As a service organization, Save the Children wants to know the impact of its programs.

And the information it needs to gather to make that judgment differs from data typically collected by reporting software, says Sarah Angel-Johnson, the UK-based NGO’s CIO and vice president of business and technology solutions.

Using traditional measures, around project outputs, was serving neither the workers nor the children they aid as well as the organization wanted. So Angel-Johnson and her IT team have been reframing their thinking, drawing on the principles of human-centered design. They’re creating personas, including one representing children, and considering scenarios from their perspectives, asking, “What do they need?”

“It has revolutionized how we approach technology and data,” Angel-Johnson says.

Angel-Johnson, herself a practitioner of human-centered design, says she started cultivating the discipline within her technology team soon after joining the nonprofit in 2020, believing that conventional IT has often missed the mark in what it delivers.

“My view of tech is it’s a ‘how’ and we’re often missing the ‘who,’” she says. “Everyone wants to adopt tech without asking, ‘Who will use it?’”

She compares that approach to making a car engine first, without considering what the driver actually needs from the engine. “In most organizations that I’ve seen, we start with tech and it’s the wrong place to start. We need to flip it,” she adds.

Human-centered design on the rise

Angel-Johnson describes human-centered design as “a mindset that puts people at the heart of any work; it’s around empathizing with people.”

But she and others note that human-centered design is also a discipline that brings specific skills and techniques to the process of building a product or service.

Technology teams build better, more robust products and services when they have a true understanding of individuals, their needs, and their journeys, Angel-Johnson says.

“I find my results are more robust. They’re closer to what’s actually needed, and I have higher returns,” she says, adding that leveraging human-centered design principles also helps technology teams deliver faster and at lower costs — mostly because they’re hitting closer to the mark on their first delivery.

This focus on the individual — the human element — happens not by chance but by intention.

Angel-Johnson established a human-centered design approach as part of her overall transformational agenda and her digital and data global strategy. She created teams that included practitioners of human-centered design (new hires as well as upskilled employees) who are “empathizing with the users” and working with product managers and software professionals using agile development principles to turn ideas into reality.

Case in point: A team recently created a child-centered tool, which sits on Salesforce, that gathers and consolidates data to illustrate whether all the projects supporting an individual child helps meet his or her needs — something that informs Save the Children not just on a project output but on overall outcome and impact.

Although specific figures are hard to come by, analysts, researchers, and CIOs say there’s a growing interest in and adoption of human-centered design. And with good reason, as adding this discipline to technology shops creates more useful and useable products and services, they say.

To those unfamiliar with the practice, human-centered design may seem similar to user interface design or more broadly to user experience concepts. But human-centered design goes further by  putting the human at the core of the entire process, not just the interface or the experience.

That’s a change from traditional IT thinking, which historically starts with the technology, says Lane Severson, a senior director at research firm Gartner. “The prominent form in IT is machine-driven or tech-centric,” he explains.

In contrast, human-centered design starts with personas and questions around the personas’ needs, wants, and ambitions as well as their journeys, Severson says.

That, according to practitioners, is what sets human-centered design apart even from user-centered design, as user-centered design still starts with the product and then asks how users will use and experience it — rather than starting with people first.

Research shows that a shift to starting with individuals and putting humans at the heart of innovation and ideation produces measurable results. Severson points to Gartner’s 2021 Hybrid Work Employee Survey, which found that employers with a human-centric philosophy across the business saw reduced workforce fatigue by up to 44%, increased intent to stay by as much as 45%, and improved performance by up to 28%.

Despite such findings, Severson and others say many CIOs and technology teams — and organizations as a whole — have yet to adopt the approach. CIOs often have more immediate challenges to address and other workforce changes to make, such as the move to agile development.

Yet Severson says more technology shops are bringing in human-centered design and seeing good returns for their efforts.

Human-centered design in practice

Katrina Alcorn, who as general manager for design at IBM leads the software design department and design thinking practice, has been a human-centered design practitioner for more than 20 years and says it’s not only a mindset and discipline but common sense.

Still, she acknowledges the approach has been slow to catch on. “You’re creating something for a human, but more often than not we have a tendency — especially with highly technical solutions — to start with the core tech and then figure out how to get people to use it,” she says. “That’s just backwards.”

Alcorn says IBM has been strengthening its muscle in design thinking. The company now offers training and certifications, which give not only designers but others working with them a common understanding of the concept and its principles as well as the language.

“What I call discovery you might call the observe phase, so we do have to align our language to be successful,” she says, adding that technologists who are good listeners and who are curious, empathetic and open to new ideas are already demonstrating key elements of human-centered design.

But that isn’t enough to succeed — at IBM or elsewhere. “It’s not enough to hire designers and say, ‘We do design thinking,’” she says. “If companies want to be successful with human-centered design, they have to create the conditions for designers to thrive.”

Here, embedding human-centered design within the product and service teams is key. As is building out those teams with staff who are familiar with the principles, value the approach, and allow time for research and other parts of the process to happen.

“You want to bring your designers in early, in the problem-framing stage,” she adds.

Delivering human-centric results

Joseph Cevetello, who brought the approach with him when he joined the City of Santa Monica in 2017, is one such CIO doing that.

Cevetello, who had learned about human-centered design during his tenure in higher education, is a fan of the approach. “There’s no better way to get to the needs of the people, the customers,” he says. “I can’t think of any better way to approach innovation than to have that human-centered mindset.”

Cevetello, who models the approach to help instill its principles within his IT team, had staffers work on a project with the Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub using the human-centered design approach to ideate solutions. That effort paid off, as Cevetello saw his team use that approach in early 2021 when developing a mobile app aimed at making it easier for citizens to connect with the city.

Like others, Cevetello says the human-centered design process all starts with empathy. “To me, empathy is the key to all of it, empathy meaning really trying to engage in a robust inquiry into who the customers are and what their challenges are,” Cevetello says, adding that one of his first tasks was getting his IT team to think in these terms. “I had to get them to think about citizens as customers and these customers have needs and desires and they’re experiencing challenges with what you’re providing. It sounds simple, but it’s very transformational if you approach it from that perspective.”

Sathish Muthukrishnan, the chief information, data, and digital officer at Ally Financial, also believes in the value of human-centered design and the need to start by asking, “What do people really want?” and “What do customers need from banking?”

“We have moved from problem-solving to problem definition,” he explains. “So we’re sitting with marketing, sales, internal engineers, finance and figuring out what we’re really trying to solve for. That is different from building something for people to buy.”

To build the capacity to do that, Muthukrishnan created an innovation lab called TM Studios, whose workers engage directly with customers, handle external research and review customer feedback. (Technology team members rotate through TM Studios to gain and enhance their human-centered design skills, Muthukrishnan notes.)

Muthukrishnan also looks for new hires with experience and skills in human-design thinking, and he offers training in the discipline for employees. Furthermore, Muthukrishnan expects his team to put human-centered design to use, starting with the inspiration phase.

“That’s where you learn from the people you service, immerse yourself in their lives, find out what they really want, emphasize with their needs,” he says. That’s followed by ideation — “going through what you learned and how Ally can use that to meet their needs” — and then implementing the actual product or service.

Muthukrishnan says these tactics ensure “what you’re delivering is most useful and extremely usable for the consumers you’re building for,” adding that the approach enables his team to consider all potential solutions, not just a favored technology — or even technology at all.

Ally’s conversational AI for customer calls is an example of the results. Ally Assist, as it is called (“We don’t trick people into thinking it’s a person,” Muthukrishnan says), will transfer customer calls about Zelle money transfer issues to a live person because Muthukrishnan’s team recognized through its focus on customers “that those are issues that need a human interface.”

“That,” Muthukrishnan adds, “is human-centered design.”

Design Thinking, Software Development

Three years ago, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) set out to apply intelligent automation (IA) to every aspect of its business. As the global COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to spread, the company, one of the world’s largest suppliers of pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and consumer packaged goods, needed to reduce costs, speed up tasks, and improve the accuracy of its core business operations.

Robotic process automation (RPA) was already gaining traction as organizations sought to apply software “robots” to automate rules-based business processes. But organizations like J&J wanted to take automation further. By combining RPA with machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI), they sought to automate more complex tasks. The opportunity led J&J’s Ajay Anand and Stephen Sorenson to place a very big bet in 2021.

“The one way to get attention in J&J from your very senior leaders is with the size of the impact that you could have,” says Anand, the pharmaceuticals’ vice president of global services strategy and transformation. “Generally, J&J prefers everything in billions.”

Anand and Sorenson, the company’s senior vice president of technology services, supply chain, data integration, and reliability engineering, proposed the creation of an enterprise-wide Intelligent Automation Council that they would chair. And they said they would deliver half a billion dollars of impact over the following three years. The team has already nearly hit that mark. Anand notes that, in a recent review, an executive committee member asked them to double that number based on the current pace.

Early intelligent automation roadblocks

Thanks to the work of the Intelligent Automation Council, J&J is now applying IA to everything from basic business processes, to chatbots that can help employees and customers, to algorithms that can monitor the company’s supply chain and help it adjust to changing conditions — like a doubling of the demand for Tylenol in the early days of the pandemic.

Stephen Sorenson, SVP of technology services, supply chain, data integration, and reliability engineering, Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson

But when Anand and Sorenson helped J&J take its first steps on its automation journey, they quickly ran into roadblocks.

“We were offshoring and using low-cost labor and trying to simplify our processes, but it was very difficult to scale and turnover was high,” Sorenson says. “We had this scenario where we were constantly retraining people and exception processes were killing us.”

It’s difficult to imagine just how many exceptions a process has until you actually execute on it or train people to do it, Sorenson explains. Exceptions can gum up even seemingly simple tasks, like sending confirmation forms. Typos, a new job title — any little thing could send those forms straight into the error queue, Sorenson says.

“We tried to automate them and what we realized was that people didn’t know their business processes as well as they thought they did,” he explains. “They knew their jobs and they could get work from point A to point Z, but if you tried to automate that, very few of the automations had an easy path to the end.”

It didn’t take long to realize that the traditional approach to mapping business processes — sitting down with employees, understanding how they go about their work, and capturing that — wasn’t going to give the automation team what they needed. To get a complete view of business processes, J&J brought in a task mining tool.

“We picked a handful of employees who were willing to partner with us in the early stages and we went through all of their privacy concerns and trained them, then we put this tool on their desktop to record the actual activity,” Anand explains. “When they were starting a specific process, they would hit record, and then we would capture it on this tool. We ended up creating the swim lane and all the documentation associated with it.”

Rather than interviewing the employees about the process up front, the team took the recordings and reviewed them with employees, asking whether there were any variations that weren’t captured that they wanted to share.

Adopting a digital-first mindset

J&J started using RPA for simple business process tasks such as moving documents, filling out spreadsheets, sending key messages, email integrations, and the like. It grew from there.

Ajay Anand, VP of global services strategy and transformation, Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson

“When we looked at all of our business processes, we were also very keen on ways in which we might be able to reimagine them with a digital-first lens,” says Anand, pointing to invoice-to-cash as a key example of the company’s new perspective. Like any company, when executing that process, J&J sometimes had errors or disputes with customers.

“By reimagining those processes with a digital-first mindset, we were able to look at things end-to-end and look for places where we are not only just able to automate, but also incorporate some intelligence,” he says. “Can we predict the customers with which we may have some disputes, and can we start taking some steps, proactively?”

By applying intelligent automation to invoice-to-cash, J&J was able to increase cash collection, reduce the error rate, and reduce the number of work hours and dollars spent to achieve the same results.

Anand explains that the core of J&J’s digital-first mindset around intelligent automation is 3E: experience, effectiveness, and efficiency. Does the automation change the experience of employees, customers, and suppliers? Does it make processes more effective and more efficient?

Success flowed from small wins

Sorenson says the team learned that the key to successful automation, as with many IT projects, was starting small, getting wins, and educating people about the possibilities.

“We had a saying, ‘Don’t try to get a home run.’ Just get on base, get the players on base, and we’ll move them around, start getting some hits. And then we’ll start getting some runs,” Sorenson says. “That really helped people think they didn’t have to worry about everything, they just needed to get these few steps automated and then we can see where we can take it from there.”

Sorenson notes that the small wins were able to help the automation team earn trust, but they also generated data that allowed them to show that the digital-first, machine-first mindset led to more accurate results.

“If you thought about it differently, you could actually automate the steps so that they were more accurate and build in detection so that you could find issues where things were failing historically, or even reconciliation steps that allowed us to confirm that things were working all along,” Sorenson says.

Pretty soon, as trust grew, the conversations were no longer about convincing stakeholders about the value of automation; they were about what else the team could do.

Anand notes that managing fears by showing examples to peers and partners was key.

“When people saw those examples, that really inspired them,” Anand says. “There was always this little fear that automation means people are going to lose their jobs. And they were able to see that it actually moved employees to more higher-order work and freed them up to do more innovation.”

Artificial Intelligence, Robotic Process Automation

While a new forecast released Monday by Spiceworks/Ziff Davis said that overall IT spending will be largely unhampered by recessionary trends in the economic outlook, much of that spending will be driven by large enterprises, leaving the picture much murkier for small and medium-size businesses.

The forecast is based on a survey of IT professionals in the US and Europe, which was performed this summer by Aberdeen Research. Fully 90% of respondents said that they either planned to increase spending or keep it steady in 2023. However, the impulse to buy is not evenly distributed across companies—while 61% of large enterprises said that they plan an expansion of IT spending in 2023, just 41% of smaller companies said the same.

Counterintuitively, the researchers said, companies more worried about the effects of a possible recession were more likely to have bigger IT spending in their future plans than those who were not. Just 30% of companies with “no plans” to make major preparations for a recession reported that they were getting ready to hike IT spending, in contrast to solid majorities—68% and 55%—for companies who were already making recession plans or planned to in the near future, respectively.

That level of preparedness, coupled with the fact that some companies may be planning to reinvest cost savings from other areas into IT, reflect lessons learned during past economic downturns, according to Jim Rapoza, vice president and principal analyst at Aberdeen.

IT spending during a recession shows benefits

“Businesses that invested in technology during the pandemic saw significant benefits,” he said on a conference call announcing the study’s results. “Our research revealed improvements across performance, reliability, security and even reduced overall IT costs among organizations that modernized their infrastructure —even if that was initially out of necessity.”

Essentially, he said, recessions shouldn’t spur IT cutbacks. Companies that did so in 2001 and 2008 were frequently punished for it by the market. Hence, larger businesses , particularly those that have already weathered past economic crises, tend to be much more likely to either maintain their IT spending levels or even to increase them during economic headwinds.

That trend is already recognizable in the figures for uptake of newer technologies, the study found, particularly 5G, edge, serverless computing, and AI. Part of the reason for that is that many of them are interrelated. The type of connectivity enabled by 5G makes it easier for some companies to deploy edge computing, which creates the volumes of data required to feed AI models, and so on. Hence, companies with the financial wherewithal to either build those capabilities out on their own or hire managed service providers to take care of them—that is to say, big businesses—are much more likely to be working on them, and thus are more likely to reap the benefits.

That fact, along with the higher uptake of managed services in general among larger companies, could mean that such enterprises are better prepared to weather an economic downturn, or any other kind of large-scale headwind on the market, according to head of tech insights at Spiceworks/Ziff Davis, Peter Tsai.

“The pandemic’s not over—what if there’s another deadly wave that forces everyone to go remote again?” he said on the conference call. “Having that hybrid infra makes it easier to flip that switch to ‘remote’ back on.”

Budget, Technology Industry

For all the talk of IT launching big-bang transformational initiatives, sometimes it’s the smaller changes that are the most impactful. That’s the case for HVAC manufacturer Carrier, which, in the wake of its 2020 spin-off from United Technologies Corp., has taken a microtransformational approach to updating and automating the business processes that cause its customers and employees the most pain.

The process began prior to the companies’ separation, says Julie Edwards, director of intelligent automation at Carrier, and when the companies split, Carrier IT had to staff up quickly — and take over digital functions previously provided centrally by UTC.

“It was a very challenging time when we started. We were onboarding a lot of new digital personnel to handle the separation from UTC, and to gain that independence,” she says. “We had a lot of people new to Carrier, and then also Carrier was new to automation.”

As part of this shift, Carrier created a series of centers of excellence for various IT capabilities, including one for analytics and automation. “We decided to couple those two disciplines because we thought they played well together,” Edwards says, adding that she was the COE’s sole employee for the first three months of its existence.

The fast-growing IT team had a lot on its plate: “We had probably 130 different ERP platforms across the four business units, and a lot of times they were similar, they were SAP or JDE, but there were different versions, and they ran autonomously on different platforms,” she says. “There’s a lot of focus right now on standardizing and simplifying our ERP footprint across Carrier globally.”  

But business departments have needs that cannot wait for that company-wide digital transformation process to complete.


Carrier’s initial plan was to use RPA (robotic process automation), but the diversity of ERP systems in use made simple RPA approaches difficult. Edwards’ team shifted its strategy to making what it calls microtransformations of key business processes, combining automation with analytics, machine learning, and targeted tweaks to ERP systems to solve some of the company’s most pressing digital challenges.

“We come into conversations thinking about everything in our arsenal that could help combat a problem, including process reengineering,” she says. “There’s really no digital tech that can make a process work smoothly if it’s just poorly designed.”

Among the most significant of the 100 or more processes that have now received this treatment is that for return of materials, a project that has earned Carrier a CIO 100 Award for IT innovation and leadership.

The internal process for customers to contact Carrier to arrange return of unwanted materials had some inefficiencies. “We were exposing all of that pain to our customers,” says Edwards, adding that the sheer number of steps customers had to go through to fix a mistake that was often not their fault was causing them frustration.

The first step to transforming the process was to listen to Carrier’s customers to get a better understanding of their pain points. “Secondly, you really have to understand the steps in the process that are value-added steps versus those that aren’t value-added,” she says.

In this case, the process ran through two different ERP systems, one customer-facing to generate the return material authorization (RMA) and a second to prepare the warehouse to receive the material and credit the customer.

“We weren’t going to retire an ERP, that’s not practical,” says Edwards, “so it was really about how we hid that complexity from the end customer.”

Focusing initially on a subset of one business unit’s customers, the team has halved the number of steps in the process, presenting customers with a single interface in Salesforce and automating the exchange of data with the other ERP. Employees are still involved in the process to approve the return, with bots performing the investigative work and filling in the forms.

Carrier is preparing to roll out the new process for customers of its Carrier Bryant Payne business unit next, says Edwards: “We aspire always to expose automation that’s scalable across not only the business unit that we’re focused on, but across business units on common processes.”

Staffing up from near scratch

Microtransformations like that of the return materials process are handled by a Scrum team of four to six, Edwards says. The pod lead manages the team and liaises with the relevant business unit; the architect typically works on a couple projects in parallel, with the project manager handling three or four. Then there will be up to three developers on the team: just one if the automation is done solely using Blue Prism’s RPA software, or more if it also involves working with Salesforce or integrating other APIs.

But all that barely existed when Carrier first split from UTC. Edwards and her colleagues had to use a variety of strategies to build up Carrier’s IT staffing strategy.

Consultants were first on the list: Ernst & Young (EY) provided the initial support to build the team’s governance while delivering early automation pilots.

With the automation team’s start-up period overlapping with the first COVID lockdowns, Edwards was prepared to consider nontraditional candidates to staff up quickly.

“I don’t always hire for the technical savvy,” Edwards says. “I hire for the characteristics of the individual we’re bringing into the COE.” Those characteristics include having the right mindset, curiosity, and a passion for providing digital solutions. Technical skills are still important, though, so, “We couple that with education so we can help them learn the tool sets, we can get them certified, and we can grow a career path for them,” she says.

Carrier flips that story with its Digital Technology Leadership Program, which hires recent graduates who have the technology skills but no work experience and puts them on three eight-month rotations through various Carrier business units to learn about the industry. “These are the top of the top kids coming out of school,” she says.

The final element in staffing up the US automation team is offshore: “We’ve got a hub in India where we also have a lot of our developers and technical architects,” she says.

Small changes, big disruptions

While Carrier’s microtransformational approach has paid off, the automation team’s interventions into the HVAC manufacturer’s business processes were not always well received, thanks to their fast pace in an organization more used to 18-month waterfall ERP projects.

“We were really aggressive about how quickly we wanted to turn solutions over, and we were very disruptive. That was another hurdle we had to overcome,” says Edwards.

What got the team through was the support of senior executives — “without that we would not have been able to succeed,” she says — and a willingness to compromise: “Everyone had what’s best for Carrier in mind. Coming to a process that could work for all parties was what made us successful.”

CIO 100, Digital Transformation