Home Professionalisms Six Big Problems You’ll Solve When You Apply Design Thinking To Your Learning And...

Six Big Problems You’ll Solve When You Apply Design Thinking To Your Learning And Development 


by Jack J. Phillips, PhD, and Patti Phillips, PhD, are coauthors of “The Business Case for Learning: Using Design Thinking to Deliver Business Results and Increase the Investment in Talent Development


It’s no secret that learning and development departments are in a tough spot. Though businesses rely on skilled employees, CEOs and other senior leaders today are far more skeptical about the payoff of the learning and development programs that create those skills — and far more tight-fisted about funding them. CLO and other learning and development professionals are essentially being told, “You say this initiative will generate hard business results? Okay, prove it!”

Rethinking the learning process is key. Embracing the concept of design thinking, an exciting solution used in innovation, can provide learning and development teams with the metrics to justify their important work and ease the minds of anxious senior executives.

Design thinking is a systemic process that demonstrates how learning and talent development drive important business measures. When you follow it, you keep a laser focus on results throughout the program cycle.

Learning and talent development professionals need to design for success, with that success defined as credible data connecting the learning programs to the business. This approach ensures that when measurements are actually taken, the business results can be demonstrated, overcoming one of the biggest fears of measurement — negative outcomes.

The need to prove results is part and parcel of a paradigm shift that is shaking up the entire learning and development industry. Learning was once considered a cost of doing business. Now, it’s seen as an investment — and that major change has brought with it all sorts of problems for organizations still trapped in the old ways of thinking and doing business.

The good news is that when you apply design thinking to your learning and development processes, you automatically solve many of your department’s and your company’s most troubling problems.

For example:

PROBLEM 1: The CEO doesn’t believe that your department brings value to the company.

This is actually the big, ugly, overarching problem that spawns many other sub-problems.

When you’re seen as a cost, you’re seen as part of the problem, not part of the solution. And you’re at risk of not just having your budget cut but also of being left out of crucial organizational decisions. Design thinking helps you prove, every step of the way, that you are contributing to the bottom line of the company.

PROBLEM 2: You don’t have the metrics to prove your value.

According to one study, 96 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs want to see the business connection, yet only 8 percent see it. Also, 74 percent want to see ROI, yet only 4 percent see it.

Few learning and talent development professionals have data to show top executives that their programs make a difference in the organization. Design thinking keeps the hungry gorilla — in the form of a senior executive — fed so that he doesn’t come around demanding impact data.

PROBLEM 3: Your funding is perpetually at risk (especially during downturns).

When you can’t prove your value, you’re perceived as a cost. What happens to costs during times of economic anxiety? They get slashed, of course.

Since design thinking keeps the focus on results rather than mere perception, funding for learning and talent development becomes a business decision. It has the support of the rest of the organization rather than being second-guessed and questioned.

PROBLEM 4: “Soft skills” are neglected exactly when they are most needed.

Skills like communication, collaboration, leadership, and the abilities to fully engage and empathize with others are the keys to success and profitability in our global high-tech economy. However, training for them requires a major investment that CEOs who must fund on perception may be reluctant to provide.

Leadership development, management development, team leader onboarding, communications, coaching, and team building can all have a high impact on ROI, because they influence an individual who has a team of people reporting to them. And these skills are most needed when times are tough — right when CEOs are least willing to make the investment. The key, obviously, is being able to provide their impact and ROI.

PROBLEM 5: People are not using learning (or they are learning what they don’t need to know).

Statistics show that over 50 percent of learning and development is wasted. People may be learning what you’re teaching, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to their day-to-day work, or, even if it does apply, for some reason they don’t use it. The wasted funds are bad, of course, but the wasted potential is even worse.

If a program is not delivering the desired results, the data generated by design thinking will show what caused the disappointment. Then you can adjust to improve the program, or others, in the future.

PROBLEM 6: People are disengaged and unhappy.

The disconnect between what they’re learning and what they really need to know is discouraging. It keeps people from doing their best work. They are not engaged.

Nothing can build team morale more than when people see hard evidence that what they’re doing makes a difference to the company’s success. Design thinking provides that. When people are engaged and happy, they are more productive, less likely to be absent, and less likely to quit. This is all good for business.

In other words, when you let design thinking drive your learning and development, you automatically solve the problems CLOs have long wrestled with — and you also play a vital role in helping your company thrive long-term.

The skills your employees learn, and are able to put into practice to execute your strategy, are everything. They’re how business happens. That’s why learning and development programs really are your life’s blood. Design thinking helps prove that truth — to decision makers who fund you and also to yourself — every step along the process.



Jack J. Phillips, PhD, and Patti Phillips, PhD, are coauthors of “The Business Case for Learning: Using Design Thinking to Deliver Business Results and Increase the Investment in Talent Development“.

Jack is the chairman of ROI Institute, the leading provider of services for measurement, evaluation, metrics, and analytics. A world-renowned expert on measurement and evaluation, Phillips provides consulting services for more than half of the Fortune 100 companies and workshops for major conference providers worldwide. Jack is a former bank president and has authored or edited more than 100 books.

Patti is president & CEO of ROI Institute. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies, federal and state government agencies, and non-governmental organizations. She serves as faculty for the UN System Staff College in Turin, Italy, and the Escuela Bancaria y Comercial in Mexico City, Mexico. A former electric utility executive, Patti is author, coauthor, or editor of over 75 books and dozens of articles on the topic of measurement, evaluation, and ROI.