by Martha Heller

How Johnson & Johnson IT is managing a global crisis

Apr 22, 20208 mins
CIOIT Leadership

J&J CIO Jim Swanson reveals how he and his IT team are helping keep operations running at the $82B healthcare giant, as well as the lessons learned — and silver linings — of leading through crisis.

Jim Swanson, EVP and Group CIO, Johnson & Johnson
Credit: Johnson & Johnson

On March 31, Jim Swanson had been EVP and Group CIO at Johnson & Johnson for six months. In any other year, he would be executing on a transformational business technology strategy designed for efficiency, innovation, and growth. This year, however, Swanson faced a challenge that eclipsed all of that: Manage a global pandemic that impacted every one of the $82 billion company’s 132,000 employees, most of its 60 countries, and each of its major divisions, from consumer packaged goods, to medical devices, to pharmaceuticals.

For Swanson, the pivot from transformational leadership to crisis management occurred earlier than it has for most.

“For us, the crisis started at least three months ago when it first hit China,” says Swanson. “China is a very important market for us, so we were concerned about two things: the safety of our employees living there, and continuing the flow of life-saving medicines into and out of the country.”

The J&J executive team formed a crisis management team led by Joaquin Duato, vice chairman of the executive committee, that pulled in leadership from China, supply chain, global services, commercial leadership, and IT. The questions the team faced were daunting: How do we keep our employees safe? How do we safeguard our facilities and keep them operating so we can serve our patients and consumers? And, as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis spreads across the globe, how do we get raw materials in and out of those markets?  

Leading IT through a pandemic

To tackle IT’s involvement in the crisis mitigation efforts, Swanson formed an IT crisis management group that included first- and second-level IT leadership from major functions and business areas. The group met daily to address a tough list of questions of their own: How do we ensure connectivity and remote access for the majority of our workforce who will now suddenly be working at home? Are our business continuity plans sufficient to address the current situation? How do we ensure a high level of communication with our global IT groups? How do we handle an increasing array of cyber security threats?

Swanson and this team conducted scenario planning, beginning with the China market, and developed an emergency IT operations strategy. “In anticipation of the rapid spread of the virus, we very quickly bought excess capacity in our cloud environment so we would have the compute we needed,” he says. “We bought extra laptops in the event that more people would have to work from home and assessed our network resiliency, our help desk readiness, and critical systems support. For the first six weeks, we just focused on China, and then applied what we learned there to new global markets as the virus spread.”

By pulling together a small senior team, and then integrating our region and country IT leaders as the virus spread, Swanson ensured that the team can learn as it goes, and that the rest of his 5,000-person IT organization can focus on operations. “We have one core group that activates each team, whether help desk, business continuity planning, or collaboration services,” he says. “That approach is really working for us.”

Swanson uses a red, yellow, green model to keep his teams focused on their most important work and to update the business crisis management team. “We might let business continuity planning [BCP] stay yellow, because network connectivity is more important at the moment,” he says. “But once network connectivity is green, we turn our attention back to BCP.”

The IT team’s crisis management model was put to the test in late March, when India locked down the country on March 21. “Despite the lockdown, we were able to keep all of our India-based employees connected and our distribution centers and supply chain systems running,” says Swanson. “We were able to dynamically switch from on-prem to remote work without any risk or disruption.”

Leveraging existing capabilities

Swanson finds that J&J’s analytics capabilities are playing a critical role during the crisis. “As countries are holding onto raw materials that we need for our products, we are using product flow visualization and risk analysis tools to get those supplies to our manufacturing plants through alternative paths,” he says.

J&J teams are also using simulation tools to increase manufacturing capacity without introducing risk, smart glass technology so that quality experts can work remotely, global collaboration tools that give relevant real-time data to researchers working on a vaccine, and digital interactions with health care professionals around the world.

In addition to leveraging data capabilities, the team is making good use of the cloud and collaboration strategies they had started before Swanson joined the company. “We already had a nucleus of cloud and collaboration technologies when the virus first hit,” says Swanson, “but the demand is now so high that we are accelerating both of those programs.”

Lesson learned so far

It is hard to have hindsight from the middle of a crisis, but Swanson can identify several lessons that he has already learned from navigating this pandemic:

Review disaster recovery policies regularly. How robust are your workforce technology policies when the majority of your workforce — and those of your vendors and suppliers — must suddenly work remotely? Do you have that extra layer of monitoring and hyper care around critical systems and processes at manufacturing plants, in the event that on-site resources may be limited? While Swanson and his team were able to work with business partners across the company to make decisions when they needed to, “we learned how important it is to be current, but also agile, with our policies,” he says.

Think like an employee. Swanson has been impressed by how J&J’s employees have risen to the challenges presented by the crisis. “It is absolutely critical that you get your head in the mind of your employees,” he says. “‘If I’m an hourly worker, will I still get paid? If I’m a single parent, can I take two weeks off? If my role requires me to be on site, will I be safe?’ If you understand your employees’ concerns, you can find solutions and communicate effectively, and empower and activate them around our purpose of serving those in need around the world. They will amaze you every day.”

Show humility and gratitude. At J&J’s all-hands meetings, CEO Alex Gorsky gives public praise for the work being done at all levels of the company. In addition to acknowledging the work of his own organization, Swanson wrote a personal note of thanks to the CEOs of each of J&J’s technology partners. “You can never show enough gratitude to your employees and partners in times like these,” he says.

The silver lining

When Swanson came to J&J six months ago, he faced what many CIOs of large global companies face: an organization that had evolved, over time, to working in silos. “This pandemic has underscored the need for IT to work as one team,” he says. “We now see clearly that no one group is big enough, smart enough, or has all of the resources to be on their own. This pandemic is showing how powerful we can be when we work together on a single mission.”

In addition to bringing the team together, one of Swanson’s goals upon joining J&J was to raise the digital acumen of the company. “Well, guess what?” he says. “Almost overnight, the whole company is ten times more digital than they were. They are relying much more heavily on remote systems, data, and collaboration tools. There is no going back now.” 

Increased digital literacy will very likely extend far beyond the corporate walls of J&J. A few weeks ago, Swanson said to J&J’s CEO, “Technology was critical to us before this crisis, but it has taken a quantum leap in criticality for the future. Once this pandemic is over — and it will end — we will see much greater use of technology in healthcare than we’ve ever seen before.”

When global crises hit, we all have to rise to a new level of work and leadership, and it is difficult to think beyond the day, the hour, or even the minute. But as Jim Swanson says, this pandemic will end, and when it does, we will all find ourselves with better technology, closer teams, and a clearer understanding of what it means to be a leader.