Design Thinking in HR – What are the Leaders Saying?

SHRM India Content Team

Jul 24, 2017

India: Design Thinking in HR – What are the Leaders Saying?

Design thinking is one of the trending buzzwords in the business functions. It is now being viewed as a multi-disciplinary, non-linear approach to view business challenges from a fresh perspective. Given its positive impact on the bottom line outcomes, several global corporate giants such as IBM, Google, CISCO, Citrix Systems, GE and Apple have already embraced design thinking as their core strategy. In India, design thinking is still a relatively new practice, but it is gaining momentum.

Understanding Design Thinking

The first impression about design thinking is that it is closely related to visual appeal. While the concept has been borrowed from designers, because they apply a high degree of creativity to their work, its application in the business terms goes beyond aesthetics. Initially, design thinking was mainly constrained to product designs, but today, it is widely applied to business processes and systems as well.

It brilliantly blends the concepts of creativity (design) and rationale (thinking) to provide an innovative framework to look into business problems and opportunities. Hence, design thinking is a creative problem-solving approach that deploys various elements such as intuition, ingenuity, experiments, data, logic and insight to arrive at solutions which appeal to a larger audience (employees, customers, other stakeholders) and give a competitive edge to the business.

Design Thinking in HR

Design thinking has penetrated almost every field of the business, including human resources. HR is a function specifically created for people. However, it has been observed that people practices developed by HR often fail to create an engaging experience for employees. So, in HR's context, the principles of design thinking are applied to answer human-cantered questions and challenge assumptions. It comprises developing an in-depth understanding of people for whom solutions are being designed and involve them in the process so as to come up with out-of-the-box ideas to enhance their workplace experiences.

HR follows the similar design thinking framework that was proposed by the Hasso - Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (also known as Stanford d. school), and has been accepted generally worldwide:

  • Empathize: understand people by observing, engaging, watching and listening.
  • Define: craft a meaningful and actionable problem statement.
  • Ideate: explore the widest possible range of ideas from which you can select, not simply finding a single, best solution.
  • Prototype: start building rough drafts and test them to learn about improvements/corrections required.
  • Test: allow people to experience the prototype and seek feedback on their experience, and redefine the problem statement if the solution fails to deliver the desired outcome.

    This framework was discussed in detail during the SHRM Mumbai Forum on Design Thinking held on 24th January, 2017, at ISDI – Indian School for Design & Innovation, in partnership with Talentpool. Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, the design and consulting firm, and one of the forum panellists, emphasized that empathy and creativity should not be overlooked by the organizations in the design thinking process. He explained that we could be the guru of HR, but if we don't communicate with the people and understand what they are feeling or thinking, we cannot make our solutions work. At the same time, creativity will help find people solutions that are better than the competition.

    Employee Experience at the Heart of Design Thinking

    With the business world becoming more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous (VUCA) than ever; millennials reshaping the workplaces; and workforce demographics shifting towards diversity, the employees' expectation of their jobs is undergoing through the phase of a seismic transformation. Instead of being rooted traditionally in one job, employees now interested in more transient and enriching careers. This swing in employee expectations has made talent search and retention a most arduous task for organizations. The 2016 Mercer Global Talent Trends Study reveals that the competition from emerging markets, especially in India, Asia and North America is compounding the challenge of attracting and retaining the right talent to fuel future growth. So, organizations are now looking at providing career-building experiences that talent desires.

    It is also believed that if organizations enhance the employee experience, it will lead to a superior customer experience on its own. The way you value your employees, they will also value your customers in an analogous manner. This is another reason that HR is now working actively towards crafting employee experiences. According to A Forrester Consulting Thought Leadership Paper Commissioned by Dell, 43 per cent of business and technology leaders in India feel the need to improve employee experience to meet business priorities.

    Employees are the internal customers of organizations and their perception of their workplaces matter at every touch point during the entire employment lifecycle, right from hiring to exit. No matter how many organizations employees are associated with or change over a course of time, they will always carry the everlasting impression of the one that provided the best or worst experience.

    To help create meaningful employee experiences, HR has to consider making people the part of solutions to look at a particular problem or a challenge from their point of view. It is here that design thinking can make all the difference. Abhijit Bhaduri, Chief Learning Officer at Wipro, in an interview with HR Katha said, "When you are working on one policy that fits all, design thinking is a must." Design thinking enables HR to do the things that employees actually want and not what HR thinks employees want. The resulting solutions, practices and programs will be the ones that employees expect to feel workplace satisfaction and improve their work productivity.

    The renowned IT company Infosys is one of the very few organizations which has a systematic design thinking process aimed to enhance the employee experience. It has initiated a model called 'Zero Distance' to increase opportunities for innovation among employees and optimize their problem-solving skill-sets. It also conducts design thinking workshops to empower and change the mind-set of its workforce. So far, it has trained over 36,000 employees in design thinking principles.

    In an article on Design, in Financial Express, Vishal Sikka, CEO of Infosys, sharing his thoughts on design thinking, said, "In my experience, design thinking is a great approach to help us find problems, to help us see what is not there, to help us see something that is not visible or not directly in front of us. We are all trained to solve problems specified to us, but we are rarely trained to identify what is not there, and design thinking is a great mechanism, a great technique to systematically uncover some highly-relevant problems that are feasible to solve."

    Design Thinking and Culture

    Building an innovative culture is a challenge that most organizations across the world, including India, face. Even if all processes and systems are in order, the performance of the organizations may still take a hit if innovation is not happening. In such a scenario, culture itself becomes the root cause of employee grievances. Design thinking helps HR to bring employees on the table, brainstorm with them to co-create cultural changes required in the organization, and empower them to become the champions of culture. Design thinking breeds ground for innovation through cultural changes.

    Marico, the leading FMCG Company in India, has a program called Innovation Jams to crowd source novel ideas for products and processes from employees. This program not only generates pioneering ideas, but also fosters a transparent culture in the organization. Harsh Mariwala, Chairman of Marico, in an article in Brand Equity, while sharing his views on design thinking said, "Design thinking is part of innovation. So it cannot be just a separate design team put in place. The culture in an organization has to be innovative to think outside the box and then design capabilities come in. I think the larger platform has to be innovation, of which design thinking will be a part."

    Design Thinking and Learning

    While Learning and Development (L&D) is one of the important tools to engage employees, it often doesn't yield desired results. This is because conventional L & D content is usually generic and does not take into account individual employee's learning personas such as strategic learners, surface learners and deep learners. Irrespective of their skill requirement, they are overwhelmed with information that may not necessarily bear impact on their performance and productivity. Employees usually demand L&D programs which are short and relevant, and can be attended on the go on their mobile handsets. Design thinking enables HR to adaptive content which is experiential, personalized and intuitive and content based on employees' preferences and needs, and can be accessed digitally, 24/7 from anywhere.

    Essentially, design thinking is a mind set and behavioural economics that HR can apply to any problem solving situation with respect to talent. With the help of design thinking, HR can learn to walk in the shoes of employees, see the world from their eyes, and then assume the role an architect to create the best possible employee experiences.

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