Applying design thinking to organisational learning and development

  • DeakinCo.
  • 18 June 2018

Applying design thinking to your organisational learning processes

Organisational learning and development is a pillar of business competitiveness, but the old approaches to training may be quickly becoming obsolete. With the rapid pace of technology upgrades and wide availability of information, creative and innovative approaches to personalised, continuous learning is essential for organisations.

Design thinking is a novel approach that can help your business find highly personalised and contextualised learning and development solutions. If you're looking to change up the way you help staff develop, you'll want to consider design thinking for your organisation.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a process of innovation that uses a human-centered and prototype-driven approach. It seeks to create solutions that are at the same time desirable (based on user needs), feasible (from a technical point of view) and viable (from a financial perspective).  In organisations, it can be applied to product and service development as well as business design, including something as specialised as learning and development for employees.

Design thinking is both a process and a mindset. It uses rapid-prototyping techniques to better understand what's happening with learning and development in your enterprise so you can develop a learning and performance solution that addresses what your employees really need.

The concept of design thinking originally arose from product and service development, when organisations were looking for a way to refine products and services. Businesses would constantly seek customer feedback and involvement for product improvement. Today, design thinking has been brought into other parts of the organisation, and in employee learning and development it's gaining a foothold.

As doing business becomes more complicated, organisations' problems also increase in complexity. It's no longer sufficient to use one-size-fits-all training solutions or rely on upgrading technology tools. Businesses need to leverage innovative problem-solving approaches like design thinking to enhance their learning and development programs.

Stages of design thinking applied to learning and development

Design thinking involves different stages, which appear linear on the page, but are iterative in practice. The name given to each stage can vary depending on the school of design thinking, but the general aim and nature of the stage remains consistent with the following flow:

  • Understanding – In the understanding phase, you explore what your business and employees need. You look at what's possible given your business context. The focus is on "empathising" with employees or looking at learning and development needs from the employee's perspective. This stage might also be called or overlap with what's known as the intelligence-gathering stage or the observing stage.
  • Synthesis – The insights have been collected, so now you structure them and determine which issues you'll be tackling, reframing your original problem statement. At this stage, you can create a persona to help you keep the user in mind as you create and prototype potential solutions.
  • Explore or ideate – At this stage, you start exploring the types of solutions that could address the employees’ learning and development needs and the organisation’s performance needs. The focus is on creating a high quantity of ideas, often using brainstorming techniques to explore wild and crazy ideas before choosing the concepts that have the most potential to meet the needs of the persona.
  • Prototype – During the prototype stage, one or more concepts from your ideation stage will be prototyped. This involves building a low-fidelity, inexpensive, but tangible version of the chosen ideas with which the users can interact during Test phase.
  • Test – During the test stage, you'll test the prototype to work out whether it solves the problem for the persona. You might find out more about the user at this stage and return to iterating your solution. Note the exploration, prototyping, and testing stages can blend together.
  • Evolve – Once you've developed and implemented the learning and development solution, continuous improvement is vital. This stage emphasizes the feasibility and viability of the solution for implementation. Similar tools from the Test stage can be used to keep reviewing, understanding, and refining the solution.

Advantages of design thinking in learning and development

Design thinking in learning and development offers numerous potential advantages for organisations. It opens up the possibility of understanding your learning and development challenges more deeply and implementing a learning and performance solutions that aligns much more closely with your employees' needs.

Human-centred innovation

Design thinking helps your organisation leverage human-centred innovation. By using the stages of design thinking to innovate how you develop learning and development programs, you continuously improve upon your processes by drawing on real-world data, from co-creators and user feedback. Rather than relying on theoretical research or historical experience, you're using real-time feedback, gathered through iteration of learning programs, to adjust, refine, and improve.

This can result in a much more considered solution to your organisational learning need, since you're looking deeply at learners' needs and workflows. You could end up obtaining a better understanding of the problem and redefine your learning and development challenge.

Continuous improvement

The rapid-prototyping approach to learning and development systems starts with a deep understanding of the problem. Then you keep developing, testing, improving, and prototyping the learning system rapidly until you end up with the right training program. This can result in a continuous improvement approach that helps your organisation find an optimal learning and development setup that fits your employees' unique skill gaps closely.

Overcome filters

Every organisation and its leadership has its filters or biases, and these ways of looking at things can support you to understand problem-solving and decision-making. At the same time, when it comes to learning and development, your filters can hold you back. For example, if you're already focused on mobile learning, you might be naturally biased towards mobile approaches to learning.

A design-thinking approach to learning and development helps you review the problem through another lens and look at it deeply. Your organisation is then better placed to design a suitable solution for your learners, and the solution will be learner and business focused.

Open-minded

Compared to other learning and development approaches, a design-thinking-developed program doesn't start with a defined outcome. The goal is to keep the solution as undefined as possible so you can look deeply at the problem and come up with the right solution without being bound to preconceived notions about what the answer is. This open-minded approach can result in an innovative, creative answer to your employees' learning and development requirements.

How design thinking can help overcome ingrained processes

As humans, we tend towards repetitive activities and rely on commonly used knowledge. This pattern of behaviour applies to how we behave at work. It's easier to base our thinking and actions on how we've done things before and on things we already know, rather than to formulate a new approach every time.

These ingrained ways of learning and developing can help us get things done more quickly, especially when we're confronted with similar or familiar contexts at work. However, these ingrained processes, also known as schema, can also prevent staff members from seeing things in new ways and solving problems.

In a sense, we're on automatic when we rely on this schema, so using design thinking to ensure learning is contextualised and relevant can help your organisation overcome ingrained approaches to problem solving.

Strategies for design thinking for learning and development

Design thinking for learning and development could be your organisation's best competitive advantage in an environment where technology is advancing rapidly and information is readily available. Learning and development become a continuous process because your staff need ongoing upgrades to stay ahead of the market. Having a design thinking program in place, ideally with the help of outside experts, is essential.

Involve the audience

Work closely with the employees and staff members so you can empathise with them through both observation and engaging interviews. Co-design workshops are a great way to get as close to the audience as possible, as these workshops create an ideal environment for gathering the qualitative data you need to create the best learning and development program.

Use personas

As mentioned above, using personas can help you design an empathetic, specific, and personal learning and development program. In defining personas, explore what the person thinks, feels, and does on particular issues. Look at their needs, pain points, workflow, and day, and consider how they currently learn and access information.

Detach from your ideas

The design-thinking approach won't work if anyone is attached to their ideas. “Orphan your ideas” and avoid getting attached to them. Brainstorming is a team sport. Some ideas will fail instantly while others will be picked up and be followed through and implemented. In the creative design-thinking environment, there's no room for emotional attachment. The quicker you can release ideas that won't work, the faster you'll be able to iterate and find the best solution.

Design thinking is both a process and mindset that helps you discover the best possible learning and development solutions to improve performance. Since it's designed to be human-centred and highly contextualised, organisations can take advantage of it to find better ways to support learning. Its open-ended approach and rapid-prototyping process mean businesses can discard old ways of looking at things and come up with options that reflect unique development needs.

DeakinCo. designs purpose-built learning and performance solutions to equip organisations with the skills to succeed both now and in the future. We can collaborate with you by using design thinking principles to solve your performance challenges. Our experts will work with you to co-create a tailored solution for your team. To find out more, explore our success stories or contact us for a discussion today.