The mindful CIO

The mindful CIO
Extend your core applications, data, and infrastructure to better serve the cognitive processes of knowledge workers.
By Bud Mathaisel and Vinod Baya

Blending human and software intelligence is the new territory for enterprise applications. By providing support for human cognitive processes, future enterprise apps will engage humans as an integral part of the business process of interest. (See Figure 1.) PwC calls such applications mindful apps.

As discussed in the article, “The future of enterprise apps: Moving beyond workflows to mindflows,” , mindful apps model human thinking patterns as part of the business process, use context, and deliver intelligence in the moment to augment the capacity of employees to add value through knowledge work. Mindful apps interact and present information based on human thinking patterns. This integration of the human element is in contrast to much of the history of applications, which has largely limited or eliminated human involvement in business processes in pursuit of the automation of end-to-end processes.

CIOs have spent decades putting in place the core applications, data, and infrastructure to serve the enterprise and its users. Leveraging that core certainly has ongoing advantages, and the core will continue to evolve. Mindful apps extend the core to new use cases and allow CIOs to find new areas of value creation.

Many characteristics differentiate mindful apps from traditional apps. Some key differences include:

  • Rather than optimizing the work of a group of people as traditional applications do, mindful apps optimize the work of individuals by focusing on the role of thinking in their work.
  • Rather than embracing a scripted flow to a deterministic transaction, mindful apps support exploratory dialogues associated with cognitively complex decision making under uncertainty.
  • Rather than prescribing a single best path to an outcome, mindful apps support the multiple paths necessary for exploratory work.

Mindful apps borrow many characteristics from the emerging capabilities of mobile apps. (See Table 1.) “Mobile apps will play a big role in this requirement [real-time interfaces and insights that fit with how work is done], as they allow me to integrate data and context with the workflow,” says Isaac Sacolick, CIO of McGraw Hill Construction. Therefore, the design and development of mindful apps build on methods and technologies that enterprises may be using already in their mobile apps effort. The article, “Technologies that enable mindful apps,” describes many of these methods and technologies.

Figure 1
Mindful apps engage humans as an integral part of a process

Figure 1: Mindful apps engage humans as an integral part of a process. 

Workflows have been a foundational concept in traditional applications for automating business processes. The foundational concept for mindful apps is what PwC calls mindflows. Mindflows are goal-driven thinking patterns—such as comparing, evaluating, and summarizing—used by anyone engaged in complex analysis and decision making. The journey to the goal might have many potential paths and usually unfolds in iterative divergence-convergence patterns. (See the section “Surfacing mindflows” later in this article.)

The opportunities for mindful apps are everywhere. A significant portion of enterprise work is unstructured, ad hoc, nonstandardized, or variable—in other words, knowledge work performed under variable degrees of uncertainty.

The opportunities for mindful apps are everywhere. A significant portion of enterprise work is unstructured, ad hoc, nonstandardized, or variable—in other words, knowledge work performed under variable degrees of uncertainty. Consider HR, as an example. Most activities for hiring, onboarding, coaching, and performance evaluation are bathed in information complexity and knowledge intensity. Mindful apps can help.

Table 1
The characteristics defining mindful apps borrow a great deal from the characteristics of mobile apps, although not all mindful apps in the future will be used on a mobile device

Table 1: The characteristics defining mindful apps borrow a great deal from the characteristics of mobile apps, although not all mindful apps in the future will be used on a mobile device  

Figure 2
The guiding principles for designing mindful apps focus on the user experience

Figure 2: The guiding principles for designing mindful apps focus on the user experience. 

How to design and develop mindful apps

Designing, developing, and deploying mindful apps are a shift from writing detailed specs, buying, configuring, and deploying a traditional enterprise application. Although certain mindful apps could be purchased as a complete tool from IT applications vendors, CIOs should expect some need for custom development, given the tight relation of mindful apps to persona or individuals in specific roles. Such customization is not unlike the custom mobile app development already under way at many enterprises.

Designing mindful apps:
The key role of user experience

There is no established template for building mindful apps, so understanding the guiding principles for design is crucial. The user experience is of singular importance. “The user experience is the key underappreciated enterprise critical success factor,” says Bill Murphy, CTO of Blackstone, an alternative asset management company. Because mindful apps are personal, about the thinking self, and about accomplishing ad hoc knowledge work, the user experience provides a holistic way to understand and address all of the concerns together at the design stage. In PwC’s experience, and as shown in Figure 2, four principles are the keys to developing winning user experiences:

  • Concentrate on user-centric design: Present the user with the right information at the right time, in the right format. Focus on finding solutions to critical questions and presenting the answers in a compelling and engaging manner. Putting the user in the center produces information and data visualizations that are contextual and therefore actionable and timely.
  • Design for a reason: The app’s goals should be explicit, definable, and measurable. By understanding the user’s goals, developers can design an application that shortens the time to complete the highest priority tasks.
  • Keep it simple: Focus on the highest priority at the moment, remove distractions, and introduce complexity only when necessary and value creating. Incorporate ongoing user feedback to keep making the experience simpler.
  • Always validate: Across all phases of development, validate assumptions, interfaces, and interactions with users, so the designs remain aligned with how users work and even how that might be changing.

The simplicity of the interface does not mean there is no complexity. The complexity in the app is abstracted to other layers, such as the mindflows, the workflows, business logic, predictive or real-time analytics models, the architecture, and other elements. The objective is to hide the complexity behind the scenes to limit the cognitive load on the user and to integrate the human-computer dialogue as a flexible interaction for better decisions and results.

Surfacing mindflows

Mindflows are the foundational concept for mindful apps, and there are many approaches to surfacing them. SAP uses design-thinking methods to understand the mindset of its users.1 Oracle uses digital body language to capture, understand, and predict what is going on in a user’s mind.2

Many organizations use multiday workshops to gather the insights and raw materials for mindflows. PwC conducts workshops as a start to the design activity to understand the goals and externalize the thinking patterns. Workshops can have different emphases. A discovery workshop focuses on solving complex user interaction scenarios and results in mindflows, use cases, and rough mockups. An ideation workshop focuses on “next-generation” application concepts, and the outputs are user stories and rough mockups.

Sometimes the best way to understand the user’s mindflow is to think like the user. Blackstone’s Murphy relies on such a method. “The bridge between the business and an excellent solution is best provided by technologists from the product development team who are completely engrossed in the business, so they can help make those decisions and not rely on just asking somebody,” he says. “Once we understand the problems, we’re pretty confident we can solve them.”

All of these approaches externalize the thinking patterns of the user by seeking answers to questions such as: How did you get here? What information do you need now? What are you trying to understand? What will you do next? What would you like to do next in an ideal scenario? The objective is to draw out the iterative divergent-convergent flow of mind states and the information requirements that guide the movement across the states. (See Figure 3.) The result is a flow across underlying thinking patterns, such as inferring, analyzing, classifying, evaluating, comparing, summarizing, and others. These patterns inform the design of the software. Focusing on pattern means the software does not need to identify and model all the permutations of the flow. Good software design will adapt to new situations as well as discover flows over time.

Figure 3
To make mindflows explicit is to capture the iterative divergence-convergence patterns across mind states and the information requirements that guide the movement across the states

Figure 3: To make mindflows explicit is to capture the iterative divergence-convergence patterns across mind states and the information requirements that guide the movement across the states. 

Most businesses perform many activities that can be adapted for the design of mindful apps because of the similarities in approaches and outputs. Among these are ideation, 360-degree information gathering, convergence of themes, divergence based on testing themes with users, iterations to new themes, conclusions, prototypes, feedback, and others.

Developing mindful apps

Mindful apps can usually be rolled out in weeks rather than months or years and then incrementally refined or made feature rich over time. Much like mobile apps, they typically target a focused, well-scoped, goal-driven activity. For developers of mindful apps, rapid development and deployment capabilities are essential. Apps should start small and evolve to include the activities and flows they support.

Once enterprises support complex decision making by using mindful apps, organizational and individual learning will occur. This learning will transform the decision environment and how work is done, requiring a rapid response by the development team for the app to continue to be useful. App developers don’t have the luxury of long lead times for design, or an expectation of app longevity without constant tuning. Users will quickly recognize when the data, analytics, or patterns become stale.

The good news is that apps design and development can harness application programming interfaces (APIs) and agile capabilities, such as DevOps, which have emerged to support rapid, iterative development and deployment with scale.3 “Agile methods are a core aspect of our development methodology. We’ve introduced agile principles and methods to our businesspeople, for example, and they think about their business needs and how to prioritize requirements using agile,” says McGraw Hill Construction’s Sacolick.

User interfaces and mobile apps

“Mobile platforms are creating new energy around the user interface. We must really think about how the app is going to be used, which will be different from how it was or will be used on the desktop.”
—Pat Garrehy,
Rootstock Software

While not all mindful apps are mobile, many are and more will be. Mobile apps are introducing new expectations around user interfaces. “Mobile platforms are creating new energy around the user interface,” says Pat Garrehy, founder, president, and CEO of Rootstock Software, which develops cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) and supply chain software. This shift is not a simple case of rethinking or redeploying the desktop interface to the mobile platform. “We must really think about how the app is going to be used, which will be different from how it was or will be used on the desktop,” he adds. Externalized mindflows are a resource in this regard and can be a key input into interface design. For example, an interface for the thinking patterns of comparing will differ from those for the thinking patterns of evaluating or summarizing.

Another key difference from the desktop is that instead of the user adapting to the app, the app adapts to the user. “Everybody had the same user interface 20 years ago. That is definitely different now,” Garrehy says. “Customers can take their favorite third-party app, create new interfaces, and put them on top of ours and other applications. Users will develop their own interfaces in effect.” So although developers will design the ideal interface, it needs to have an adequate level of personalization features to be widely useful.

“Mobile devices offer smaller screen sizes, so the presentation of information should be deeply thought out ahead of time and not left to users to create on their own.”
—Isaac Sacolick,
McGraw Hill Construction

Another challenge is to balance the smaller screen size with the rapidly growing data pertinent to the task at hand. “Mobile devices offer smaller screen sizes, so the presentation of information should be deeply thought out ahead of time and not left to users to create on their own,” McGraw Hill Construction’s Sacolick says.

Implications for IT strategy

The rise of mindful apps challenges the prevailing operating models of IT organizations. Many organizations are reactive and address new requests by starting a project that ends after some time and that releases the resources to work on other projects. This approach inherently breeds short-term thinking.

In contrast, mindful apps evolve over time. Rather than a big bang implementation, they start small and grow in capability and impact. Murphy operates his organization as a collection of product-focused teams. “The product-focused commercial teams have much more incentive to focus on the long term and to treat their solutions as a living, breathing thing,” he explains. “My goal here really has been to orientate us as a product-focused organization to make the long-term investments. Sometimes that’s painful on the prioritization side. But when you do it, the benefits start to add up once you get the momentum going.”

The impact is not limited to the operating model. IT architecture also changes for the better. “If we could build the perfect blue-sky architecture, there would be a complete decoupling among the workflows, the data services, and the user interfaces,” Sacolick says. The objective is to be ready to tap an ever-increasing list of data sources, as well as to individualize the interfaces to the persona or individuals. “Then I would have the freedom to source data as needed from any internal or external source. This is in essence what we are trying to do.”

Mindful apps reenergize the partnership model between IT and the business, whether it is in development or overall governance of IT systems and processes. The reality is that mindful apps will pull the IT organization deeper into how work is done, because it must engage with the mindflows. And as a result, mindful apps will provide a new avenue for collaboration. “The only way to understand buyer [or user] behavior is to look at the digital data. The only way to work with that data and get in front of the mindflows is to analyze, process, and build flows based on that digital data. We have two paths to get there: either marketing teams become more technology oriented, or IT teams become more marketing oriented,” says Steven Woods, group vice president of software development at Oracle.

Why mindful apps are truly different

Mindful apps are not intuitively tangible. They are designed to inform a thinking process, not control the process. Mindful apps are more than an extension of IT’s normal methods and toolkit. They challenge the fundamental basis of IT’s focus on precision and control. Thus, CIOs may struggle with the best path for adoption in their enterprise.

With the goal of helping CIOs think about mindful app adoption, the following sections of this article present a CIO perspective on some key questions and responses.

Aren’t mindful apps just BI with a new name?

Mindful apps are not just a variation on business intelligence (BI). Yes, the users are engaged in research-centric or knowledge-centric processes. However:

  • Mindful apps do not simply provision lots of data and let users have at it. Mindful apps are explicitly designed for an outcome and a voyage of discovery informed through building insights. Mindful apps bob and weave with users as they interact with data and analytics, come to conclusions, change their data search, look at new information, eliminate obstacles, and make decisions.
  • In BI, users may not find data they need. With mindful apps, users will improve the knowledge base by adding new information into the system.
  • BI focuses on generating reports and visualizations of data. Reports are an endpoint. Mindful apps embed BI capability in the service of a user goal.
  • Mindful apps build on BI by facilitating an iterative, guided dialogue with the user and by taking support for thinking to a higher level.

The CIO should think of mindful apps as the logical evolution of making systems more productive for users than BI alone could accomplish.

Can’t we just apply business process reengineering to develop mindful apps?

Most CIOs are familiar with business process reengineering (BPR) and have used it successfully. But they can’t just apply BPR because BPR was ideal for the big problems that are common across the enterprise and for which a common business process model is designed. Thinking is personal, dynamic, and builds by nature, and the specific outcome is unknown until the user “gets there.” Common workflows are not likely to be effective across all these thought patterns.

Each thinking role in the enterprise has different thought patterns and different issues to resolve. From users’ individual digital trails (their digital body language), a mindful approach derives the patterns of individual users’ inquiries and actions. The linear approach of BPR does not allow the iterative flexibility required for mindful apps.

Aren’t mindful apps like expert systems or knowledge management systems from more than a decade ago?

It’s true, mindful apps might evoke memories of knowledge management (KM) or expert systems, both of which struggled for enterprise-wide adoption. However, there are fundamental differences between mindful apps and these earlier systems.

A mindful app is designed with a cognitively manageable scope. It breaks big tasks into smaller manageable experiences.

A mindful app is designed with a cognitively manageable scope. It breaks big tasks into smaller manageable experiences. It is therefore tractable and can be developed in weeks or months. Most expert systems and KM efforts become overwhelming because they take on the scope of the whole enterprise or an entire profession, such as medicine or law.

Mindful apps focus on intelligence in the moment—that is, the information, questions, or actions likely to be most relevant to the time, place, and circumstances of the user’s current context. In contrast, the typical KM system focuses on all contexts. Hence, KM systems become too resource-heavy, too complex to operate, and too difficult to parse in the moment.

Mindful apps separate reasoning and flow, bringing flow into the app and leaving reasoning to the human, whereas expert systems tried to model the reasoning, which is a difficult task in many use cases. Instead, mindful apps model the mindflow (the states through which a user moves while carrying out a task) and the information that causes the change of state, not the complexity of reasoning and decision making.

Because of growing digitization and the rise of cloud and mobility architectures and infrastructure, new information (such as mindflows and digital body language) is accessible to apps today. That information was not available in the past. These new facts could benefit expert systems and KM solutions, as many of them are likely to evolve in the mindful direction.

Where will the enterprise get the specialized talent for mindful apps?

Does a mindful app project require recruiting new, unproven people into an established culture? To address this question, it is helpful to separate talent into two domains: mindful app design, and mindful app development and deployment.

Talent for mindful app design. Mindful app design will require skills that might be new to IT. Design thinking requires an information decision psychology mindset that would include capabilities such as those that a user story modeler, researcher, business analyst, data scientist, visual thinker, or graphics artist would have.

“I liken my designers to journalists, where the most important part of their job is to come up with the right questions so they can draw out the important problems of our user base.”
—Bill Murphy, Blackstone

Rather than thinking of these capabilities as entirely new in the abstract, it is useful for CIOs to think in relative terms, leveraging skills from roles that do exist. For example, Blackstone’s Murphy says, “I liken my designers to journalists, where the most important part of their job is to come up with the right questions so they can draw out the important problems of our user base.” Journalism is one model. It incorporates the elements of research and analysis and the ability to form and manifest user stories in compelling ways.

Marketing is another model. Marketing, especially marketing planning, relies on abilities similar to those of design thinkers: collecting and categorizing detailed information about users’ behaviors combined with the skill of interpreting the data and projecting future behavior patterns.

Research is a third model. Research groups have talent that is proficient at designing research processes (roughly akin to developing user stories), establishing hypotheses (goals), analyzing information, drawing conclusions, and documenting findings and conclusions.

Within IT itself, the talents of really good business systems analysts (BSAs) may be an excellent starting point, but with a key difference: designing a mindful app is much more data intensive, iterative, and open ended than a BSA’s usual work and work product.

Some current employees may be able to apply skills they possess but have not yet had the opportunity to use. For example, some employees’ academic backgrounds may include psychology or other valuable foundational skills.

Talent for mindful app development and deployment. For crucial IT support roles in mindful app development and deployment, these IT skills are needed:

  • Agile and DevOps
  • API design, management, and support
  • Native development on mobile devices and using HTML5
  • Experience in big data and analytics solutions, such as Hadoop, HANA, and Fusion
  • The ability to ensure that the apps meet the requisite regulatory compliance, cybersecurity, disaster planning and recovery, business continuity, and financial controls

CIOs can help the enterprise decide whether to improve the skills of current staff or to bring talent from outside. If IT leads the mindful app project, a rotation into IT from another enterprise group is always beneficial and usually welcome. The previous lists are guidelines for helping that assessment.

The CIO takeaways for mindful app leadership

Thinking is the essence of mindful apps. Henry Ford famously said, “Thinking is hard work, and that is why so few people do it.” It is hard work, so one of the important mindful apps design principles is to simplify complex thinking processes by decomposing them into smaller, manageable thinking patterns—a feat achieved by defining the mindflows that make up any cognitive activity. By decomposing a thoughtful activity into bite-sized experiences, an app can target each stage with information and analytics that are a better fit for that stage of the thinking process.

The growing digitization of the enterprise and rapid innovations in cloud, mobile, analytics, and social technologies present a key opportunity for CIOs to invest in the talent, technologies, and design and development methodologies needed to be successful with mindful apps. There is much to learn, as blending human cognitive processes and software intelligence with enterprise business processes is a brand new field of endeavor, and few IT organizations have experience with it. But the pursuit of excellence in developing this capability will pay off in ways that IT’s long-standing role in promoting productivity never has. It will impact the effectiveness of decisions, reasoning, analysis, and all nature of knowledge work that are so commonplace and crucial to any enterprise’s operations in all of its functions.

The opportunity to advance enterprise thinking with mindful app support is big and highlights the next leap in bringing enterprise applications that have greater value to businesses.
 
The outlook for CIOs is excellent.

CIOs have an excellent perspective on the entire enterprise, its current information capabilities, and its future information plans. CIOs have learned how to codify complex decision making in enterprise applications and can leverage that experience to engage with mindful apps. In particular, CIOs should:

  • Create a vision of what their organization could achieve if the apps had access to the mindflows of key roles.
  • Rethink the ongoing mobile app investments in light of the characteristics of mindful apps, and steer the development in a more mindful direction.
  • Recognize that the user experience can provide a competitive advantage, and bring in necessary talent from the outside or provide a career path to those already in the organization.
  • Establish a taxonomy of knowledge work tasks in the enterprise suitable for mindful apps. Roles that have a high cognitive load, high enterprise impact, and occur frequently are good candidates.
  • Understand and champion new design methods for apps that surface mindflows. Organizing and attending workshops that put users at the center of the experience is one of the ways to do so.

The opportunity to advance enterprise thinking with mindful app support is big and highlights the next leap in bringing enterprise applications that have greater value to businesses. The outlook for CIOs, as they demonstrate mindful leadership, is excellent.
 


1. See the interview, “User mindsets are driving the future of applications,” .

2. See the interview, “Using digital body language to transform applications,” .

3. For more discussion of DevOps, see Technology Forecast 2013, Issue 2.