To win in the age of cognitive computing and cybersecurity, the venerable tech giant is betting big on design thinking. How big? It now boasts the world’s largest design team.

SwissCognitive LogoIf you want to track the fast-moving design transformation happening at IBM (ibm, -0.95%) , try following the Post-it notes. “I see it everywhere,” says Diane Paulenich, a managing director at the technology giant who started her career at the company working in a call center 32 years ago. “Sounds silly. But when I go into the different offices I see teams of people getting together and collaborating with sticky notes.”

The stickies are a hallmark of “design thinking” exercises, in which participants often jot down thoughts on the brightly colored pieces of paper and place them on a whiteboard as part of creating, for example, an “empathy map” to understand the perspective of the user or customer by imagining what she or he thinks, feels, says, and does.

Paulenich herself has become a convert to the design thinking process, even when she’s just brainstorming with her team. Asking people to write down their ideas, she says, suppresses what she calls “meeting bullies,” those who dominate conversation. And Paulenich regularly makes empathy maps to prepare for client meetings, complete with a picture at the center. “I actually do a little stick figure so that they’re real,” she says. “It’s just to remind me, ‘Don’t think about you, Diane. Think about them.’ ”

Perhaps you perceive IBM as an engineering company, collecting patents and manufacturing mainframe computers. (Yes, it still makes them.) Or a venerable technology power trying to find its way in the era of Google and Amazon. Or, if you’ve seen the TV ads, the company behind the artificial intelligence platform Watson. But a design leader? Probably not.

Think again. Today IBM has some 1,600 formally trained designers operating out of 44 design studios in over 20 countries—the largest such team in the world. And those are just the official designers. IBM has offered basic training in design thinking to tens of thousands of employees like Paulenich.

What’s even more remarkable is that IBM has built virtually all of this capacity in just the past six years, since Ginni Rometty took over as CEO in 2012 and the next year tasked executive Phil Gilbert with teaching the 380,000-person organization how to look at business through the prism of design—or, actually, to relearn that skill. […]

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