Design Thinking and the Learning & Development function

There is a wide-spread sense that learning and development functions have not responded at all well to changes in organisations, the work place and the wider environment. As Charles Jennings has identified here, these changes include: the development of the web; organisations increasingly operating on network principles as well as the recognition of the importance of informal and social learning [I don’t really see informal and social learning as new but rather amplified by new technologies, especially social media and more recognised and valued in organisations]. The argument runs that the world of training courses and procedures of comprehensive learning design such as ADDIE no longer cuts it. What does this mean for the L&D function, for Clark Quinn

It’s got to be about culture, and learning together skills, and facilitating productive information interchange and productive interactions.

Which brings me to Tim Brown’s article on design thinking as integrative, optimistic, experimental, empathic and collaborative in visualising and realising desired future states. So, I began thinking what opportunities the discipline design thinking provides for the L&D function?

What is design thinking

Design thinking is a world of idea generation, execution and continuous refinements and improvements – it is about products, services, experiences, organisation and structuring in perpetual beta .

“The idea is that any problem can be approached from an experiential, observational, hands-on manner. Watch and listen, figure out the problem, then solve it”. (The World as Prototype)

A design thinker should be curious in understanding and empathising with real peoples’ behaviours and emotions and seeking to play, to iterate, experiment and prototype. So what does this mean for learning and development? Well, I would say too much of ‘business as usual’ L&D is that it is enamoured of a world as it should be – it should be systematic and planned (and plannable), complicated rather than complex. Sometimes it is but often it is not.  And where it often is not also tends to be where organisations generate the most value – in thinking work. So L&D needs to adopt a designerly approach in its practice, to really understand how the actual work gets done and then probe, sense and respond in experimenting to support performance by individuals, groups and the organisation itself. It is not good enough to operate as if the world works as you want it to or think it should. Rather, L&D should work in the often uncomfortable embrace of the mess of reality where what worked yesterday, may not work today – where learning is the constant practice.


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