How IBM is Using Design Thinking and Entrepreneurship to Transform Itself

by Aug 24, 2016

By Jeffrey Tobias. 

Each of us have different images that come to mind when we mention the word IBM. Large organisation. Old. Associated with computers. Moved into services. Long term player. So to shake up the status quo, reports Bloomberg, IBM, Cognizant, Infosys and others have been racing to hire thousands of designers who once would have taken more specialised jobs—at an ad agency, say, or an industrial-design shop. At IBM, they team up with engineers and consultants and embed with a multiplicity of clients. Besides providing customer insights, the teams encourage constant feedback and tweak products as they’re built—a process aimed at getting them out faster. It’s how successful Silicon Valley startups operate but radical for the IT services industry.

“Everyone is thinking about how to infuse design thinking more effectively into offerings,” says Phil Fersht, who founded HfS Research and focuses on the industry. “It’s about reimagination.” By next year, he says, most technology service contracts will include design thinking, often at clients’ behest.

IBM Chief Executive Officer Ginni Rometty has bet the future of the services division on design thinking. She badly needs the strategy to work if her company is to reverse 17 consecutive quarters of falling revenue and adapt to a cloud-based world. In the past few years, the company has recruited about 1,250 designers, built a global network of design studios (31 and counting) and is training employees (yes, that includes engineers) to incorporate design thinking into almost everything they do. By the end of this year, the company says, about a third of the 377,000-strong workforce will have been retrained. The goal is to build a customer-centric, startup-esque culture—and then persuade clients to do the same.

Building upon the millennial culture and its penchant for looking at things differently, IBM India is targeting an internal culture transformation.

The technology company, for the last few years, has been putting in place policies and programs to reward and recognise employees with an entrepreneurial bent of mind, and going forward is placing greater focus on driving entrepreneurship among the workforce, said HR head DP Singh in an interview with The Economic Times.

“The transformation has been an ongoing one, recently gathering momentum. Now, we want all employees to have in their DNA the ability to recreate and reimagine things for the benefit of our clients. The entrepreneurial thinking we are driving within IBMers is focused on responding quickly to clients’ needs and having elements of design thinking,” said DP Singh, vice president and head – HR, IBM India/South Asia.

Practicing what it preaches, IBM has designed its own proprietary approach to Design Thinking to help its entrepreneurs effectively solve customer problems:ibm 

Using the model, IBM Design Thinkers constantly move through an infinity loop, designing and redesigning solutions to better meet customer needs. They first observe customers, then reflect on their observations and then make solutions to take back to customers to make more observations. Repeat the loop. Forever.

The yellow dot represents a focus on customers and the green dots are diverse teams working together. The model is powerful in its simplicity – elegantly capturing the essence of Design Thinking and allowing all IBM employees to easily practice customer-centric design. Innovation works best when companies take best practice models, like Design Thinking and the Lean Startup, and mould them to fit their organisation.

The designers at IBM have taken a traditionally technology-driven organisation and put their customers firmly at the centre. It’s time to think about redesigning your organisation.

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