CIO Journal is marking its 10th anniversary by asking corporate leaders to share their views on the evolving role of business and technology.

Arvind Krishna,

chief executive of International Business Machines Corp., addressed a range of subjects including artificial intelligence in the corporate world, which he expects to become significantly more important and more useful in the next 10 years.

Mr. Krishna has spent more than three decades at

IBM.

Before becoming CEO in 2020, he was senior vice president for cloud and cognitive software. One of his key accomplishments was driving IBM’s $34 billion acquisition of open-source enterprise-software company Red Hat Inc., which closed in 2019.


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Since his appointment as CEO, Mr. Krishna has focused IBM on areas including hybrid cloud computing, AI, blockchain and quantum computing. As part of that new focus, he led the spinoff of IBM’s $19 billion information-technology-services business last year into a new company,

Kyndryl Holdings Inc.

Here are edited highlights of the conversation with Mr. Krishna. Portions of this interview appeared in a roundtable discussion The Wall Street Journal published earlier this month.

WSJ: How has the relationship between business and technology changed during the last 10 years?

Mr. Krishna: If we take maybe three to five years as a backdrop, demographics have changed. Both the nature of work, and where people want to work and how many people want to work and could work, is dramatically different today than some years ago.

The role of the pandemic, of globalization, of climate change, sustainability—all play a role in how and where we work. You combine that with the need for omnichannel…with that backdrop, I would say technology has gone from being a cost of doing business to one of the fundamental sources of competitive advantage.

If I look at the sources of competitive advantage, 2,000 years ago it was physical resources. Then it was trading…the things you got from the land, gold, wheat, grain. Then it went to money. You then go to knowledge. Through the last century we talked about knowledge workers. Today, I think it’s technology. I think tech is the fundamental source of competitive advantage today.

WSJ: Which technologies are you referring to?

Mr. Krishna: Hybrid cloud. You have to have a place where you deploy your technology, and the cloud has given us a better answer than many before. That goes back to scale, and ease, and flexibility and frictionless.

The second that is upon us, but we are only probably 10% of the journey in, is artificial intelligence. With the amount of data today, we know there is no way we as human beings can process it all. Techniques like analytics and traditional databases can only go so far.

The only technique we know that can harvest insight from the data, is artificial intelligence. The consumer has kind of embraced it first. The bigger impact will come as enterprises embrace it. We’ve got some issues. We’ve got to solve ethics. We’ve got to make sure that all of the mistakes of the past don’t repeat themselves. We have got to understand the life science of AI. Otherwise we are going to create a monster. I am really optimistic that if we pay attention, we can solve all of those issues.

WSJ: Over what time frame?

Mr. Krishna: 10 years.

WSJ: How have the roles of chief information officer and technology leader evolved?

Mr. Krishna: I think 10 years ago, many business leaders would feel perfectly competent to make a decision, and then the CIO would [execute it]. Now, even in my own process—I am a reasonable technologist—I would not make a decision without asking my CIO, “What do you think? What does your team think? What do you and your team think is the best answer?”

Ten years ago, we were all looking to optimize that [IT budget], squeeze it down by 10%. Now I actually don’t care if you spend more, if that makes everyone else more productive. If you can do something that lets me scale revenue faster—because I can’t hire more people, they just aren’t available to hire—then that is incredibly useful and valuable. So the CIO is really a partner now, no longer the cost function that I have got to irritatingly pay heed to.

I talk to other CEOs, they are much more facile now with the technologies. They have a much better intuitive sense of what technologies can do. So they can really be a good partner for the CIO.

WSJ: Has the CIO’s domain contracted during the last 10 years?

Mr. Krishna: I think it is actually going in a circle. Ten years ago they had more control and domain, but it was kind of, ah, this thing that I don’t need to worry about.

Then it shifted. The line of business said I need more, I want to go faster,  and you got a splintering. I think that in many top rung organizations [now], the CIO has complete domain, but they have to be a partner to the business. The business informs the CIO, it helps inform the priority of what’s important.

But the CIO is running the implementation, the technology show. Having the discipline, having the career path, having the knowledge of which partners to take, of which technologies to take, having the understanding of enterprise architecture, is important. If everyone does their own thing in an enterprise, there are no commonalities. It is very hard to share data. You can do one thing, but can’t do the other nine. So as people have woken up to the hidden costs of all that, they have brought more reasonableness around the role of the CIO.

WSJ: What is the biggest challenge facing the CIO and enterprise technology going forward?

Mr. Krishna: Cybersecurity is the issue of the decade. I think that is the single biggest issue we all are going to face. You have to take an enterprise approach, layered defenses. You have got to encrypt your data. You have got to worry about access control. You have got to believe you will get broken into. You make sure that you can recover really quickly, especially when it comes to critical systems.

Write to Steven Rosenbush at [email protected]

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