In 2014, just a little over a year into her role as the Managing Director of IBM India, Vanitha Narayanan had faced a huge setback. The $1-billion landmark agreement signed a decade ago with Bharti Airtel was up for renewal, and the telco decided to split the, now, $2-billion deal among three vendors. While IBM retained a significant chunk of the contract, TCS and Tech Mahindra got a fair share of the work.
In 2016, she was faced with a similar challenge with Vodafone India playing hard ball, but led from the front to pip rivals Tech Mahindra, TCS, Wipro and Infosys to the finish line. "The Indian telecom market has not stood still. But we have remained relevant to the clients. We never take them or the market for granted. IBM (still) has the innovation and hunger of a start-up, and the rigour and security of an established player. It is also not about a client or even the number of clients, it is the scale at which we serve them and the value we deliver," she says.
According to Narayanan, this competitive attitude dates back to her growing-up years. "I had a mother, who, when told, that I had got 96 in math, would ask 'why did you lose those four marks?' So, I am a bit of a perfectionist and driven to win."
And IBM complements Narayanan well. After all, the global tech major has not only survived for over a century, but has retained its identity and competitive edge in a fast-changing environment. With operations in over 170 countries and annual revenues in excess of $80 billion, it has successfully managed to stay ahead of the curve.
And India, which has about a third of its global employee count, has been playing a major role in spearheading the innovative edge. Says Narayanan: "Everything we are creating is in the cloud. For example, in the past, Watson (a cognitive system that understands all forms of data and delivers insights) would have been sold only to large enterprises. Today, it is a set of APIs (application program interface) in the cloud, and most customers are start-ups. They do not have to buy a system from us, but run it on cloud in whatever architecture they have."
Manipal Hospitals, for instance, has deployed Watson for Oncology that analyses data to provide information and insights on evidence-based treatment options and help oncologists provide cancer patients with individualised healthcare. "It will not only help our patients, but we are also open to partnering with other hospitals and medical consultants who seek to benefit from this or even individuals who have received a cancer diagnosis and wish to seek the advice of a Manipal doctor," Dr. Ajay Bakshi, MD and CEO, Manipal Hospitals, had said at the time of the launch. "Everybody is a start-up till they become successful and they need to scale up. That is when IBM can help the most," says Narayanan.
Globally, however, things have not been easy for IBM. In the past 17 successive quarters, it has reported decline in revenues. And, this is where the Indian operations have been playing an important role. For instance, Narayanan says, IBM's India research lab leads the company's global offerings in block chain technology. "We have also been participating in government initiatives like Digital India and smart cities. We converted Rashtrapati Bhavan into a smart estate."
She also mentors women leaders within the organisation. Says Lula Mohanty, Managing Partner, Global Business Services, IBM India, "I have had the privilege of having Vanitha as my mentor. I have found tremendous value in her insights around work situations and experience in dealing with a huge range of issues. But it is not just her profundity around business that makes her so special, it is her authenticity as a leader and her equivalence, regardless of the forum, audience or the topic."
But when does she let her hair down? "Well, the process of cooking helps me - it could just be the Sunday brunch," Naryanan reveals. But, she clearly has been cooking a winning recipe for IBM in India.