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How does Johnson & Johnson, a 137-year-old multinational company with nearly 150,000 employees, continue innovating and adopting new technologies?

According to Jim Swanson, the company’s executive vice president and CIO, the winning formula is an acute focus on business outcomes combined with a strategy for building enterprise digital acumen. This means targeting technologies with the greatest potential to spur transformation.

Innovation is the lifeblood of all companies, but it is especially important in the pharmaceutical, medical device, and consumer products sectors. Almost one-third of global data is generated by health care. That data is helping industry leaders break new ground on the personalization of patient care, advanced science and therapeutics, and intelligent medical devices, all with the aim of facilitating better patient outcomes.

“We have to be innovating at scale and at the speed of our business,” Swanson said at the recent EmTech Digital conference hosted by MIT Technology Review. “We have to understand different health care needs all around the world to stay effective and relevant to our mission of transforming healthcare.”

J&J’s innovation strategy rests on three core pillars:

Modernizing the technology ecosystem and core. There are four layers to ensuring that the right technologies are in place, Swanson said. It starts with foundational technologies such as network capabilities, cybersecurity, enterprise resource planning, and Internet of Things functionality. J&J also focuses on creating a data layer that makes data secure and accessible to drive better insights.

A platform layer encompasses workflows and software to support core business operations, including R&D, supply chain, and patient care. Finally, as part of its modern technology stack, J&J integrates data science into models, workflows, and core business platforms, bolstered by scalable, secure elastic compute capacity.

These four layers, combined with a “digital radar” that identifies areas where technology will make the greatest impact, helps J&J innovate at scale to reach intended outcomes, Swanson said.

Building enterprise digital acumen. J&J is committed to making its organization ready for the future and provides an array of tools to keep its 4,000-plus IT employees up to date on digital skills. To start, the company embarked on a skills-mapping exercise, using AI models to identify gaps in 40 technical competencies and 12 soft skills that were deemed essential. “It gave me a view of my organization to see where we were strong and where we needed to develop … the skills I thought we needed for the future,” Swanson said.

From there, J&J partnered with education providers to create learning content. It also promotes skill-building challenges and encourages and rewards employee participation. Based on early success in the IT organization, Swanson’s team is collaborating with J&J’s chief human resources officer to expand the program to the entire organization.

Innovating for impact. Swanson’s group identifies technologies with the greatest potential to impact chosen business outcomes and the best chance of evolving at scale. For example, J&J has been experimenting with quantum computing to examine peptides and protein sequencing that could treat or cure diseases, though it’s still early days in terms of the technology’s maturity. “Even if it’s not ready, we’ve learned a ton about how to think differently, and that includes with our business colleagues, such as R&D scientists,” Swanson said.

A number of innovations are already having a positive effect. One is an automated, AI-based touchless order capability that gets products to customers sooner than the original, manual, fax-based process did. Another innovation involves using augmented reality to let physicians train by performing procedures virtually. And in the therapeutics area, J&J’s life-changing personalized therapy for multiple myeloma patients draws on technology for chain of identity and custody to track a specific individual’s entire treatment process.

Best practices for innovating

Swanson made the following recommendations for companies, both incumbents and startups, to successfully leverage technology in pursuit of innovation:

Start by identifying business outcomes. There’s a lot of shiny new technology out there, but not all of it is applicable to every company’s needs. J&J starts with its foundational technologies and then augments them with capabilities designed to meet specific objectives — for example, improving surgical procedure outcomes by connecting robotics devices with data analytics functions, or touchless ordering to improve supply chain turnarounds.

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Embrace a test-and-learn mentality. Swanson advises companies not to wait for the perfect opportunity to use new technology or spend months on a soup-to-nuts deployment. Rather, he advocates for experimentation, immersion with new functionalities, and pilots conducted around the edges to ensure the right focus and success when it comes time to scale.

Build up a knowledge base. J&J is well equipped to harness emerging capabilities like generative AI because it laid the groundwork in advance. The company created data science and automation councils, with representation from every part of the company, to learn and evolve digital acumen in these areas. “We created a set of criteria that allows us to safely assess and pilot certain examples of applying generative AI,” Swanson said. “We have about 185 use cases that we’ve categorized, and mapped that into eight or nine different fields of interest. With our criteria and policy, we can experiment, pilot, and learn, and see what can scale.”

Think beyond deployment and implementation. Prioritization is important in a large company because you can’t deploy everything — and just because something has been deployed doesn’t mean it delivers value. Swanson encourages organizations to focus on adoption and outcomes, along with a methodical test-and-learn process, to help drive innovation forward.

Seek out promoters. Look for partners and business champions that can help build enthusiasm and drive support for new technologies and innovation. Detractors will only serve as roadblocks, no matter how well a technology delivers, Swanson said. “Find the promoters and work with them,” he said. “Have the same conviction on the outcome, test-and-learn, and let them amplify. If they amplify, other people will come along.”

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For more info Sara Brown Senior News Editor and Writer