Johnson & Johnson CIO: Transformational leadership needed now more than ever

Jim Swanson didn't expect to jump into crisis leadership mode three months into his new CIO role. But COVID-19 isn't slowing down his transformation efforts: If anything, they've accelerated
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When I stepped into the global CIO role at Johnson & Johnson last fall, I was profoundly inspired by the company’s potential to positively impact human health. With an already-solid IT foundation, I was joining the world’s largest healthcare company to leverage technology across Johnson & Johnson for the benefit of the patients and customers who count on us. 

Little did I know that just three months into the job, the COVID-19 pandemic would change the world as we know it, and the work of IT leaders everywhere would become more important than ever before.

At Johnson & Johnson, technology infuses everything we do. Algorithms shape our supply chains. Data science underpins our research. Technology enables us to perform surgeries digitally. Our technology helps support patients, customers and their families around the world. Internally, our employees rely on our technology to connect, collaborate, and invent, so like most IT organizations, we had to react swiftly and enable our workforce to transition to remote working. Prior to the pandemic, just over 20 percent of our approximately 132,000 employees worked remotely, and this number has increased dramatically since the pandemic began.

[ How is the COVID-19 crisis reshaping digital transformation agendas? Read: Digital transformation: 5 ways COVID-19 is forcing positive changes. ]

To adapt to COVID-19, we have transformed our business – and that starts with our technology and IT. As CIO, I adopted the following approach: manage the crisis while helping to transform the company. It’s a position I believe many CIOs have found themselves in recently - leading our organizations into new ways of working with all the technology and support that entails, while positioning our companies for what comes next.

The role of IT is more critical than ever before

Among the many areas we’re focused on is developing a vaccine for COVID-19 and doing so at a substantially accelerated pace in comparison to the typical vaccine development process. Together with regulatory agencies, we’re working tirelessly on accelerated development of a safe and effective vaccine to meet this urgent public health need. For our IT organization, this means focusing on connectivity – connecting our internal environment with external partners and making sure that internally we’re sharing data and information, while scaling up our supply chain around vaccine production and more.  

Even while we’re focusing on the vaccine, we recognize patients are still counting on us to deliver innovative medicines, life-altering medical devices and trusted consumer products. Technology, coupled with science, can help play a transformational role in all of this. Using real-time data and insights, we can provide patients with the right care at the right time. 

If you don’t know the intended business outcome, you can’t transform and be proactive.

The word “outcome” is key for IT transformation and for the pivot I was brought in to make. If you don’t know the intended business outcome, you can’t transform and be proactive. You’re always going to be reactive, which means you’ll always be chasing instead of leading.

In recent months, our IT organization has accelerated and expanded our use of technology to transform, not just react and respond. For example, we’ve experienced challenges securing supplies in certain markets, but we’ve been able to overcome these challenges by using data analytics to assess alternate logistics and supply chain routes. If we’re having difficulties getting raw material in one place, we’re using technology to swiftly identify if we can get it from somewhere else. Or if we’re challenged in distributing a medicine, we’re using data analytics to find another way to get the medicine to patients. I could point to many examples over the past several weeks when we have used data and technology to solve our most complex problems. 

To accelerate transformation, make your purpose clear 

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that IT is more than the technology we enable – it’s about furthering Johnson & Johnson’s ability to improve people’s lives.

[ How should you organize for change? Read: Digital transformation leaders' secret: Dump traditional org charts. ]

When I started in my role six months ago, I worked with my leadership team to develop a purpose statement that we could use to engage and inspire our organization: “We shape the future of healthcare by unlocking the power of people, technology, and insights.” That statement gives us a higher mission of what technology means to this organization and links our work with the company’s broader goals. The essence of this statement for me is that the Johnson & Johnson Technology organization can help to shape the future of healthcare if we leverage our strengths and bring technology to bear for the world’s largest healthcare company. It’s a great honor and responsibility, and one we do not take lightly. 

To connect our work to our purpose, I implemented a three-pronged approach.

  • First, I communicated that common purpose to the entire IT organization – more than 5,000 employees – as well as our Executive Committee. 
  • Second, we prioritized our “must-win” priorities. This includes everything from vaccines, digital surgery, CAR T-cell therapy for cancer, and ensuring personalized care in consumer health. It even includes our technology foundations, such as cloud computing and implementing central finance. All of these are “must-wins” that are tied to that mission and purpose we’re trying to drive. 
  • Third, I created workstreams around these three areas: business outcomes, talent, and ways of working. The business outcomes workstream outlines the business-related objectives we want to achieve, such as patient satisfaction, net promoter score, on-time in full delivery for supply chain, etc. The talent workstream focuses on whether we have the right, critical talent to drive our future, and if not, how do we pivot toward it. And the third workstream around ways of working focuses on how we ensure we’re working together as a team versus in siloes. 

We are unlocking the power of our people to do more transformative work by opening their eyes to the bigger goal that their work is supporting.

These workstreams combined with our “must-wins” galvanize the IT organization, making it clear what role everyone is playing. No matter where each of us sits, there’s now a clear line-of-sight between what we do and how it aligns to our purpose, our mission, our must-wins, and our outcomes. We are unlocking the power of our people to do more transformative work by opening their eyes to the bigger goal that their work is supporting. It transforms our organization’s mindset. For example, instead of thinking: “I’m just keeping the network running in a stable way,” we recognize the deeper truth: “I’m keeping the network running so that we can accelerate our ability to create a vaccine or improve cancer treatment.” 

Moving forward, driving positive change  

This pandemic has challenged CIOs and IT leaders in ways we couldn’t have forecasted. I wasn’t expecting to jump into crisis leadership mode three months into my new role. A silver lining is that all of this rapid change is building muscle memory in our organizations around working together, learning continuously, and adapting in an agile way to deal with all that may come our way. 

For us, a great example is how we’ve digitally enabled our sales force in Latin America. Before hospitals in the region restricted visitors, our sales force was making approximately 3,000 in-person visits a day with physicians, and then that number quickly dropped to zero. Our IT organization provided the needed connectivity to help those sales employees go digital in a matter of days, allowing them to continue sharing important information with healthcare professionals. And now that we know what’s possible, we can continue to drive improvements to our digital offerings. 

For transformative technology leaders, we can learn from this devastating pandemic to drive some positive change in the ways we work, both within our organizations and with the world outside our walls. We can lead our organizations to prepare for a much more digital future. 

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

Jim Swanson is a global business and technology leader and currently Chief Information Officer of Johnson & Johnson, the world’s premier healthcare company. Based at the company headquarters in New Jersey, Jim is responsible for amplifying Johnson & Johnson’s business impact and shaping its direction through the strategic use of technology.