Design: IBM’s secret weapon in the coming SMACdown?

Neil Ward-Dutton

Friday, November 29, 2013 by

I’ve talked before about how Phil Gilbert – the former President and CTO of Lombardi Software who joined IBM when it bought his company – now has a role to develop a cross-company design practice in IBM. IBM Design is centred around a lab in Austin TX but with plans to spread wider. It’s the centre of excellence for IBM’s own take on Design Thinking, and is hoovering up design talent like you wouldn’t believe.

What I hadn’t realised – until I saw Gilbert present at last week’s Analyst Insights event – was the full extent to which IBM Design is really a kind of rediscovery of the company’s industrial design heritage. If you’re interested, you can find out more about IBM’s history as an industrial design force here. (This is a 30-minute documentary so you might want to skip over some bits).

Starting in IBM’s Software Group, Gilbert’s IBM Design group is applying IBM Design Thinking to existing and new products. This variant of Design Thinking – which itself might be roughly characterised as “an approach to design that’s focused first around the experience that the user has, rather than a product; and that takes an ‘outside-in’ approach to analysing problems and opportunities” – is being retooled in a way that enables IBM to scale the approach to very large teams and communities. The approach is being spread through IBM product teams through week-long intensive “designcamps”. The IBM Design group is focusing in particular on dramatically improving six areas of customer and user experience: find/install/setup, first use, everyday use, upgrade, API use, and maintenance.

Not content with spreading the religion amongst those building and improving products, IBM Design is also running distilled versions of its designcamps for senior executives in IBM’s Software Group. And Gilbert makes no secret of the fact that the ambition is to take IBM Design Thinking beyond the Software Group to other groups in IBM.

Well, this is all very nice. But so what?

The first part of why this is so important to IBM: one of the very legitimate ways that its competitors have in recent years been able to score points against IBM is to highlight how complicated its technologies are to navigate, implement and use. As Gilbert himself says: “too many users are working for our products; we want to turn this around.” From what I’ve seen of IBM Design’s work, it’s already started to have a pretty radical impact on the intuitiveness of some of IBM’s products look and feel.

The second part is more forward-looking. It relates to the ways in which technology vendors large and small are currently investigating and investing in Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud (“SMAC”) technologies and platforms for their customers, to augment the infrastructure platforms they already have and help to deliver on a Digital Enterprise vision. Every vendor has to have a story about how SMAC technologies affect them and how they’re taking advantage. This is all well and good; but the truth is that there’s a very real danger for enterprises as they embark on explorations of the new platforms being assembled for them.

The danger is that enterprises will slide into platform investments that bring *many* more moving parts and more integration points; and at the same time more control-point tussles between vendors with each trying to make sure that their own social front-end, or application development/design repository, or device management toolset, or whatever becomes the ‘master’ in the customer’s environment. Make no mistake, this will happen. Just as it always has when new business technology platforms have emerged.

This is where I think the power of IBM Design has the potential, possibly, to strengthen IBM’s strategic position. Note that IBM Design’s mission is to “design an IBM that works together, works the same, and ‘works for me’”.

It’s that last part that really resonates in today’s environment, I think. In Phil Gilbert’s own words:  “The only platforms that matter are the platforms in our customers’ organisations.” If this turns out to be more than words, then it will be very powerful indeed.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. IBM Design is off to a great start but it’ll be another year at least before we can say for certain the impact that IBM Design Thinking is having on IBM’s business and its customers’ businesses.

You might want to check out this video. How many of the people talking fit the IBMer stereotype of old?

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