The whole world in his hands

Nick Donofrio has played a key role at US giant IBM for over 40 years. He tells James Bennett why technology is the key to reducing pandemics, meeting the threat of water shortages, and preserving oil supplies.

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By  James Bennett Published  December 7, 2007

We're going to move the world to the next level, because it's different now, it's much harder than 100 years ago when nothing was there. It's now very complex and becoming increasingly complex because it's more global," says Nick Donofrio, executive vice president of Innovation and Technology at IBM, half an hour before addressing over 100 of the Gulf's most important CIOs.

And he should know. The global head of research and development at IBM has been with the company for an astonishing 43 years, almost half its lifetime, and has personally transformed the world we live in - a big statement by any stretch of the imagination, but one that can quickly be justified.

Personal computers also contain a CMOS memory to hold the date, time, and system set-up parameters.

Donofrio's achievements have not only impacted technology, but also, more importantly, the everyday lives of billions of businesspeople and consumers over four decades, and now heading into a fifth.

After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering and joining IBM in the late 1960s in Burlington, Vermont, the then 20-something year-old Donofrio set about working on and developing a new form of silicon semi-conductor technology called CMOS. Little did he know that his first piece of work for the Big Blue was to become one of the most important, with CMOS chips embedded in almost every piece of electrical equipment that we use today. From PCs to mobile phones, it has become the dominant semiconductor technology for microprocessors and memories.

CMOS chips require less power than chips, using just one type of transistor making them particularly attractive for use in battery-powered devices, such as portable computers. Personal computers also contain a small amount of battery-powered CMOS memory to hold the date, time, and system set-up parameters. If it wasn't for Donofrio and his team in Vermont, I wouldn't be typing this article.

The leader of IBM's technology strategy then went on to lead many of IBM's major development and manufacturing teams - from semiconductor and storage technologies, to microprocessors and personal computers, to IBM's entire family of servers, as well as investing US$10bn in Linux technology - a crucial investment for IBM's future growth.

It is in the last three years, however, that Donofrio admits to having had the "most excitement" and to moving to a "higher plane" in terms of value and importance. "Yes I've done some very good things that I'm very proud of and they've all been pretty powerful transformational things, but they were business-oriented. I was on the ground, but the work I'm doing now is so exciting you wouldn't believe," he says bursting with enthusiasm.

"The honest work is over," Donofrio adds jokingly. "The work I do now is above that, it's above that and over the top."

The work he does now is, as he describes, is way above and beyond simply finding new ways to make semi-conductors function or modifying the latest server technology. He has been the chief catalyst in transforming IBM's technology culture from one focused solely on technical achievement to one in which technical leaders are active and motivated contributors to IBM's business strategy. He now leads the way in which IBM and its vast team of 200,000 technical employees are changing the way we behave, think, educate, train, view, plan and react to crucial global topics such as disease, nuclear technology and climate change.

If you thought the first phase of his career was defining, Donofrio says that even in his 61st year he truly believes the work he and the country-sized company are now undertaking will "revolutionise the world". Donofrio's first step in his role as leader of IBM's technology strategy and a champion for innovation across the organisation was the 2004 launch of the Global Innovation Outlook (GIO). This enabled IBM, for the first time in its history, to engage non-IBMers in its technology and business-trend analysis process with the goal of elevating the global conversation around innovation and its impact on people, institutions, businesses and society.

"It's looking at ‘okay so this is our company, but what are we doing, how are we making ourselves more distinct in the marketplace, what are we trying to do?' We're trying to transform IBM into ‘the innovators innovator'," he explains.

"We don't want to lose our technological influence and we're not trying to say we don't want to invent anymore, we're trying to say we want people to say ‘I want to talk to you and trust you and I want to get better as a result'. The reason why I perhaps enjoy what I do now is because this is much more cultural and these are tougher problems."

For the Big Blue, innovation is about more than products or services, it is about process, business models, management systems and societal issues. "There's something different about innovation in the 21st century," says Donofrio. "It's a lot more to do with better understanding the problems and issues in the marketplace, whether that's a governmental, business, academic or societal problem. Put that into practice and discussion and you can find unique ways to unlock that hidden value.

"Value is never exactly where you think it is and it's never what you want it to be. We think of innovation in the large, like processes and business models and that helps a lot clients better understand what's really going on and it really shows that everybody can be an innovator. Technology is important but no longer necessary for success," he adds.

GIO was a huge step for a traditional technology monolith such as IBM to take and has now become a model that other global giants are readily adopting. The Outlook is unique in that it was the first programme of its size to gather IBM's top researchers, consultants and business leaders and arm them with the latest insight on emerging technical trends and socio-economic shifts. And it has now created a platform upon which its entire innovation ecosystem can join forces to discover and develop new, unforeseen opportunities for business and societal innovation.

The discussion between these various stands of expertise and knowledge begins with a series of open and dynamic conversations that IBM calls "deep dives". The organisation's latest GIO, published earlier this month, is on Africa and pinpoints several key trends and shifts in the continent's emerging future and potential that IBM itself calls "limitless". These include the increasingly important role of mobile and wireless technology, its burgeoning economy, the significance of microfinance and the so-called ‘Cheetah-generation' - the fast-moving and fast-thinking young men and women eager to accelerate Africa's development.

Next year and the years to come, however, could spawn research and technological and scientific developments and discoveries that change the face of the planet forever, explains Donofrio.

"Through GIO we look to the future and we can model and simulate almost everything," says Donofrio. "Right now we model and simulate oil fields. For example, we can predict where oil reservoirs are, we can model financial systems where we will be able to read calculations that have taken people months to build.

"Something as complex as modelling oil fields will become more real-time. It won't be ‘we're going to do that and then come back in a few months, you'll be able to do that on a much more real-time basis," he adds.

IBM’s quest for innovation

In early 2004, IBM took an unprecedented step: it opened up its annual technology and business forecasting processes to the world with the first Global Innovation Outlook. It gathered its top researchers, consultants and business leaders, armed them with the latest insight on emerging technical trends and socio-economic shifts, and created a platform upon which its entire innovation ecosystem could join together to surface new and unforeseen opportunities for business and societal innovation.

The GIO is rooted in the belief that the very nature of innovation has changed from the early days of the 21st century. It is increasingly open, collaborative, multi-disciplinary and global. This shift means that the truly revolutionary innovations of our time - the ones that will create new markets, redefine old ones, and maybe even change the world for the better - require the participation and investment across multiple constituencies. The GIO challenges some of the brightest minds on the planet - from the worlds of business, politics, academia, and non-profits - to collaboratively address some of the most vexing challenges on earth.

This collaboration begins with a series of open, dynamic conversations called "deep dives." To date, more than two-dozen GIO deep dives on four continents have brought together close to 400 influencers from three-dozen countries. These free-form conversations, fuelled by a diverse mix of expertise and perspectives, are inevitably candid and spirited.

This year, the GIO focused on two new areas that represent trillions of dollars in economic activity, have far-reaching societal impact and are ripe for innovation:

The challenges every organisation and individual faces resulting from the changing nature of content creation, distribution and ownership; and investment strategies and policy implications as the African continent more fully enters the global economy.

The findings of these deep dives are available on IBM's website and on the GIO blog, and later through a series of print publications, industry events and other venues. To date, more than 150,000 copies of GIO findings have been distributed to businesses, universities and policy makers around the world. IBM and its partners are currently investing millions of dollars in new policy, thought leadership and market development initiatives as a direct result of those initial GIO sessions.

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