Unlocking the value of business design

June 11, 2022, 1:00 PM UTC

Two years of a global pandemic ushered in greater need for more authentic personal and business interactions and experiences.  Now more than ever, there is a heightened understanding among businesses that building empathy with customers and employees while delivering customized experiences is critical to driving loyalty. Organizations are also increasingly creating new human-centered purpose statements, or “North Stars,” that aim to positively address social causes, political issues, and contribute to global sustainability efforts.

In an IBM survey of 3,000 CEOs, 60% of global CEOs who lead the most financially successful organizations cite “delivering better customer experiences” among their highest priorities in the next two to three years. These CEOs are taking the opportunity to absorb lessons learned from the pandemic to assess how truly customer-centric they are, how differentiated their products and services are, and how effective their business operations are for their customers and employees. In most cases, the result is a desire to radically transform the organization.

Transformations of this magnitude require disruptive business ideas, new ways of working, and technological innovations such as cloud and AI. It also requires a cultural shift that prioritizes curiosity, collaboration, iteration, sustainability, and a growth mindset. Adopting a designer’s mindset across the business is necessary to unlock new sources of value that are human centered and digitally enabled. Simply put, there is an increasing need for business design.

The rise of business design

Thomas Watson Jr. famously stated: “We are convinced that good design can materially help a good product realize its full potential. Design can help make a good business great. In short, we think good design is good business.” 

Watson not only saw the business value of great product design, architecture, and corporate branding, he believed that combining creativity with strategic and technological expertise could reinvent business models and unlock new revenue streams. In other words, he believed that you could utilize design principles to change how the world works.

Today, leading brands like J.P. Morgan Chase, Logitech, and Walmart have fully embraced business design to improve their products and services, reinvent their talent strategy, and modernize their technology infrastructure. Each of these companies are taking a holistic approach to design, leveraging large, diverse and distributed design teams across their organizations with the critical infrastructure and shared purpose to sustain it.

Many other organizations claim to have a mature approach to business design. In reality, they have struggled to activate or evangelize it throughout all facets of the enterprise. And therein lies the question: Why are some organizations successful at embracing business design to outperform their competition while others struggle? What is needed to successfully scale business design across an organization and what are the specific steps companies can take to go from good to great?

The state of business design

In an IBM survey of 2,000 executives and design practitioners across multiple industries, more than two-thirds of organizations indicated their commitment to customers to be one of their most important corporate values. Yet, only a third of organizations embrace design as a core corporate value and only 39% say their organization is design-driven, while 61% say design is, essentially, a “nice-to-have.”

Considering we are in an era of corporate introspection, heightened social and sustainability awareness, and
human-centered mission statements, the research uncovered some disconnects. When participants were asked if their products and services are designed to reflect their corporate values, more than 40% of respondents were uncertain. And as many as 45% say the design of their customer experiences only moderately or minimally reflects their most important corporate values.

On a positive note, our research also revealed a subgroup of organizations (20% of the total sample) that are distinguished by three characteristics that embody the tenets of good business design. These organizations have embraced design principles as the basis for their organizational culture to a large or very large extent, they have effectively invested in, and are modernizing, digital capabilities and they have effectively scaled solutions to meet business demands (compared to just over half of others).

While it’s true that many more organizations are acknowledging that the role of design is more strategic than just a tactical craft and that design principles can be applied to any challenge or initiative within the enterprise, there is a wide spectrum for how well organizations have adopted business design at scale and transformed their organizations from top to bottom.

Business transformation, by design

With today’s disruptive markets and greater emphasis on human connection and empathy, the need to elevate design as a priority and embrace business design practices becomes even more urgent. For the many organizations that are struggling to activate and/or adopt enterprise business design, there are four ways to get started:

1. Design your purpose

Through business design, organizations can create a “North Star” vision for the business that addresses sustainability goals, attracts future generations of customers and employees, and discovers new business models for growth. Most importantly, leaders can use business design methods to future-proof their business.

2. Design your culture

Digital transformation is actually a misnomer for the underlying skills reinvention and cultural transformation that is required to drive real change in an organization. Applying a human-centric, business design lens to how organizations operate can ensure that change initiatives are successful. Business designers can intentionally create weekly routines, traditions, and processes for a workforce to nurture a culture of innovation and collaboration, ensure consistent approaches to problem solving, socialize progress, and drive advocacy. 

3. Design your customer experience

Companies shouldn’t stop after they apply design thinking methods to discover, design and deploy a product or service into the market. True customer experience design happens after the “big idea” launches. Creating the infrastructure and processes to monitor the performance of the experience and funnel insights back into the teams is where the real change and business impact happens. This level of continuous product design is made possible by sophisticated data science and A.I.-assisted cloud platforms. Business designers can help identify the metrics to track and create experiences that proactively meet the needs of customers and employees.

4. Design your workflows

Behind every great customer experience is an even better employee experience. Business designers can help COOs and CIOs scrutinize internal workflows through human-centered design research and process mining tools and introduce new concepts for applying technologies like A.I. and automation to redesign internal processes that impact customer and employee experiences. Business designers think through problems from multiple perspectives to address human needs, business goals and cultural considerations. The best performing businesses have proven that good design is good business, even in the most uncertain of times.

Billy Seabrook is global chief design officer for IBM iX.

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