Human Resources

Applying Design Thinking for Employee-Driven Solutions

By EverwiseMay 24, 2017

The business operating environment has transformed over the past decade with the development of technology. While the amount of time, risk and financial investment in new products used to be relatively large, businesses can now leverage real-time consumer data to constantly evolve existing products and test out entirely new ones. The cost and risk to experiment has substantially decreased.

This drastic increase in the pace of business is pushing organizations to revamp their product and service management and development processes. As a result, a concept called “design thinking” was created to increase organizations’ agility and enable them to quickly implement feedback and new ideas as they arise.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is an approach to generating new solutions that specifically meet customer or stakeholder needs. At the core of the process is an iterative methodology for problem solving that begins by focusing on the customer’s needs and values and then creates intuitive solutions that deliver directly against them.

The design thinking progression includes the following stages: immersing oneself in a customer’s problem; seeking insight from company data and analogous industries; prototyping and iterating concepts; and testing these potential solutions.

By connecting companies to their consumers, effective design thinking generates new ideas and approaches, raises talent engagement, bridges previously siloed disciplines, and saves money. Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends research revealed that the more an organization values and prioritizes design thinking, the faster the organization grows. As such, 79% of executives have rated design thinking as an important or very important issue.

Sounds great, right? So now you might be wondering:

How does design thinking apply to human resources?

HR has traditionally been grounded in programs and processes to train people, assess performance, ensure compliance, and document various practices. These are generally built around forms, formal events, and long lists of process steps. The complexity of these programs – once viewed as an asset for its attention to detail – often become a barrier to productivity, as employees are bombarded with email after email, instant messages from co-workers, meetings, and other workplace distractions.

Thus, applied correctly, design thinking would shift HR’s focus by viewing the employee as a “customer” and designing a productive, meaningful “customer experience” through solutions that are simple, compelling, and enjoyable. As such, it represents an opportunity for HR to reshape how it interacts with the rest of the organization and redesign its own procedures to ensure positive employee interactions.

This customer experience can be far reaching and include the re-thinking of employees’ physical environment; how managers spend their time; and how companies engage, train and evaluate employees.

How can HR leaders take this customer-centric approach to improve processes and planning?

Just as successful companies continually seek to improve their customer’s experience and how it compares to that of to their competitors’, HR leaders can approach employee experiences by asking the same questions.

In their new role as designers, talent leaders should ask: How can HR take the lead in crafting and shaping the employee – aka “customer” – experience? How can HR design overall experiences that engage employees at all stages, from candidates through alumni (e.g., throughout the “purchase” decision process)? Equally important, how can HR help build and reinforce design capabilities throughout the organization to improve employee engagement at every level?

There are many HR leaders already applying design thinking and seeing positive change within their organizations. For example, Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends highlights one Australian government agency, which developed eight “employee personas” in its process of designing a new HR portal. Through this exercise, the agency discovered that just under two-thirds of its 45,000 employees were in fact field workers who functioned independently and, therefore, did not use company-sponsored technology.

Through surveys and focus groups, the agency uncovered practical insights around communication, collaboration and knowledge management, and self-service administration across all personas that were surprising at the time. For example, the agency’s remote employees were highly frustrated with their inability to access their work schedules, submit absence requests, or order uniforms using their personal technology. These insights guided the systems design, and today, the employee persona profiles are a standard component of the agency’s orientation program.

Other companies are using design thinking to improve their learning offerings. For example, Decker Brands, Nestle, and Qualcomm have used design thinking to develop highly intuitive, experiential learning programs. These programs begin with the individual and the context of an employee’s work rather than a model in which the presenter is the focus. They offer learning programs that are more personalized – and therefore stimulating and engaging – and lead to higher skills retention on a continuous basis.

Others are applying design thinking to their candidate recruitment process. The Talent Board has found that more than half of candidates who find a company’s job application process difficult will develop a negative impression of the company. Based on this data point and others, Zappos has re-designed the candidate experience to attract high-performing candidates and make it easy for them to find the right job and seamlessly submit an application by communicating with them through their Zappos Insider Program.

Beyond recruiting, learning, and other HR processes, design thinking has also been used to improve performance management and coaching at companies like Adobe, and Autodesk, and New York Life. GE in particular has applied design thinking in order to develop a simplified model for performance management, new mobile apps for goal management and collaboration, and a new set of principles for work to help teams “do less and focus more.”

Where can my team start?

Successful design thinking integrates an understanding of human behavior. What motivates people? How do they see themselves? What do they value? How do they express those values in typical office behavior? In seeking to answer these questions, HR teams do not have to start from scratch. Often, they can look inside the organization for ideas and inspiration. So start by learning from other departments in your company already applying design-thinking. Take time to observe what day-to-day life is like throughout the organization.

As you gauge your own organization’s status quo, have your team also learn from other companies already using design thinking in their customer service and employee programs. Visit great retail stores, restaurants, or universities. Your team can leverage the lessons learned from these various examples to innovate in their HR re-design.

Sample Design Thinking Process Map

Source: Deloitte Consulting LLP

Once you’ve gathered this data and seen design thinking in action – either in other parts of your organization or elsewhere – jump in with your team.

Design thinking’s four principles – prototype, pilot, test, and learn – can be distilled into three steps: innovate, test, and implement. Leverage models to examine complex problems; use prototypes to test potential solutions; and learn from failure. While failure is obviously not the goal, learning and iterating will ultimately result in better solutions that improve productivity, boost engagement, and increase employee satisfaction.

While design thinking may involve significant changes to workplaces, systems, processes, and other business elements, its focus is on people. Done well, design thinking will promote a continuous cycle of ever increasing employee satisfaction, engagement, and productivity for your organization.




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