IBM Discovers ‘Design Thinking’

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Steve Lohr, the veteran technology journalist, wrote an insightful feature story in Sunday’s New York Times about IBM (IBM) . The aged computing giant has discovered “design thinking,” the product-development technique that puts customers first on the way to creating goods and services. Lohr writes that IBM plans to hire 1,100 designers across the company by year-end, on a path to employing 1,500. The goal is to have their methods infuse every aspect of how IBM does business.

Design thinking is all the rage in the corporate world right now, to the delight of its adherents, who have long lamented the ugly, shoddy, product-by-market-analysis approach that prevailed for too long. The best-known design-thinking success story is Apple (AAPL) , where Steve Jobs liked to say that his management team made products they themselves wanted to use—and then obsessed over the details before releasing them to the public. In my new feature story about Nike CEO Mark Parker, Fortune’s Businessperson of the Year, I note that he remains a sneaker designer, a somewhat unusual pedigree for the leader of a company with $30 billion in sales.

What’s important about IBM’s professed commitment to design thinking is what it says about the company’s aspirations to tweak its culture. Lohr presents only two concrete examples of how the influx of designers has manifested itself in products. One is how IBM created a new software platform for a client, the retailer GameStop. The other is a new software platform IBM built quickly from scratch called Bluemix. It is winning fans among software developers.

Still massively profitable, IBM’s growth has stagnated. It feels unlikely that merely by hiring design professionals and turning them loose on the rest of the company IBM can conjure up a new growth engine.

But it might. And one comes away from Lohr’s article thinking that unlike past IBM initiatives—its “smarter planet” sloganeering comes to mind—this project goes far beyond clever marketing. It positions IBM to have a shot at figuring out the future. That’s a lofty and admirable goal.

This article first appeared in the daily Fortune newsletter Data Sheet. Subscribe here for a daily dose of analysis from Adam Lashinsky and a curation of the day’s technology news from Heather Clancy.

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