Is Design IBM’s Future Edge?

Scott Francis
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So today I went for a visit to the IBM Design Studio in Austin. Phil Gilbert and the Design Team (Adam Cutler, Fahad Osmani, Emily Jester) invited some IBM and Lombardi alumni to come to the Design Studio and see what they’re up to in North Austin.  Having been to the eighth floor when Lombardi’s team moved in there, I have to say it has been completely transformed in the make-over.  I’ve been curious to see it ever since Ginni Rometty came down for the grand-opening of the new Design Studio here.

To sum up my first reaction: Wow.  This is not the IBM cube farm I expect to see when I go into an IBM facility:

The Lobby on the first floor

And better yet, the homage to Charles Eames:

THINK

But what about the more “realistic” work spaces?  My pictures don’t do it justice but I took a few:

And the first things you notice:

  1. Clean lines
  2. Open space
  3. Curved spaces
  4. Whiteboards everywhere (and yes, post-its)
  5. Configurable/movable work areas.
  6. Lots of room to grow

Clearly Phil and IBM have plans to grow their IBM practice a lot. In fact, they’re already renovating the 7th floor in preparation for further IBM Design expansion.  The space looks so good, and so functional for creative work, that I had to ask Phil will this affect IBM’s vision for how to do office space in general?  This is the right way to do office space (as many startups could also tell you).  Apparently IBM is already looking at designing space for engineers- how do you use some of the same design language but make it maximally functional for engineers rather than designers?

It would take years for IBM to roll this kind of office space out across the company.  But the investment, in my view, would be well worth it. I saw IBM’ers excited and motivated about what they’re doing, and happy to come into work- much improved from the atmosphere I saw when I came in for visits in 2011, when the cubicles were largely empty, but still made you feel claustrophobic.

But space is the icing on the cake.  What about the cake?  We talked a lot about the organizational learning about Design Thinking, about the cultural change and shift that is happening at IBM, and about the support it gets from execs all the way up to Ginni Rometty’s office.  If there’s one thing Phil knows how to do it is to prioritize culture and philosophy over short-term outcomes.  He knows how to evangelize and get alignment beyond Austin.  This isn’t about the mechanics of design – the designers they are hiring are on top of that – this is about the cultural change to support design influencing all aspects of product creation.  That’s the prize Phil is after for IBM.

In this gathering of Lombardi Alumni, primarily – all of us working for different companies now – there was no doubt that this was “the right thing for IBM to do.”  Very little dissent.  We all agree that design is what can win the the argument for IBM software with its customers. With all the assets at IBM’s disposal, having great designs would really make them difficult to compete with.

In a timely piece from not long ago, Neil Ward-Dutton poses the question, is design IBM’s Secret Weapon in the coming Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud “SMACdown”?  After visiting Phil’s team in Austin, I’d have to say, yes.  There are some good arguments in favor:

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.

And as Neil points out – the investments in social, mobile, analytics, and cloud that most large enterprises are making – are going to make the touch points and investments dramatically more complicated due to dramatic increases in the number of touch points (and in how public some of those touch points can easily become).  Which is where the opportunity is:

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’”.

Phil and Lombardi gave IBM a great start on this in the BPM realm.  Now it is time to tackle additional software domains with just as much attention to design – not just how it looks, but how it works.  And “how it works for me.”  Great mission. Lots of work to do.

 

  • Very interesting to see the interior Scott, I’ve been keen to see it! Thanks for linking to the blog.. like you, I do think that if IBM can ‘get it right’ (and that is of course a very big, hairy thing to make happen in a company with 400000 employees) it will be a massively important thing.

    • It is a huge opportunity – but that doesn’t mean it will be easy! :) I guess if it was easy, they would have tackled it already, right? Surprisingly little coverage of the opportunity in front of IBM here. And maybe that just reflects the general skepticism… which in turn, actually makes it that much better of a play for IBM.