Data are a digital gold mine. We should be using them.
Guest on "01 Business"
Atos Chairman and CEO
Since 2008 Jacques Chirac's former Minister of Economy, Finance and Industry has been at the helm of Atos, one of the world's leading IT services providers with a turnover of 8.8 billion euros and 77,000 employees in 2013. As he approaches his 59th year, Thierry Breton does not give the lie to his reputation as a renowned captain of industry administering France's oldest IT services company. An engineer who managed and revamped Thomson between 1997 and 2002, and subsequently France Telecom from 2002 to 2005, in five years he has increased Atos revenues by 55% and boosted its stock market listing fivefold. Now in charge of two Cloud development missions, he is calling for European regulations to be harmonised as a prerequisite for the expansion of an industry he feels is a genuine revolution in the corporate world.
Atos has just released its three-year plan. Can you tell us what your ambitions are?
Thierry Breton: We intend to boost the company's operating margin between one and two points by the end of 2016, with average growth in turnover of between 2% and 3%. Prospects are looking good for the two main lines of business at Atos. First of all we have ESN (enterprise social network), particularly information management and Cloud business, an area in which Atos is Europe's leading industrial-scale operator. Then we have payment business, where we are also a European player with our subsidiary Worldline, which produces turnover in excess of one billion euros and which we intend to continue to develop, not least through an IPO that could be carried through in 2014 if the market conditions are ripe.
What can be done to play down the cost-killer image of IT services managers?
T.B.: The role of IT managers is changing. Although they are responsible for operational management of traditional systems or back office, they must also drive forward new projects that dynamise their area of business and create new services. They now know they must take account of each and every dimension of the digital revolution, and advance along with the transition this entails in all areas of the firm. With Cloud facilities, BYOD Bring Your Own Device setups, mobility, “Big Data” and social networks, technology has now gone beyond IT departments as such, and is a must for everyone. Atos helps IT services managers take up the new challenge.
Along with the Chairman of OVH, you coordinate the Cloud reflection group - just one of Arnaud Montebourg's 34 future projects. What are your goals here?
T.B.: On the basis of widespread national consultation with many of the major players in this area, I am co-piloting this initiative along with Octave Klaba to focus on challenges and draw up our preliminary recommendations within a very short space of time. Cloud development is a must for European companies. It is a major ingredient of competitiveness, ultimately with substantial investment in all areas, highly qualified jobs, and above all the creation of a digital infrastructure that is crucial if we are to develop the IT divisions of tomorrow.
What is missing at the present time?
T.B.: First and foremost, an atmosphere of trust, especially in terms of regulations geared towards the issues involved in developing this digital economy, and most of all with regard to data protection and management. Irrespective of their origins, European businesses must apply stringent service quality rules (SLAs or Service Level Agreements) and common security rules, while their customers must have contractual guarantees in relation to data access, storage and processing. In this regard, there must also be mechanisms, control mechanisms, to give the public at large and the business world a guarantee that the regulation of European digital data is being applied and adhered to. This could take the form of a "Shared Data Area" beyond national criteria. The Cloud system is a cross-border system by nature. We have the opportunity to create a relatively homogenous European area. We must, therefore, seize this chance to offer our services across such a wide area and develop an industry on the scale of the European continent, with a population of over 500 million: one and a half times the population of the US!
What do you mean when you call for a 'data Schengen'?
T.B.: This expression was coined during our discussions among members of the ECP (European Cloud Partnership) as part of our European cloud development project with Jim Snabe, Co-CEO of SAP, for the European Commission. When we say 'data Schengen', we mean we feel it is a good idea for pioneer countries to rapidly adhere to a set of common rules to establish the level of trust required for investment in and development of cloud usages. This is certainly not seeking shelter behind an artificial Maginot Line. We just feel that a progressive opt-in procedure is the way forward, as it was when the Schengen agreements were introduced. It means we could have a French Cloud that could be used by all the various French authorities, by authorities in other countries as well, and obviously this would be reciprocal. We fully understand, of course, that users do not want certain data - their tax or medical information, for example - to be processed anywhere else but their own country. National regulations must be adhered to and even enhanced in this regard. However, with regard to a large amount of less sensitive data, provided the various areas implement exactly the same regulations in terms of protection and guarantees and furnish the confidence required - through effective common control mechanisms - why not take up an enterprise that will generate savings, progress and competitiveness? Europe cannot afford to miss out on today's digital industrial revolution.
Didn't Edward Snowden's disclosures during the summer throw cold water on Europe's willingness in this regard?
T.B.: At the very least, you could say that the atmosphere this led to didn't do a lot for the atmosphere of trust we want to create! Our initiative commenced well before this affair, and so it can hardly be considered as a European reaction to the revelations this summer and the emotions aroused in many countries. Historically, we have been compelled to organise first our land, then our seas, and finally our airspace as the activities of the world's nations developed. Now is the time to organise our digital space with the same mindset. There have always been issues of sovereignty, defence, intelligence etc. in all these areas ... but all this, of course, goes beyond the scope of our mission.
So you don't consider large-scale data collection dangerous?
T.B.: No, I don't. Data are a "digital gold mine", the "oil" of the future. In fact, they have already turned into today's "oil" for some companies, still not European enough. The utilisation of data opens up countless avenues for innovation. It has been estimated that every two years we generate as much information as the whole of mankind has created since time immemorial. We are all creating a digital footprint that is stored ad vitam aeternam. All this information can be added in and aligned for the precise purposes of monitoring, identification and better knowledge for those who created it and who agree to share it in return for the benefits of its processing. Some solutions, for example, can now analyse someone's food intake and health, identify pathologies and any health hazards well in advance. This is only one example among a thousand other examples where data can assist our welfare. Obviously everyone can decide individually which data prints they wish to leave, to whom they wish to leave them, and for how long.
Nowadays even objects are online ...
T.B.: Absolutely. It's the second wave of this huge revolution. We will be able to predict when a mechanical component will become obsolescent depending on its actual usage, and replace it before it breaks down, we will be able to pay car insurance depending on the way we drive, customise dosages of drugs depending on the personal parameters of patients measured in real time, be forewarned of traffic jams in online cars etc. We are moving towards a world in which we will all be connected to everyone and everything. Managing all these flows of data, making them coherent and putting them into perspective will generate a large amount of creativity - and therefore an equally large amount of business. This makes it an enormous economic transformation.
Should France be gearing itself more towards these technologies?
T.B.: France is definitely much better placed to do so than other countries. France does have a wealth of innovative features - we have our "grandes écoles" higher education system, universities and a long trajectory in information and services technology. We should not forget that the word for informatics, or informatique, was coined in France. Having said that, the mindsets of young people no longer focus on "France" as such, but rather on "Europe". The resounding success of the Erasmus programme over the last twenty years was largely responsible for this. Young people in France nowadays are much more European than my generation was at their age, and Europe is a natural market for today's entrepreneurs.
What can be done to draw young people into the digital industry?
T.B.: They go into it of their own accord, and increasingly so. If we just let them use the digital data now available in Europe, they'll come up with millions of applications and usages we have no idea about at the present time. I have every confidence in this. Their creativity is unbelievable. Look at Evergreen, for example, this year's winner of the Atos IT Challenge, a kind of digital Olympics we organise every year at European universities. These students used the data from traffic lights in European cities to design an application that geolocalises users, tells them how long their traffic light will take to go green and suggests an itinerary and the speed they should maintain to meet only green lights, and basically this eases traffic conditions. It's amazing. So amazing, in fact, that Renault is now looking at how to fit the system to its new cars. The data exist. Above all else, we have to be able to use them. After that, there are no limits to our imagination. We have to make them available in an area of confidence: the famous “Shared Data Area” we are working on with Jim Snabe.
Quotes collated by Frédéric Simottel and Sébastien Dumoulin