Article: How design thinking assists L&D in the digital era

Learning & Development

How design thinking assists L&D in the digital era

At this moment of truth, the 'd' word highlights that we need a different kind of thinking. It's about a new learning for the leadership, middle managers, and for your employees on the frontline and behind the scenes from multiple departments to enable the :WoW customer experiences."
How design thinking assists L&D in the digital era

“The rate at which an organization learns may become the only sustainable source of competitive advantage.” — Peter Drucker

‘Employees are learning at the speed of business need’ is a major factor that powers up workplaces around the world today.  But in reality, many  CEO’s reports that their employees are not developing fast enough. So let's do a quick check by asking this question to L&D professionals:

With online courses, webinars, podcasts and new tech and DIY tools giving employees more ownership and control over their professional growth; are you still asking employees to learn in the same way as you did a decade ago? 

If so, Moore’s Law equivalent in Learning & Development is telling us we are running out of steam and becoming obsolete.

It leads to the question, what will be the impact of these changes on corporate L&D, what is the new role of Learning and Development teams and how should be L&D be structured? 

The answer? Use design thinking, a new method to the transform from the traditional role of ‘Learning & Development’ to the challenging role of ‘Personal Performance and Learning Advisor’ in spite of many obstacles resisting such change!

Let's get the basics right – embed learning in the job

Learning never ends. In today’s always-on, distracting work environment, employees simply don’t take the time to learn, unless it were relevant and embedded in work. Today one can acquire knowledge by researching on Google, Youtube, Wikipedia the whole day and a lifetime are not enough to process it.  So, learning from an L&D perspective is all about gaining knowledge and applying it to work.  

So to succeed in the digital era, employees need to adapt to constantly changing needs of the business and have to ‘unlearn old rules and ways of working' and ‘relearn new ones.’

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”  - a quote by Charles Darwin explains it all. 

Transform HR from a ‘process developer and maintainer’ to an ‘experience architect.' – empathize with the learner

Training is not just for onboarding new employees or competency building for current role. Research indicates that employees at all levels need continual learning opportunities from employers, to stay relevant for the organization. So, the problem is not only designing better programs or upgrading the LMS, but the need to rethink corporate L&D. 

Design thinking encourages L&D practitioners to craft and develop new outcome-based solutions by focusing on improving the experience of the digital employee. To cut short the learning time your focus needs to shift from traditional training to self-directed learning experiences. You can shape it by embracing design thinking’s fundamental principle i.e. putting the learner's experience ahead of the process.  By making learning content relevant to the job, easy to access by allowing for 24/7 self-directed learning and consume you can get a better learning outcome. 

Here are five six points to keep in mind while you redesign the L&D programs to be more Employee Experience (EX) centered:

Adaptive learning – do away with one-size fits all training, mind (and mend) the skills gap

 “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” ~Alvin Toffler.

There are countless things an employee may have to unlearn

  • the methodology, technology, designs you use 

  • the way you approach your target market, understanding customer needs, brand, and communicate your value to customers, employees, and stakeholders

  • the way you will deliver value and experience to customers, employees, and stakeholders

  • the way the over-hyped “digital’ word is understood

  • skills and know-how to get to the next level.


Your challenge as L&D professionals is to identify the learning needs and tailor it to meet their individual job requirements and future growth plans. To effectively reskill employees, the programs have to be adapted to fit their learning styles (surface/strategic or dee) and preferred pace.  Also using friend L&D tech tools and you can enable learning on the go.

Prioritize training for “design thinking skills”  - “big picture training.”

 “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

Design thinking skills meet long-term business goals and create a competitive advantage  – think of it as a “big picture training.” The skills empower employees to start thinking differently and come up with innovative and practical ways to solve current problems, keeping the future in mind. It does by making them deep-dive into the problems by asking:

  • How are things today?

  • How could they be tomorrow?

  • What are the steps to get there?


Using simulating scenarios, “what if” training,  brainstorming techniques, focusing on current problems that frustrate customers, tomorrow headlines - employees can discuss and debate different solutions to the wicked problem.  

Become a content curator - make it relevant, don’t reinvent the wheel

“Don't reinvent the wheel, just realign it.” - Anthony J. D'Angelo

The L&D team is in the best position to design and tailor programs that your organization needs. Though it's critical that employees are responsible for learning, as HR you need to accelerate and guide the learning and incentivize the employee to acquire new skills that meet your company's need.

You need to look into the human side of the equation, where employees do not have the luxury to take a sabbatical to learn what's relevant and are hard pressed for time. It's important you help them cut through the noise and catch their attention by crafting capsule or “snack-sized” learning material.  As we all know creating quality content takes time and is expensive, you can use existing outsourced and third-party materials (lynda.com, OpenSesame, etc.) to integrate with your learning management system  (LMS) to expand and create individual learning programs.

To do this curation you have to re-skill yourself - understand your audience’s need, organization objectives, the ability to navigate the internet, the ability to making learning engaging and to measure how learners are engaging with the curated content.

Turn your leaders and managers into mentors and coaches – make it a part of cultural consolidation

"Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results." - George S. Patton

Often managers are tasked with meeting KPIs and bottom-line targets set for their team. While the high-learning team can help achieve the team objectives, but they won’t spend time on learning if their performance is being assessed solely on financial indicators.  By redesigning the process to address team needs and concerns, you can make it easier for managers to coach employees using real-time situations and methods. It also enables the team to provide instant feedback to work situations. 

While conducting performance reviews, apart from asking “How much did their team contribute to the bottom-line?”, ask “How many skills did their team learn and put to use?” If your company conducts 360-degree reviews, request feedback from employees if their learning needs are getting addressed. The move allows managers to balance their employees’ coaching needs with meeting bottom line objectives. With a supporting work culture, employees will be willing to experiment with their learnings and come up with innovative recommendations.

Facilitating peer to peer learning, revisit your knowledge management program – use the brain power you have

“Teaching peers is one of the best ways to develop mastery.” - Jeff Atwood

One of the most effective and purse-friendly learning strategies is peer-driven learning. Sourcing talent for open trainer positions within your company limits the task of onboarding and provides you with a diverse multi-skilled workforce.  By giving them the right tools to share knowledge and collaborate helps break down departmental barriers. It also helps the facilitators to explore new opportunities within the organization.

Start a mentorship program for new and existing employees to learn from experienced retired co-workers. Encourage retiring employees to document the ins-and-outs of their jobs, and use this information to create relevant training content. 

Michael Corleone, in the movie The Godfather, tells Sonny, about how he is going to kill his partners Solazzo and McCluskey and, that “it’s not personal, it’s business.” I have rephrased that to say “it’not design thinking or digital; it’s business.” In the digital era, this is how a business works. At this moment of truth, the “d” word highlights that we need a different kind of thinking. It's about a new learning for the leadership, middle managers, and for your employees on the frontline and behind the scenes from multiple departments to enable the “WoW customer experiences.” Now more than ever in this digital era, as organizations and employees, we need to learn, unlearn and relearn and L&D has a significant role to play.

Topics: Learning & Development, Technology

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