Many feel that L&D is slipping behind the times in terms of delivering what learners need; we discuss how design thinking could help to reinvigorate the field and help it better meet the needs of those it serves.

What is Design Thinking and How Can It Help L&D?

In many organisations, the way people learn remains fairly traditional; there is often a curriculum of courses that individuals can choose from to enable their professional development and an L&D function to support this process. this approach is still heavily relied on in many places despite the radical changes that have occurred in the workplace. things like shifting demographics, the introduction of new technologies and new approaches to ‘smart working’ mean that the traditional approach to L&D is no longer the best fit in the majority of cases. the needs of learners have changed, but the provision of learning has yet to. this disparity is ultimately contributing to skills gaps and inefficiencies in working practices. But while this is a well-known issue in many companies, there remains uncertainty around how to address the challenge; L&D departments know that they need to change, but often can’t work out how or in what way. A complex challenge such as this is not something that will be quickly resolved through standard methods, such as team discussions; it requires an innovative approach that is focussed on solving complex issues, and this is where design thinking can help.

Design thinking is a standardised approach which is intended to address ‘wicked problems’ i.e. those that are ill-defined and difficult to combat. the method is used to help solve problems through a design mind-set, using a solution focussed approach where individuals or teams strive towards a goal (e.g. wanting to design a more engaging L&D offering) rather than solving a specific problem. the concept is typically associated with David Kelly of IDEO, but actually has origins in Herbert Simon’s 1969 book ‘the Science of the Artificial’, and is normally associated with physical product design. However design thinking can actually be used to solve a wide range of businesses challenges, and is just as applicable to the L&D department as any other area, because L&D does offer a product, it just isn’t a physical one.

Depending on the source you choose there are normally four of five stages to design thinking; below we outline the five stage approach, and investigate how each phase could help L&D create better learning interventions for employees.

Stage One – Empathise

this is the phase where you try and understand the current experience of the users you support. For an L&D team this will involve actively using the current tools, processes and support available to

understand where frustrations lie, as well as getting feedback from the users themselves. Once you understand where individuals are coming from you can start to build a better picture of what the problem is, which leads directly to the next stage.

Stage Two – Define the Problem

Is the problem a clunky and difficult to navigate booking system, is it poor quality learning interventions, is it lack of relevant development opportunities? there are a thousand areas where change may be needed in an L&D function, and it may be that the solution needs to address any one of these, or several. this process will be much better supported by the involvement of a diverse range of people, including users, operations, managers, and other relevant stakeholders. Get everyone together to understand the fundamental problem(s); keep breaking it down until everything you think possible has been addressed, and then find a way to define it. the definition of the problem is extremely important as it will inherently influence the solution you subsequently develop.

For example, ‘how do we make our L&D programmes more engaging?’ is very different to ‘how do we create a culture of learning that engages the maximum number of people and boosts their performance?’ Keep re-working the definition until something evolves that really focusses on the fundamental need.

Stage Three – Come up with Ideas

this can be one of the most fun stages of the process as it is an opportunity for everyone to throw up suggestions with wild abandon; there should be no limits or boundaries placed on the ideas no matter how weird, wonderful or wacky they may seem initially. As with the definition stage, a diverse range of individuals should be involved to help generate the most ideas possible; having a wide range of options to choose from, based on a variety of perspectives, will ensure the best potential solutions can later be identified.

Stage Four – Prototype

the ideas identified in stage three can then be further refined and re-assessed until the most appropriate and feasible ideas are picked out and prototyped where possible. In L&D this isn’t always easy as many of the solutions may be theoretical at this stage, however finding ways to trial solutions before deciding on the best one(s) will help reduce delays and extra cost down the line. In some instances the ideas identified in stage three may ultimately turn out to be impractical, and it may be that an alternative solution would be better. the only way to know for sure is to test it out; of course for L&D this isn’t always easy to do, especially when seeking to implement a wide scale change, but finding ways to experiment with ideas before they are fully rolled-out will be incredibly important to prevent time and money being unnecessarily wasted. In the L&D arena it may require the use of pilot programmes, focus groups or user experience tests, and if desired outcomes aren’t met, it may be that stage three needs revisiting and further solutions explored.

Stage Five – Test and Implement

this is where the most promising ideas are developed and rolled-out, but it’s important to be aware that this remains a testing phase as well. While as much as possible should have been done to iron out any issues during the first four stages, it may be that unforeseen outcomes or drawbacks do come to light, so it’s important to maintain vigilance to identify and rectify any additional challenges. these may not be issues that can be resolved immediately, but they certainly need to be noted for future progress. Gathering feedback and views on the new solution will enable action to be taken more swiftly and help limit any further disruption.

Designing the ideal learning and development approach for your organisation is a complex challenge; there are a lot of elements that require consideration such as the needs of your employees, the strategic vision of the business, costs, resources and desired outcomes. But these issues are exactly why many L&D departments would benefit from using an alternative approach to learning design, often these challenges can blind people to the possibilities around them, and by taking a design thinking approach, it can help break down barriers and enable more innovative solutions to come to light. However design thinking isn’t the only approach available; there are many methods and tools that can be used to help promote more creative solutions to emerge. Approaches such as creative Problem Solving, Lean thinking, and others can also be implemented to help L&D departments (and other areas of the business) uncover new ways of working that will not only benefit the employees, but the organisation as a whole.

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