'Crisis is an accelerator for change and innovation'
Businesses are investing heavily in digital technology despite the pandemic-induced slowdown, and they aren’t waiting around to pull the trigger, according to the new head of IBM Canada.
“I think history will look at this moment as when digital transformation accelerated,” Claude Guay told the Financial Post in an exclusive interview.
Guay, who was promoted to the role of president of the company’s Canadian operations in April, said decisions that might have taken two months of mulling by corporations and governments prior to the pandemic are being made in as little as two days now as businesses recognize that hesitating can be costly.
Companies propelled to invest in their technology include many in the financial sector, where increased demand for online transactions during the pandemic and related business shutdowns has exposed weaknesses in IT infrastructure.
Calgary-based Celero, for example, which provides a technology backbone to more than 100 credit unions across Canada — from payments to security to cloud services — announced a multi-million-dollar upgrade this month to keep pace with demand for these services.
“Most businesses, including financial organizations, are looking to digitally reinvent themselves,” Guay said, adding that the emphasis is on ensuring security, scalability and responsiveness to “future proof” the businesses.
“If we have learned one thing over the past few months it is that crisis is an accelerator for change and innovation,” he added.
Canada’s largest financial institution, Royal Bank of Canada, whose chief executive Dave McKay has been vocal about the need to invest in technology, took another step in that direction this month in partnership with Red Hat, an open-source software provider purchased by Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM last year but maintained as an independent operator.
Through the partnership, RBC said it is deploying an artificial-intelligence computing platform “designed to transform the customer banking experience and help keep pace with rapid technology changes and evolving customer expectations.” The bank said the platform has already improved trading execution and helped reduce client calls.
IBM Canada’s Guay says the healthcare sector — forced by the pandemic to move many former in-office services online — is another area in which investments in technology are accelerating, bringing online medicine and therapy into the mainstream.
Governments, too, are being compelled to invest, he said. From the national level to the municipal, they have been required to handle an increasing flow of rapidly changing information, in addition to some financial assistance programs.
In late April, for example, the city of Markham, Ont., began using IBM AI-assisted technology to provide 24-hour online information about COVID-19, including through text chat.
Guay said technology companies are gearing up as they see demand from businesses and governments increasing.
“It’s going to be very critical (as) Canadian organizations and others accelerate this transformation and emerge from the pandemic — it’s important to have all these capabilities,” he said.
“There will be a lot of automation and AI, and there’s going to be a lot of cloud activity. We’re seeing that now.”
There will be a lot of automation and AI, and there’s going to be a lot of cloud activityClaude Guay, president, IBM Canada
Guay, 58, took the top job at IBM Canada in the midst of the pandemic but his roots there run deep. He started at IBM in the 1980s, following his father to the tech company affectionately known as Big Blue at a time when personal computers were setting the market on fire.
“I’m second-generation IBM,” he said proudly.
Guay stepped away from the established buttoned-down computer company for more than a decade to work with entrepreneurs during the dot-com boom, but returned to IBM in 2012 after a couple of fizzled startups left him feeling lucky to have lost no money.
But the company he came back to was far different from the dominant one he left — and no longer even made the personal computers that had defined it when he joined.
Guay acknowledged IBM’s current lines of business, which include providing technological infrastructure and “plumbing” — from platforms and tools for phone applications to cloud storage — are far less known nowadays.
“If I had a dollar for everyone who said to me: ‘You do that?’ I would be retired,” he joked.
But Guay is confident the ever-evolving company still has a place amid dominant technology players such as Amazon and Google, which he describes as the “born-in-the-cloud” players.
“IBM went from hardware to mainframes to PCs, then we went software, middleware to enable broad applications, then we went into services, and now as we see today we’re at a hybrid-cloud moment,” he said.
“This is the next frontier for the IBM company: How do we help our clients and organizations manage across multiple (platforms and technologies including) cloud, software and services.”