team at IBM, forecasts the rise of smart cars, ride sharing and the Internet of Things. It garnered global attention. “Everyone was interested in connectivity then. I just connected the dots of the broader impending changes to the industry,” Rishi says of the study.
Born in Delhi, India, Rishi studied mechanical engineering before earning a master’s degree in business and embarking on his tenure at General Motors in Michigan. Following that, as a Partner with PwC and subsequently IBM, he ran the global automotive industry. It was there, a decade ago, that he published Automotive 2020.
Now, Rishi works as Managing Director for General Motors at IBM. “I basically combine the work of a CIO with [that of] a business strategist. I help companies modernize,” he says. “It is as much about the people as it is the technology.” Rishi knows this well. “My undergraduate and graduate education was in math and science,” he says. “But part of my doctoral thesis covered effective organizational communication. Studying it closely helped me understand the importance of people and cultural change when managing organizational transformations.”
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
Automotive 2020 was massively influential in the automotive industry. How did you make it happen?
We interviewed 125 CEOs to understand their views about where the industry was going across all aspects of the automotive industry in 15 countries, from Peugeot in France to Land Rover in the UK to Tata Motors in India. We then applied our experiences and assimilated a future looking view of the industry. The cloud was just starting and AI was more a concept in an MIT lab than anything else. A lot of the changes we predicted were in the right direction, looking at things like ride sharing, the extent to which electrification has progressed, and connected vehicles. Overall, the resulting wake-up call was that everything would hinge on connectivity with the consumer.
What do you say when people ask you for advice about embracing the future?
I can talk about technology until the cows come home, but the real point is to effect lasting change in organizations. I recently met with the CEO of a large bank in the UK who asked me, “What should I be thinking about?” I said, “Don’t think about technology — technology has matured and will deliver results for you. Think about effectively managing that change.” All of this technology — from AI to cloud — is about creating individual experiences and innovating customer, supplier and employee relationships.
How do you work with companies to implement new technologies?
Companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook are information aggregators. They monetize information they collect. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just a business model. By contrast, IBM is completely different. We are an enterprise company. Our legacy is around enterprises and we believe your data is your data. Nobody else will ever have access to your data, insights or intelligence. So we work to give you powerful tools from the cloud to AI to blockchain while ensuring everything is secure. Right now, every industry is being disrupted. So we work to ensure you leverage your incumbency to innovate and disrupt. Not too many companies can bring our level of cross-industry knowledge and cutting-edge technology.
Are you still writing?
I’m still writing. And since stretching beyond my comfort zone in the technology space, I’ve kept going. I’m learning more about the arts, and I’m even taking Italian. If I can make it to conversational fluency, I’ll be happy.