Two years ago, Rob Campbell, Cerner Corp.’s chief learning officer, had a problem. His company had created new software for physicians, but it had to get them to use it.
Traditionally Campbell would have researched what skills the doctors needed to use the software, put together a task analysis and used the data to find out whether those skills would be delivered best through an instructor-led classroom session or an e-learning program.
But Campbell didn’t want to be traditional. Instead, he applied design thinking, a method of problem solving that takes a human-centric approach to identify what needs to be fixed and how to make changes that satisfy the requirements of the people involved. The practice isn’t new, but learning leaders are starting to recognize its benefits for their work, as it streamlines problem-solving and helps to create programs that meet individual and organization-wide needs.
Identify and Attack
To solve a problem, one has to identify that there is one. That seems easy enough, but problems don’t always arrive neatly wrapped with a tag that says, “fix me.” Sometimes dysfunction is simply a symptom of a greater quandary. Other times, a small quirk is the root of all problems.
Design thinking can act as an expert mechanic. Not only can it fix a clunking sound in the engine, but also it can help identify what caused it to begin with and if it is an indication of problems to come.
Clive Dym, professor emeritus at Harvey Mudd College and a leader in design thinking, said design thinking looks at the problem as well as the intended objectives to decide what outcomes are most important and what may stand in the way.
In Campbell’s case, he knew getting doctors to use Cerner’s software meant more than getting them to adopt the skills needed to operate it. Instead of asking the obvious questions like what he needed to teach them and how he needed to deliver the training, he asked why the company should care that physicians used the new program in the first place.
The answer included many benefits, including more efficient workflow and the ability to keep patients safer. From this list, his team realized the broader issue wasn’t just learning but behavior adoption. They needed to find out how to get physicians to engage with the program and its subject matter.
“That wasn’t going to happen if we sent them to a class that had a tick mark next to their name whether they had attended, nor was it going to happen through skills training and actually having assessments,” Campbell said. “It was really about behavior change on the job.”
At design and innovation consultant Ideo, design thinking plays a similar role in determining what clients need. Sandy Speicher, managing director of Ideo’s education practice, said its process begins with empathy — looking at what people care about, what they wish for and what hidden desires they have.
Designing the Solution
Once these problems and individual needs are identified, design thinking aims to get around them or to use social, environmental and structural influencers. To Campbell, that meant identifying opinion leaders Cerner could get on board early to connect with doctors through one-on-one sessions that introduced the programs’ purpose and benefits.
They created a concierge-style initiative that put Cerner experts side-by-side with physicians in the program’s initial stages so they would have immediate help learning to use the software. They also established what Campbell called a SWAT team that would be on call for physicians who were most reluctant to adapt.
All of these solutions revolved around how people act, which meant observing behavior. Speicher said asking questions isn’t enough to learn what’s needed because it’s difficult to explain how learning happens. People are willing to describe formal settings they’ve been in, but rarely can they explain how they learned something.
When working on a project, Ideo deploys employees with backgrounds in social science to observe how people naturally engage in the world while doing aspects of learning such as collecting input and discovering new information outside of the classroom. When the company started a project designing tablets for middle schoolers, its investigators hung out with the students outside of school to understand how they interacted with the world, consumed information and created when not hampered by an academic surrounding.
Ideo is not alone in its observational approach. Steelcase Inc. works with companies to meet their needs, including visiting their place of business. “We especially observe what’s working and what’s not, and what kind of work-around workers have created to get around the problem,” said Sean Corcorran, the company’s general manager of education.
The process doesn’t end with identifying unmet needs and creating a solution. Design thinking also requires that solutions be tested by the people who will use them. At Steelcase, Corcorran said they iterate the process until they find the exact fix. Speicher said the same of Ideo, where designers use feedback to continually improve their projects.
Similarly, the go-live date for Campbell’s software wasn’t the finish line. His team tracked and identified which doctors used it and talked to those who didn’t to learn why. They were able to figure out a better way to explain the reasons for the software that got even the most reluctant physicians interested: by emphasizing the amount of time they could save each day by using it.
This human-centric attitude is a common thread in design thinking. Dym said another facet of the approach is, “The idea that you’re designing for people, so you need to look at who are the customers, what do they want, what are their limits, what are their availabilities, what do they really want and how do you appeal to them?”
Modified Mindset, More Value
Appealing to customers is key for business success, and Campbell said using design thinking helped Cerner achieve its goal to integrate its product into physicians’ offices so well that the company adopted the approach for other endeavors.
Business strategy also improves with the approach, as seen in a digital platform for corporate learning completed by Ideo and Apollo Education Group Inc. Using design thinking, they were able to see their clients didn’t need to create a product that rivaled other adult-centered educational institutions, they needed to counter non-learning activities that distract from learning, such as entertainment.
“When an adult is sitting down and ready to focus on learning, their biggest competition is ‘Game of Thrones,’” Speicher said. “What people are looking for is to relax, and how do we bring those principles of storytelling, of entertainment into how we present content so we keep more people with us as they’re going online to explore new content?”
The result was a learning platform that catered to the audience’s need for bite-size nuggets of information and entertainment rather than education.
Design thinking also can affect learning leaders’ short-term goals as well as ensure future program success. “If you implement it right, you’re doing more than preparing them for the go-live or getting the behavior change you want,” Campbell said. “You’re creating a learning culture and a learning organization.”
Design thinking can even increase innovation. Corcorran said Steelcase has used the process to develop learning environments for seven years and has introduced successful products into the market because they identify with and meet workers’ needs.
“All companies try to differentiate themselves,” Corcorran said. “If you really want to innovate, you really need to leverage the tools that exist in design thinking.”
Taking the Design Thinking Plunge
For organizations looking to incorporate design thinking, there are a few things to keep in mind, and the first revolves around the customer.
Harvey Mudd’s Dym said design thinking is a social activity that requires everyone to have shared knowledge, problem-solving skills and the ability to communicate. “You can have the greatest ideas in the world, but if you fail to communicate them they’re absolutely unusable.”
But, like the proverb “too many cooks spoil the broth,” too many designers can complicate communication. Corcorran said the smaller the team, the more efficient communication will be. Steelcase uses teams of two or three people to make observations in the infancy of the design process.
It takes more than the right number of people to communicate, however. For Cerner’s Campbell, design thinking requires a change in mindset from viewing things as learning programs to seeing them as business problems affected by human behavior.
Ideo’s Speicher said there’s one design thinking tool that’s rarely noticed that is imperative to the process: optimism. In education, a lot of systems are so entrenched that learning leaders tend to think the way things are is the only way they can be. “In order to design a new future, you have to believe a new future is possible.”
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