Bob Fox, IBM Global Business Services: 21st Century Fox

24 November 2014 |

As global industry leader of telecoms and media & entertainment at IBM Global Business Services (GBS), Bob Fox has developed strong opinions on some of the growing trends in the telecoms industry.

Bob Fox, global industry leader of telecoms and media & entertainment at IBM Global Business Services (GBS), seems born for the role. He is motivated by talking to people and learning about others, and that is precisely how he spends his day.

“I am on the phone from 7am to 7pm, with maybe two half-an-hour breaks, and that is what I love to do,” he says. “I am speaking with China in the morning, then Europe, and then the west coast of the US. It is an extremely global company.”

IBM first established its consulting arm in 1989 which it named IBM Consulting Group. In 2001, this was rebranded to IBM Business Innovation and then, following an increased crossover with technology delivery, the organisation came to be known as IBM Global Business Services.

As a consultant of IBM Global Business Services, Fox heads up telecoms and the media and entertainment sector, with the essential aim of bringing “the best of IBM” to these clients all over the world.

Fox’s role includes managing IBM’s consulting business, developing its business consulting strategy, advancing global client relationships and providing thought leadership for these two specific industries.

In a role as truly global and “audacious” as Fox’s, he says that he uses a three-pronged approach to tackle his responsibilities and understand his broad customer base.

The first is travel, which Fox spends much of his time doing. He meets with clients all over the world, explaining IBM’s business and philosophy and learning about theirs.

Second, IBM conducts primary research with consumers and executives in the industry as part of its institute of business value. “Our most recent survey involved 22,000 consumers in 36 countries, and we share that information with our clients because we see it as an obligation,” Fox says.

Finally, is the Centre of Confidence; a group of approximately 100 experts scattered all over the globe, with a deep knowledge in a variety of important sectors of the telecoms industry, including OSS, Big Data analytics, cloud and mobile services.

Doing it well
Working closely with operators and telcos worldwide, Fox has developed a number of his own ideas on the increasingly prominent subject of the battle between carriers and over-the-top (OTT) players.

In October 2014, departing VP of the European Commission, Neelie Kroes, made a powerful speech to operators in the region, reinforcing the need to work more harmoniously with their OTT counterparts.

Kroes noted that most EU homes have broadband coverage, and almost half of those can access it on their mobile devices. “But how many of them would do that if there were no OTT services? If there were no Facebook, no YouTube, no Netflix, no Spotify?” she asked. “OTT players are the ones driving digital demand, the demand for your services. That is something you can work with, not against.”

An advocate of Kroes’ speech, Fox believes that operators need to focus on enhancing their networks to better support these OTT services, rather than developing their own.

IBM signed a partnership with Apple in July this year to collaborate on mobility and Big Data. The deal was designed to utilise the strengths of each company, and bring IBM’s Big Data analytics capabilities to the iPhone and iPad. Apple CEO Tim Cook described the deal as a market opportunity that only Apple and IBM could deliver, and it was during this partnership that Fox noted an expression from Apple that struck a chord with him.

He highlights the phrase “play your position”: “For example, maybe you don’t like playing the supporting actress in a play or a movie, but that’s what you’re really good at. Or maybe you’re a midfielder on a lacrosse team. You might aspire to be an attacker or a keeper, but that’s not what you’re good at. You’re good at mid-fielding,” he explains.

He believes this applies to the telecoms operators which should be focussed on perfecting their network services. Other businesses with a background in applications, content or integration would be better aligned to target OTT services, he says.

The ideology of Swisscom’s late CEO, Carsten Schloter, has had an impact on Fox. Swisscom is a company name rarely recognised in relation to debt or financial struggles, and is often predicting and achieving high revenue outlooks.

“[Schloter] said, ‘we are going to build the best fixed and wireless networks, we are going to have more spectrum, more deployed technology than anybody else, and we are going to make a lot of money doing that’,” Fox says. “That was their core value proposition, and you cannot ignore their financial success in doing that.”

Movers and shakers
Fox went straight into consulting when he left business school because he liked the idea of making a difference. Across a 35-year career, he consulted in a variety of industries – including transportation and chemicals – before finding his feet in telecoms and technology.

“I thought I would stay in this industry for maybe five years before moving on to something else,” Fox says.

But Fox found the continually evolving telecoms and technology market too revolutionary to leave. When he first started in the industry, mobile was only in its infancy.

“It is an industry where every five years, something really big happens or changes, and it’s really exciting,” Fox says.

So what does he think will be the next big thing?

IBM is heavily focussed on Big Data and analytics, which Fox sees as the next major game-changer for telecoms.

Big Data, he says, will enable operators to enhance customer experience by analysing any issues in the network. More importantly, it will be able to tap more deeply in to customer behaviour. “Big Data is something I could spend hours talking about,” he says. “It is a really fascinating subject.”

Another fascinating subject to the telecoms world over is the growing potential for, and development of M2M services.

Fox believes the industry is only just scratching the surface when it comes to M2M, and says that there are a lot of processes that still need perfecting before they can be implemented on a global scale.

As an estimation, Fox gives M2M between three and five years before it will become a social norm, and even then it will be dependent on the pain-points in each economy.

“For some it might be the refrigerator telling you when it’s running low on milk,” he says. “But for others it might be predicting when a water main or electrical pipe is about to explode.”

A man of his word
Fox explains how his role at IBM has also changed and developed in line with market trends. As opposed to focussing on geography, brand or service line, the company has become more industry-specific.

“We are doing this firstly because it is what our clients are asking for,” he says. “They want to know which are the best players in telecoms, or which are the best players in banking.”

This has also involved a change in management structure. He explains there is not a great deal of direct management involved in his role, as those that report in to him are heads of telecoms or media and entertainment in countries all over the world.

In terms of management style, Fox very much practises what he preaches. “I am a people person. I am good at speaking with people and people always know where they stand with me,” he says. “I also like people who are able to have a debate with me and question something if they do not agree. It is good for the company and it brings about new ideas.”

However, once an idea has been batted around and a decision has been made, Fox likes to execute the plan efficiently.

This global management structure only adds to Fox’s extensive travel schedule, which sees him spending two to three weeks every month travelling.

“It is really fun and I have always enjoyed the travel,” he says. There isn’t a company as global as IBM.”

Flying high
Based in Boston, Fox says he tries to spend at least a week or two at home every month where he lives with his wife and one of his three children.

With such a high-flying international career, you might be excused for thinking Fox would like to relax in his spare time, but he names skiing, golfing and cycling as just some of his interests when he’s not at work.

And this ethos of sticking to what you are good at seems to ring true even through to his hobbies.

“I do these things, I enjoy them, but I don’t do them to any level of excellence,” he jokes. “But it’s incredible to see people who do.”