Tom Butler (00:00): 

There's a running joke in my household that I'm living in the future because I really never know what year I'm in at the time because I'm always focused two to three years, four years out. So even while we're sitting in the beginnings of '23, I'm focused on '25, 2026.  

James Kotecki (00:23): 

This is CES Tech Talk. I'm James Kotecki. CES 2023 is January 5th through 8th in Las Vegas. We are here to get you hyped and get you smart about the world's most influential tech event. At CES, innovation is everything and everywhere, so much so that the word itself may seem to lose its meaning. But what does innovation mean, and how do you do it right? To find out, let's talk with Tom Butler, executive director of global commercial portfolio and product management at Lenovo, where he works on ThinkPad and ThinkBook laptops. Tom, welcome to the show. What are you excited about for CES 2023? 

Tom Butler (01:07): 

Well, James, I wish I could show you because there's some really cool things coming, but we're not quite ready to share those just yet. But what I will say is we're focused on launching some new technologies that we've created to address one of the key areas for SMB organizations in 2023, and that's employee experience. As the world has moved to a more dispersed hybrid model, it's critical that we maintain productive, engaged, and most importantly, connected employees. And that allows us to work both in person and remote. But when we look at SMB employees, one of the biggest challenges is not everyone can benefit from having a fully built out, funded, home office. So we're focused on delivering technologies that can deliver premium work experience for people wherever they are, at home, on the go, or in the office.  

James Kotecki (01:55): 

I love this because it's like Lenovo is innovating on the idea of helping to make small and mid sized businesses more innovative themselves.  

Tom Butler (02:02): 


James Kotecki (02:03): 

So I really want to talk about this idea of employee experience as it relates to innovation and how it enables innovation. But first, I think we've really got to take a step back and ask: What does innovation actually mean? Clearly, it predates all the technology that we're going to see at CES this year. You can think about somebody like Leonardo da Vinci, you can think about a caveman with a circular rock. But what does Lenovo actually think of when it uses the term innovation? 

Tom Butler (02:28): 

Candidly, innovation is at the heart of what we do at Lenovo. We're a product and solutions oriented company and that's our focus. So it runs through our culture and inspires everything we design. We're looking at technologies and how they impact the way we work and play, and we're constantly looking at pushing the boundaries of what we can do and accomplish in the world with these platforms. So you can see this today in our focus on research and development, which has made us a leader in innovation. The key is that we always start with customers' needs and problems. And then we leverage customer focused insights to develop these product solutions across devices, software, and services. But they're always built around the people and their needs, and above all, provide value to our customers.  

James Kotecki (03:13): 

I mean, on one hand, I suppose you could think of innovation very broadly as literally any new technology that comes out. But I think people also kind of use it more as a subjective measure of how useful something is, or even just how cool it is. You can think of somebody grading technology as far as, this is an innovative piece of new technology, this is not a very innovative piece of new technology because it feels like a derivative, or it doesn't move the ball forward very much. Do you think of innovation in those kind of qualitative terms, as far as better and worse? 

Tom Butler (03:44): 

There are varying degrees of innovation. There's going to be incremental improvement year, over year, over year, generation over generation for platforms, so you're not going to see this major step function in the way we address and deliver new experiences and technologies. But then underneath that, there's always this drive to look out and focus on what could be delivered, what is possible in the future, whether that's near-term, or mid-term, long-term. So you're going to see us run really both swim lanes, for lack of a better term, focusing on the incremental, but also focusing on these step changes. 

James Kotecki (04:23): 

I think that's a really interesting point because if you think innovation has to be the most aggressive forward thinking technology ever, I could just sit here with a piece of paper and innovate faster than light travel. Right? But it doesn't mean that I can actually do it, and it doesn't mean that it would be practical, even if it was technically possible. I think what we're getting at is this idea of innovation as some kind of balance between pushing the limits of what is actually possible, of what people will actually want to buy and consume and use for this businesses. Is that kind of what we're getting at here? 

Tom Butler (04:54): 

Yeah, totally. So again, providing value to the customer. So are we solving problems? Are we meeting needs? But also, are we providing a new way to look at things as well? So it's that balance of both. I want to make sure that near-term, we can solve the immediate problems that are known and understood. We're effectively future casting on what is coming, and looking beyond perhaps the immediate needs. 

James Kotecki (05:22): 

Do you have maybe some recent examples of this within Lenovo itself? 

Tom Butler (05:25): 

Yeah. When I think of the portfolio, I think one of the best examples of innovation at Lenovo is the ThinkBook Plus line. So the ThinkBooks are designed and tailor-made for SMB customers, and we have a broad range of devices. But we've used the ThinkBook Plus line and have established it intentionally to stretch the boundaries of what is possible with a focus on future computing. So again, thinking about everything we do and everything we create, we're focused on these real world problems, real world solutions. But with the ThinkBook Plus, we're focused on how people will work in the future, not just how they work today. So if you take the first example, our first generation of the ThinkBook Plus, we launched with an unique display on the outside cover of the laptop, so when you close the lid of the laptop, you have an active display on the outside that you can interact with.  


And how we arrived at that, we basically asked ourselves, "What if a device could be both your laptop and your notepad?" And so it allowed us to create something new, something revolutionary that presents a new way to work, and really challenged the normal operational model with this new design and new platform. We're always looking for new ways that technology can adapt and enhance the way people work.  

James Kotecki (06:40): 

You mentioned the term future casting, and that's got to be incredibly challenging because here you have a large organization like Lenovo, you have so many moving parts, you have so many different types of technical expertise that need to weigh in. And of course, business broader expertise, so many things that need to go right for a new piece of technology to exist. And it takes a certain amount of time for that to come out into the marketplace. And by the time it comes out, you just hope that the future casting that you did six, 12, 18, 24 months ago when you were designing this thing actually matches what people are actually wanting to do with this. And so I imagine there must be times when you get it perfectly right, times when you you're maybe ahead of the curve, like it's a technology people eventually use, but they weren't ready for it yet, times when you just come out with something that maybe is a whiff. How do you balance all of those things? 

Tom Butler (07:27): 

It's a complex question because you're right, we're constantly looking out two, three years from now. There's a running joke in my household that I'm living in the future because I really never know what year I'm in at the time because I'm always focused two to three years, four years out. So even while we're sitting in the beginnings of '23, I'm focused on '25, 2026. And so we're not going to get it crisply or precision correct, it's going to be more in broad strategic terms. But we're looking at the usage and the models, as well as the evolution of how the market is operating. So I'll give you an example, the pandemic really put a strain on remote or distributed workforce. And so how do we bring all of the employees back into a connected, collaborative mode?  


So we very quickly of course reacted to that near-term, but we've also I'd say future cast, and it's a pretty obvious future cast that we're looking at. This is the new way to work.  It's going to be a hybrid working model. And so what technologies can we bring that will make sure that we tie back the remote employees with the in person employees, such that you can have a uniform experience no matter how you're joining into a collaborative session? 

James Kotecki (08:44): 

At different points in the pandemic, depending on who you talked to, depending on their proclivity for wanting to go back to the office or stay at home, everybody had this different idea of how the future of work was going to unfold, not just in the next 10 years, but in the next 10 weeks. And it seemed like it was constantly changing. So was that a difficult environment to innovate in when it felt like so many different predictions of the future were coming at you so quickly? 

Tom Butler (09:07): 

Yeah. This rapid pace of change, rapid pace of innovation is coming from the pandemic. It really became a fuel or an accelerant for innovation. I mean, just think about the evolution of platforms to have video calls or conferencing. That was very infrequently used prior to the pandemic, and now it's used all the time, and we have multiple different platforms. And then reflect upon how quickly those evolved and changed and improved and brought new features. That changed the game. It really flipped the script for how we interacted with remote employees. Prior to pandemic, many of us in most companies, frankly, were using conference calls, and just having verbal discussions. Now we've pivoted to video calls. And you get more engagement, you get more connected. But that in turn brings distractions, visual distractions, and with limitations, interruptions, could be people passing behind you when you're working from home, dogs barking in the background, things of that nature. 


So we have fast forwarded out platforms as well to bring in different capabilities such as higher performance cameras, or better quality cameras, AI capabilities on the device to help with noise cancellation, removing some of the visual or auditory distractions out of background, such that you can best present yourself when joining into these collaborative virtual discussions. Part of your question was: How do we tie back to the individual, the business owner, the IT decision maker? Part of what we do at Lenovo, and one of our core or foundational strengths, engagement with the customer. So we're constantly in contact with the individuals, the consumer that's in all of us, the business owner, the IT decision maker, and we're bouncing off ideas. We're gathering inputs. We're gathering feedback from this broad set of customers, and then making changes and bringing in new technologies that can address their needs. 

James Kotecki (11:16): 

And are their specific tactics that you use to gather that kind of feedback when you are presenting people with a technology that they may not have used, maybe because it hasn't even been invented yet? In a sense, are you also asking your customers, "Imagine if you had this capability, what would it mean for you?" Do you have to kind of take them on a bit of a journey of imagination when you're trying to get this feedback?  

Tom Butler (11:39): 

That's exactly right. So we actually will craft out models, whether that's 2D that can be shared online, or three dimensional that can be shared in person, hold focus groups. We hold online surveys, discussions of that nature. We're also mining input that we see from reviews, from forums, from online discussions. So we use a variety of different tools to ensure that we're reaching a broad swath of customers. And again, to your point, sometimes we're having to set the stage and educate. Okay, so imagine if you get to this point, and here is this new problem that translates to technology, that translates to solution. It is a little bit of helping lead them down this path of, okay, so we're down to this point, now here's what we're thinking, and then get the feedback that way. 

James Kotecki (12:33): 

It seems like what we're talking about with the tools that you're putting in place to enable your customers to innovate, a lot of this has to do with collaboration. Is that really in some sense non synonymous with innovation, but is that the key pillar that is required for people to be innovative? Is it all about collaboration in your view, and what you're doing is enabling that in a more hybrid/remote way?  

Tom Butler (12:56): 

Truly is. I mean, innovation can't happen in a vacuum, so it relies heavily on collaboration. And that's really the strength that companies have when they come together and bring their employees together. So you've got to create a culture where your teams can easily work together to create and develop new ideas. As we've emerged into this hybrid working environment, we now have a blend of in person interactions and great remote collaboration. And that's what we're really focused on, is taking advantage of some of these new tools, capabilities. ThinkBook is aligned focus for the SMB teams to enhance the experience even further.  

James Kotecki (13:34): 

And are you thinking at all about situations where the collaboration is among both humans and some form of AI? I mean, it seems like every day we get new interesting news about the latest advances in AI's ability to generate text, to generate images, to generate new ideas. Do you at Lenovo think about the way that, call it non human actors, will be contributing factors to this kind of innovation and collaboration? 

Tom Butler (13:57): 

Yeah, certainly. There's really two fronts that we're already using or employing in innovation perspective. One, I mentioned pulling from forums, pulling from chats, pulling from reviews. We have basically employed AI engines to go scrape data, collect, aggregate, and then present out into a digestible format because you could imagine trying to crawl through chats, forums, reviews, all day long, every day. You wouldn't be able to do it, so we use AI capabilities already in place. And then that's presented out into a packaged format that my product management team can crawl through in a more digestible and efficient manner, and work towards those next problems or solutions. But the other side of this is AI actually is becoming a catalyst for some of the innovation and change that we're bringing into the platforms of today. Our devices that we're using and the solutions we're putting into market are becoming more aware of how they're being used, what they're being used for, where they're being used. And they can take or change dynamically based on your needs. 


So if you're on a video call and you need high performance put up for camera, you need noise canceling microphones, that platform can recognize in that example, and then prioritize and help augment the solution create a better solution. One more example, we focused a lot on the employee experience, but also inside that is a facet of employee health. How do we take care of ourselves in better ways? And so we've put AI algorithms on board that help recognize, hey, you've been in front of your computer staring at it for the last X number of hours. Give your eyes a break. Or you're bent over in front of your computer, sit back and straighten up your back. Because we recognized in this hybrid model and really the work from home model that was really dominant for the last couple of years, we're sitting in front of our chairs all day. We're on video calls all day back, to back, to back. And so we really tried to use that AI capability to help further improve the overall experience.  

James Kotecki (16:14): 

And do you find that most end users are generally comfortable with that level of AI insight? If you flash back far enough, I'm sure somebody might say, "Oh, I'd be uncomfortable with an AI knowing that I was slouching in front of my screen." Now I mean, I get notifications on my phone about my weekly screen time, and I can make all these settings. So maybe as a customer, maybe I'm already kind of trained to accept that. How do your customers generally react when they get this information?  

Tom Butler (16:38): 

Yeah. It's actually been very positive. It was interesting because I had the same thought. Is this going to be too intrusive? You're right. The focus on health just from a technology perspective over the past several years has really exploded in growth in terms of number of options, number of fitness trackers, wearables, even their phones, as you've talked about. And so as we introduce this, we're always very careful. We do not want the device or the technology to be intrusive on the day to day. We're very overt about what this is. It's a very simple digestible, and of course, you can opt in, opt out. But we present it as, here is capability we can provide you if interested. And certainly if you don't, knock it out. But candidly, vast majority of our customers that we've shown this to and shared this with have really liked this, and have recognized this is a significant problem that we're all facing, sitting in front of a system all day long for many hours, and so it's been welcomed, actually.  

James Kotecki (17:39): 

I'm almost a little bit afraid to let the AI know how much I've actually been slouching, or I'm afraid to find out how much can tell me that. So Lenovo is a big company, a large business. We want to talk about innovation and how you support small and mid sized businesses. What's the line that you see there between those two? When you're talking about enabling innovation for small to mid sized businesses, is there something uniquely different about what you have to do as Lenovo versus how you enable that for your larger customers? 

Tom Butler (18:10): 

The ThinkBook portfolio was created specifically for small and mid sized businesses. And the reason for it is because when we do think of SMBs, they do have some unique challenges. They might have smaller workforces, or smaller IT staff, but they're still navigating hybrid working. They're also challenged to attract and retain the best talent, especially as they go up against larger companies. So with ThinkBook, we focused on giving them robust, powerful laptops that offer the flexibility to support remote working, and the features to boost productivity and collaboration with that mindset of, they may or may not have a budget given to the individual, where they've been able to blow and build out a full home office, multiple monitor, speaker, camera, et cetera. So we need to make sure that we're providing the laptop that can be that device for no matter where they are.  


A second piece of this is the ThinkBooks look great too. That's becoming more important for the new generation of workers. And candidly, the fact that many of us are working outside of the office and want the device to represent us as individuals at the same time. So we focused a lot on not only the capabilities, but also the ID, the design, such that it can operate sort of the best of both worlds, whether it's home or the office. 

James Kotecki (19:30): 

When we talk about a new generation of workers, some folks who entered the workforce the last two or three years, they don't have a mental model of going into the office every day. This quote, unquote, new normal of hybrid and/or remote work, that's just normal for them. That's their current and only model of what it means to be in the working world. Does that change the way that Lenovo thinks about how it will design and innovate on its own products as those people increasingly become a larger and larger portion of the workforce? 

Tom Butler (19:58): 

It certainly does. Really, everything we do now is focused on how we build for the new normal, which is this hybrid model. Every single company, every single customer I talk with worldwide, and I spend a lot of time doing this, has moved to a hybrid model, where they are working, it could be a couple of days or three days a week, they're in office, or out of the office, vice versa. Or it could be completely remote, virtual. And you're right, if you think about the new incoming workforce that have been in university, they of course had to go into a learn from home or learn in place model for a time, and been a hybrid, where they've got remote or geographically dispersed. That's how we work on a go forward basis, full stop. 


And so as we look at not only the devices, but also how we attract and bring in new talent, it's really around great employee experience. It's that simple. Today's workforce, all of us, are digital natives. And we expect to be enabled with technologies that put us in control of how, where, when we work, the ability to seamlessly move between work and home, or work and life balance. That's really what we do with everything we're working towards. 

James Kotecki (21:16): 

Despite all of the advances in hybrid and remote work, there is something undeniably special about meeting up in person at least once in a while. And of course, we're going to be doing that very soon at CES 2023. The main theme of CES 2023 is human security for all. So I just wanted to give you a chance. What does that mean to Lenovo? Does that resonate with you and your brand?  

Tom Butler (21:39): 

Absolutely. So if you think about it, now more than ever, everything we do is centered around taking care of the individual. I alluded a little bit earlier to some of the AI intelligence we built into take care of you from a health perspective. But if you think about human security for all, it's not only about the individual. It translates to the business owner, to companies overall. As a key technology provider, Lenovo, we're truly focused on delivering safe and secure computing and technology. And by that, it goes beyond the traditional security we provide to protect against cyber threats. And we have a broad, overarching platform called ThinkShield, which we apply to all devices, services, software and solutions we bring to market. 


But we're focused now on the health and wellbeing of the person. I talked about the AI prompts. We bring in eye safe certified, low blue light panels, again, to take care of your eyes, as example. But we also have a strong focus on environmental, social, and governance, or ESG, which has become top of mind for all customers I talk with now. So now that's putting focus on: How do we take care of the planet in a better way? Or how do we ensure that we're developing and delivering to the needs of all individuals, and in a safe and secure environment? We are focusing more on bringing sustainable materials into our devices. We're going to completely plastics free packaging as we ship our platforms. And ultimately, it comes back to that meeting the mantra that human security for all, so it's human security in the context of secure, safe, environmentally sustainable. There's a broad reach that we have. And so this really just opens up the new direction we're moving towards. 

James Kotecki (23:26): 

And that broader multifaceted context is exactly what human security for all is meant to represent in terms of health, environmental, wellbeing of humans on so many different levels and so many different pillars, and that's going to be represented in a lot of different ways at the show, so I'm glad you were able to share Lenovo's perspective on that. Tom Butler of Lenovo, thanks so much for coming on the show, and we'll see you at CES 2023.  

Tom Butler (23:50): 

It's been my pleasure. Thank you. 

James Kotecki (23:52): 

Well, that's our show for now, but there's always more tech to talk about. Here's a preview of the next CES Tech Talk. 

Speaker 3 (23:59): 

Walking down the halls of CES, there is just nothing like it. Seeing the energy and the enthusiasm from our exhibitors, it's something so special and so magical that you can only experience in person. 

Speaker 4 (24:12): 

CES is a show of big companies and small companies. And even in the past couple of years, we've just seen so many advancements in different types of technology, whether it because healthcare, whether it be work at home technologies, audio, video techs, automobile technologies. I'm just excited to see all the new technology on display.  

Speaker 5 (24:28): 

It's such a great feeling to have people rediscover each other after these dark two or three years. 

James Kotecki (24:33): 

Please subscribe to this podcast so you don't miss a moment, and get more CES at That's ces dot T-E-C-H. Our show is produced by Nicole Vidovich with Mason Manuel and Kristin Miller, recorded by Andrew Lynn and edited by Third Spoon. I'm James Kotecki, talking tech on CES Tech Talk.