About Infosys and design thinking
Infosys is India’s second-largest software services company. Founded in 1981 by a group of technology enthusiasts, and the company soon became synonymous with excellence in people practices, financial management, branding, workplace design, and corporate governance. With over $13 billion in revenues and an employee base of 242,000, Infosys remains one of India’s most valuable companies in 2020.
This case is about how design thinking got roots at Infosys and some of the initiatives at the company that can be valuable to any organization that aims at scale a design-driven problem-solving culture. It examines the various interventions at the company during the period of Vishal Sikka and his successor Salil Parekh.
In earnest, the story of design thinking beings at Infosys in June 2014 when Vishal Sikka joins the company as its first non-founder CEO.
Vishal Sikka at Infosys
Vishal Sikka joined Infosys as the CEO and MD on 12 June 2014 taking over from S. D. Shibulal. A Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from Stanford University, Sikka was until then a member of the Executive Board of SAP AG and was the company CTO.
Sikka joined SAP in 2002 and was appointed as its CTO in April 2007 while being based at the SAP office in Palo Alto, California, and reporting to SAP CEO Henning Kagermann. As a CTO, he led several key innovations at SAP, around cloud computing, analytics, mobile, and middleware, and most notably HANA (SAP’s in-memory analytics platform).
At Infosys, he is most known for embracing a design thinking driven approach to solving client problems. The rest of the case delves deep into some of the initiatives.
To get a perspective of the technological depth of Sikka, watch this video. He’s one CEO who understands technology, especially the future of it, and was fitting to lead Infosys through the transformation.
Sikka left Infosys in August 2017, after being at the company for a little over three years. In May 2019, Sikka launched his AI venture, Vianai Systems, after raising $50 million. Later in December 2019, he joins the Oracle board of directors. Oracle’s founder and CTO Larry Ellison identifies Sikka as, “one the world’s leading experts in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.” Sikka remains as an advisory member of the Institute for Human-Centered AI (HAI) at Stanford University.
Building a case of design thinking, Lara Salamano, AVP — Senior Digital Strategist at Infosys incisively notes, “With the growing maturity of software intelligence, problem-solving is going to increasingly become a task for software-powered machines. But that is not true of problem finding. Every disruption begins with reimagining the customer value chain, and disruptor firms must find, nurture and retain a talent pool of problem-finders to uncover the right problems that must be spotted and then solved to ensure continued relevance for their businesses.”
Design thinking helps build capabilities around problem discovery and definition.
In the following section, we discuss five key drives of design-thinking adoption at Infosys: 1) Large scale sensitization and training on design thinking; 2) Linking design thinking to one’s day job; 3) Formalizing design thinking into services; 4) Acquisition of design-focused competencies; and 5) Building design thinking hubs and labs closer to customers.
There’s also a summary section that puts the various drivers in perspective.
Large scale sensitization and training on design thinking
Soon after becoming the CEO, Sikka rolled out the ambitious Bringing Innovation Culture in Every Project (BICEP) initiative. It included large scale sensitization towards a design-driven approach of problem-solving and training employees on methods of problem discovery, framing, and solutioning. He also looped-in his alma mater, Stanford University, to deliver customized programs for its senior leaders and then train the trainers for it adoption across the length and breadth of the organization.
In November 2014, Infosys partnered with Executive Education at Stanford Graduate School of Business to design and deliver courses in corporate innovation processes. The Stanford Ignite certificate program teaches innovators to formulate, develop, and commercialize their ideas. The initiative had 200 executives participating in a part-time, year-long program in groups of 40 over three years.
As Sikka shares in the 2014–15 Annual Report, “Our endeavor is to use dT to harness creative ideas, transform them into solutions and take them to the market with skill, agility, and imagination.” By March 2015, over 23,975 Infosys employees were trained on various methodologies of Design Thinking (dT). These programs were co-designed and often delivered with faculties and trainers from Stanford University’s school of design.
In January 2016, for its efforts in training thousands of employees on the design thinking methodologies, Infosys was recognized as a “Leader in the Winner’s Circle — Excellent at Innovation and Execution,” from HfS’s Research Blueprint: Design Thinking in the As-A-service Economy. Notes Phil Fersht, Chief Executive Officer, HfS Research, “We are impressed by the firm’s focus on training each employee with Design Thinking methods to help them challenge themselves and their clients to explore new ways of defining and realizing their desired business outcomes.”
By mid-2017, over 135,000 employees at the company were trained on design thinking, making the program one of the world’s largest drives in employee training on an emerging concept.
In June 2018, to further scale and deepen design thinking competency at the company, Infosys partnered with the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Between 2018 and 2020, RISD trained over 1000 designers across Infosys locations. The eight-week curriculum aims at equipping students with competencies in joint problem definition and solutioning. The school premise, in conjunction with the 25,000-square-foot Providence Digital Innovation and Design Center, offers a much needed physical space for participants to experience the confluence of science, arts, and humanities.
In October 2018, Infosys got into a three-year partnership with Cornell University to train its employees on data analytics, design, systems thinking, critical thinking, and engineering through Cornell’s eCornell virtual learning platform. A year earlier, Infosys signed a five-year engagement with Purdue University for training its employees on emerging technologies, and to grow the overall awareness and application of design thinking and other new-age technologies in client engagements in the USA.
By 2020, Infosys had training programs with Rhode Island School of Design on design skills, with Purdue University on cybersecurity, with Trinity College, Hartford on business analysis skills, with Cornell University on program management, and with the University of North Carolina for data analytics.
All these partnerships have been on digital transformation that the industry is undergoing and design thinking remains a key leverage point.
Linking design thinking to one’s day job
All efforts of competence building on design thinking, or for that matter any other problem-solving method, are incomplete unless employees are given opportunities to practice their newly learned skill in a systematic manner.
Zero Distance Program
The Zero Distance program was launched in March 2015 with the objective of working on existing client projects and proactively discovering avenues for incremental innovations, going beyond the scope of work. During 2015, over 7000 master projects were identified under the Zero Distance program and the progress was monitored by Sikka and his direct reports.
According to Sikka, the Zero Distance program has three-fold emphasis: “to reduce the gap between us and the code we write, the gap between us and our clients, and the gap between us and the ultimate user.”
Apart from bridging the gap between the company and its customers, the Zero Distance projects help develop an entrepreneurial spirit in the employees where they are encouraged to take up projects and assignments beyond the stated project scope. The ability to anticipate client’s needs and get to the unarticulated desires is key to design thinking, and the program offers the right opportunity to further hone such skills among the employees.
Calling Zero Distance as an engine for everyday innovation, UB Pravin Rao, Infosys COO, notes, “the initiative has provided us with the new approach to building an ideas-based culture we need. As a result of this program, each person in the company can find a deeper sense of purpose in their job, and is motivated to realize that purpose.”
Zero Bench Program
Launched in July 2015, the Zero Bench program aimed at creating an internal marketplace of talent so that employees awaiting long-term assignments continue to add value for Infosys and its clients. Between July 2015 and March 2016, over 12,000 jobs were created at this marketplace, involving over 67% of bench resources, or previously un-utilized talent was deployed onto internal projects.
These grassroots-level innovations and continuous improvement projects form the basis of employees demonstrating some of the learning from design thinking principles and frameworks. It further helps them develop new skills that are beneficial for upcoming projects.
On how Zero Bench pushes the creation of new solutions for Infosys, Sikka reflects, “The interesting irony is that youngsters are usually the ones who are on the bench. They are on the bench because they do not have experience and they do not have experience because they are on the bench. This (Zero Bench) has become a great mechanism.” He adds, “in 95 per cent of our projects, there is some zero distance idea or the other and in fact, we reached this within a year of launching this platform. Zero Bench is the mechanism that fuels that.”
The Zero Bench with its off-project focus and Zero Distance with its on-project focus led to a rapid proliferation of the design thinking approach of working at the organization. There are Zero Distance project awards given to employees completing such value-add projects, beyond the scope of work on client engagements.
There is a very informative Zero Distance Portal that serves as a good starting point to learn about design thinking and to know of Infosys’ approach towards innovation.
Between March 2015 and March 2017, over 2000 ideas out of the 15,000 coming from the 9,500 Zero Distance projects were implemented. Several of these become IP solutions for the company and its clients.
Not only that design thinking becomes a part of key service lines, but Sikka also launched new services encapsulating the design thinking offerings.
Formalizing design thinking into services
While the Zero Distance program helped Infosys demonstrate its employee’s abilities to solve unstructured problems, a more formal service launch followed in August 2015 when the company introduced a new service line — AiKiDo. Ai refers to platforms and platforms as a service to build intelligent solutions; Ki is knowledge-based management of the IT landscape, and Do refers to service offering on Design Thinking and design-led initiatives.
The design thinking offerings comprise strategic design consulting, transformational digital experience, and enablement of the future workforce.
On embedding design thinking into the traditional service lines of Infosys, Sikka notes, “Ai, Ki and Do combine into Aikido, the East Asian martial arts, and just as Aikido aims to understand the forces, and redirect these it into a fundamental strength, our Ai, Ki and Do services will help combine the knowledge and energy in an enterprise towards its strategic path and priorities.”
One of the outcomes of the AiKiDo program was Mana™ — a Knowledge-based Artificial Intelligence Platform, launch in April 2016. A year after, in April 2017, AiKiDo came up with Nia™ — The Next Generation Integrated Artificial Intelligence Platform, which combines Mana with robotic process automation capabilities. The company claims to have the products deployed at over 50+ clients and 150+ engagements across all industry sectors.
Acquisition of design-focused competencies
The organic investments in terms of competence building are supplemented by the systematic acquisition of niche design-focused consulting and product companies.
In September 2017, Infosys acquired London-based Brilliant Basics. Founded in 2012, Brilliant Basics has expertise in design thinking and adoption of digital technologies with a focus on client experience management. Powered by Brilliant Basics, in July 2018, Infosys opened a Digital Studio in Berlin. The studio focuses on developing and showcasing capabilities in UX, visual design, strategy, and technology through partnerships with local design schools, and serves clients in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland (DACH). In June 2019, Infosys opened another Experience Design and Innovation Studio in Shoreditch, London.
In May 2018, Infosys acquired US-based digital creative and consumer insights agency WongDoody. The company has expertise in strategy, design, and user experience, and works on creative and digital marketing across the customer experience value chain. The agency covers the areas of customer experience, user experience, and employee experience, and in the verticals of technology, financial, telecom, manufacturing, life sciences, retail, and media.
In September 2020, the company acquired US-based Kaleidoscope Innovation, a full-spectrum product design, development, and insights firm operating in medical, consumer, and industrial domains. Some of the notable innovations include microsurgical instruments, devices used in minimally invasive surgery, drug delivery devices for ophthalmic therapies, and user-centric wearables.
Together these acquisitions help Infosys engage with new clients that come through these agencies as well as with its existing clients in new, design-centric ways.
Building design thinking hubs and labs closer to customers
One of the key tenets of design thinking is customer-centricity. Since traditionally the IT industry operates on a model where the developers are operating thousands of miles away from real customers, getting into the ‘skin of the users’ has always remained challenging. Infosys attempted to zero the distance between its engineers and managers and the end-customers by setting up onsite and near-shore innovation and design hubs. These units would be the beachheads to develop a greater customer connect, understand their unstated needs and serve as a showcase center for upcoming products and solutions.
In November 2017, the company opened a Design and Innovation Hub in the State of Rhode Island. With an aim of hiring more talent locally in the US, the Hub offers early-career designers and design graduates training opportunities with in-demand digital skills including exposure to systems, platforms, strategy, and organization domains. Apart from the Hub at Rhode Island, Infosys opened Technology and Innovation Centers in Indianapolis (March 2018), Connecticut (March 2018), North Carolina (August 2018), Arizona (September 2018), Texas (November 2018), and Hartford (December 2018).
These centers focus on training and development in the areas of machine learning, artificial intelligence, user experience, and advanced digital technologies, including big data and cloud, all anchored around the approach of design thinking. Each center has a specific focus area, reflective of the local economy. For instance, the Indianapolis Hub focuses on virtual, augmented, and robotic technologies, the one at Connecticut focuses on insurance, healthcare, and manufacturing domains, and the Hartford center houses labs on health-tech and insurance.
At these centers, the company engages with the local client ecosystem and offers digital competence development programs for talent. Since 2017, 4.7 million students have been impacted through the various programs and over 13,000 American workers have been hired.
On the impact such Hubs have on solving problems with the customers, Tom Linebarger, Cummins Inc. Chairman and CEO, notes, “Cummins, like many other companies in Indiana, relies on access to great technology, research advances, and talent development. The Hub will not only help develop the skills we need, it will also serve as a forum to exchange ideas and knowledge with experts across critical disciplines.”
Apart from Technology and Innovation Hubs in the USA, Infosys also has Digital Studio at key markets to enhance client-interaction and collaborative problem-solving. These include digital design hubs and experience centers in London, Berlin, and Amsterdam. These innovation centers offer conducive settings to work with clients and demonstrate capabilities. These centers hose Living Labs, which give rapid prototyping infrastructures for a quick solution demonstration.
The case of Infosys demonstrates that cultural transformation has to be a multi-pronged approach. Vishal Sikka as the company’s first non-founder CEO ushered a cultural transformation anchored on the principles and practices of design thinking. A Ph.D. from Stanford University and a former CTO of SAP, Sikka was already inducted into design thinking and had used it successfully to bring several new products to fruition at SAP, chiefly the HANA platform. Also, check this short piece on the greatest contribution of Vishal Sikka to the Indian IT industry.
The three-pronged approach Sikka adopted comprised: 1) large scale competence development programs, first with Stanford Univesity and later with the Rhode Island School of Design; 2) Zero Distance and Zero Bench programs for grassroots-level mobilization on continuous innovation and giving opportunities to employees for demonstrating their design thinking skills; and 3) infusing design thinking into services and products, especially with the launch of AiKiDo service line.
Sikka’s successor, Salil Parekh, continued with the design thinking momentum and under his leadership, Infosys went onto acquiring design studios, such as Brilliant Basics and WongDoody. He also helped deepen the investment in the USA and opened several Technology and Innovation Hubs at key locations, and Experience Centers across Europe. The ramping up of competence building initiatives, customer-engagement facilities and incentive systems around it ensured that Infosys didn’t lose out on the early start Sikka had provided to the bluechip company.
The key insight is that for design thinking to become a way of life at any organization, the leaders must get personally involved, build systems and architectures for employees to feel the power of the tool and associated principles, build and share success stories, and get the customer involved to legitimize the transformation.
Many more case studies are available in the book, Design Your Thinking, published by Penguin Random House in 2020.