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Harriet Pearson – Head of Privacy and Blogging at IBM, today's Blog Interview

January 3, 2006

Today is a very special interview for me. Harriet heads up two critical areas for IBM, and it goes without saying that both are important and sensitive. These issues must be handled accurately and with dexterity. Harriet excels at her job, and you’ll read that she is very qualified to do so.

As with each of these blog-erview’s, it’s a peek into who they are and what they do. Harriet spared some time to speak to me for this and I found her both interesting and enjoyable to speak to. I’m most grateful that she granted me this gift.

As I’ve said before, I’m a blogger, not a journalist. Harriet did a Podcast with Scott Berinato that you’ll also find interesting.

What is your job title (and what does that really mean as far as your job)?
I’m IBM’s Chief Privacy Officer and VP of Corporate Affairs. Being CPO means I’m responsible for what IBM does with data about clients, employees and other people. With the amount of data we are responsible for managing globally, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we are committed to leadership in this space. I’m responsible for our having the right privacy policies and processes to advance that leadership. I also work on IBM’s efforts to help society meet the challenge of preserving privacy in the face of incredible advances in how information can be managed for value and insight. We have a conviction that technology and solutions can do a lot to protect privacy, to enable the balance of privacy expectations and the sharing of data.

I also coordinate the efforts of a team of executives who lead IBM’s engagement in important social and policy initiatives, such as intellectual property, open standards, health care and workforce issues.

Some prior work experience that you can tell?
I have checkered past (just kidding)! What I mean is that I’ve been lucky to be exposed to a lot of different disciplines and fields, which is, as the world gets more complex, a good thing. I majored in engineering and worked first with Shell Oil, drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Wore a hard hat and coverall, complete with the Shell logo (still have the outfit in case any needs a Halloween costume). I then went to law school and followed my passion for energy and environment issues to a law firm in Washington.

But I never really LOVED my jobs until August of ’93 when I joined IBM, in the Government Programs group. I got to represent IBM on a range of public policy issues, some that drew on my previous background, and lots that didn’t–like energy efficiency, healthcare, labor and retirement policy. I first started working on privacy issues in 1997, as part of that group.

Lou Gerstner appointed me Chief Privacy Officer in late 2000, and I kept that responsibility while I did a fantastic two-year rotation in Human Resources in corporate and in IBM’s Systems business. I loved learning about the business from a different perspective,

After that, I went back to working on policy issues, now as corporate affairs VP.

Any hobbies or fun stuff you want to discuss?
Sure. My main focus outside of work is my family–I have 2 kids and a husband who’s the home parent. And, of course, Jack our Schnoodle (cross of poodle and schnauzer–the ultimate in hypoallergenic dogs…in case any of your readers have allergies). My daughter and I sing in a 90-woman chorus that sings four part a Capella harmony, barbershop style. We’re available for singing valentine and birthdays. Want to hire me? 😉 (again, just kidding!). But check them out:Potomac Harmony Chorus

How do you describe what you do to your family and those who don’t work in our industry?
IBM is a global company that helps businesses and other institutions to innovate, and my job is to work across our company on projects that drive innovation on societal and policy issues that matter in this day and age….issues such as healthcare, privacy, security and the emergence of new ways to communicate such as blogging. These are interesting and exciting issues that need leadership and I’m fortunate to be part of the team of folks that work on them.

Recently IBM made an announcement about genetics, can you comment about that?

Yes, Steve Lohr of the New York Times wrote an article about it. I particularly love a piece in CSOonline.

There were factors that led us to adopt a policy on genetic information. We looked at what’s happening at the leading edges of health care industry..what’s known as information-based or personalized medicine. Genetics are being used to figure out who is predisposed to a disease or who is less susceptible. People are concerned that information might become available and used to harm them, e.g. deny health insurance. In our effort to improve quality of healthcare for our own employees, we realized people were afraid of the information being shared, perhaps they might lose health insurance, or not be eligible for insurance if applying for a new job.

So, we changed our global employment policies, saying that we were not going to use genetic information that employees might share with us, to make employment decisions, e.g. health insurance coverage decisions. IBM’s proud of our history of being ahead of the curve on equality and non-discrimination issues. This issue is another one where we are ahead of others in committing not to discriminate against someone based on something that, after all, can’t be changed and is very personal: one’s genetic makeup. In the US alone, we provide access to health insurance for over 500,000 employees, dependents and retirees, so our policy change was noticed and, I might add, welcomed by a lot of folks. (Wash Post editorial). I’m very proud of that.

What are good things about your job?
I work on some of the most interesting and important issues of our day, and work with incredibly smart and committed people in business, government, non-profits and within IBM.

What are things you would change?
In high school, take up a foreign language like Mandarin. Travel more in Asia.

How did you become one of the lead executives for blogging at IBM?
Before it was organized, a group of dedicated bloggers came up with some guidelines on their own (working on a wiki!) so as to not to run afoul of IBM policies. Through networking, they got connected to a few of us in corporate headquarters. I worked with a team of experts from HR and Legal to “polish up” our bloggers’ guidelines and build support for them around the company. Truthfully, it wasn’t hard to do at all, since our bloggers had done most of the work themselves….we just coordinated the effort to release guidelines and provide more tools and enablement to our growing community of IBM bloggers. Last I checked, we have over 16,800 registered on our internal blog central site, and lots of them are blogging externally. As a privacy expert, and ex-HR executive, I am fascinated by the potential for blogging and related phenomena for individuals, media, society and of course business–potential that’s both positive and, at times, uh, challenging. Good cocktail conversation, for sure.

What is your vision on the future of privacy?
It’s inevitable that our expectations of privacy–and how we achieve them–will change over time…they always have, if you think about it, stretching back to the origins of human society. I think that the next decade will be hugely important to develop the right set of public policies and private sector privacy and security practices, especially as we become increasingly networked as individuals (think blogs, blackberries, sensor-enabled credit cards) and as enterprises. It’s inevitable that we’ll become more comfortable sharing information–just look at what teens are willing to write on their blogs! But at the same time, people will demand accountability and transparency–WHO has data about them, WHAT are they doing with it, and HOW can we make sure I don’t get harmed?

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From → Analyst, bloggerview, ibm

One Comment
  1. Another excellent interview!

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