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Author's profile photo Jens Obermann

Using Design Thinking to Put the Focus on Employees

Why is design thinking relevant for HR?

(This blog post was originally published in German in HR Performance 3/2014, Datakontext)

by Patrick Blume (@pblume) and Jens Obermann (@JensObermann]

/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/hr_performance_467958.jpgDesign thinking (DT) does not provide support in executing day-to-day personnel processes, but it helps the HR department to fulfill an important mission – that of helping to shape the company. Design thinking is a method with which new ideas can be generated to solve existing problems:

  • This method systematically helps organizations find better solutions and depart from well-trodden paths, partly because people from different disciplines work together.
  • Through this cooperation, dynamism is created that is important within the framework of HR transformation projects.
  • Design thinking considers people’s needs and motivation. It helps the HR department to concentrate on the employees and the managers and “to develop empathy” – something that does not happen in many HR projects.

In addition, we should not underestimate the fact that putting this method into practice is more fun for all the people involved than having traditional workshops.

What makes DT different than “normal” workshops?

In many cases, a “workshop” has negative associations: The course of the workshop is determined by the pace of the previously devised PowerPoint presentation, which is usually too long. Again and again, the workshop loses sight of the central questions that the participants should actually address and answer. Many of the participants say nothing more than a few words during the workshop. And the general circle of participants is usually restricted to the “usual suspects,” too. The agility and the innovative energy of the workshop participants suffers substantially as a result.

Design thinking as a workshop format takes a significantly more agile and integrative approach. The participants in a design thinking workshop are active throughout the entire event and involved at all times. The results of a design thinking workshop are also more comprehensive and comprise more multifaceted solutions than traditional workshops. This is due to the fundamental organization of the workshop process and the organizational prerequisites, which are explained in more detail below.

The fundamental structure of a design thinking workshop is divided into two phases:

  1. 1. Problem space: In this first phase, the problem is examined as comprehensively as possible from all perspectives using brainstorming and an intensive research phase. It ends with a reformulation of the original task (“design challenge”) if new findings and ways of looking at the problem have emerged during the first phase.
  2. 2. Solution space: This is where participants work intensively to find a solution to the previously defined design challenge. Here, it immediately becomes apparent that a design thinking workshop focuses on the users of the solution being sought for a problem (“user-centric design”). This means that the workshop participants work with a stylized, characteristically ideal user. This persona enables participants to put themselves in the role of the end user and work out a solution from this perspective. The solution proposal is made by creating a simple prototype. Depending on the design challenge, this can be – for example – a screen design, a service map, or a complete HR operating model (see examples of use for possible prototypes).

The design thinking method makes it possible to return to individual phases, if this transpires as being useful during the course of the workshop. This means, for example, that returning to the research phase may make sense, if you determine in the subsequent phases that not all the necessary aspects for finding a solution were taken into consideration. Generally, this flexibility with several iterations exists in all phases, although the workshop’s time limits must not be forgotten here. The workshop’s participating and leading coach serves as a facilitator and does not have any influence on the results themselves.

Other (not exhaustive) characteristics of a design thinking workshop are, for example, the use of Post-its, time boxing, and having a workshop group that is as diverse as possible. The use of Post-its to put ideas on paper has the advantage that, depending on the further course of the workshop, they can be taken down and, if necessary, restructured. Time boxing is the strict adherence to a time limit for individual activities and phases. If 20 minutes are planned for an activity, the group works with the results that are available after those 20 minutes. This method has proven itself to be valuable, because it preserves the necessary dynamism within the workshop and avoids drawn-out discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of individual points. As a result, the timing of design thinking workshops can be planned and completed very accurately. Another special aspect that makes design thinking workshops different than other types of workshop is participant composition. A deliberate attempt is made to bring together all stakeholders involved in the problem and its resolution. This diversity enables better insights and the observation of the solution from different angles.

The deployment options for a design thinking workshop are explained using three practical examples below:

Project example 1: Scoping and roadmap

An authority decided it was necessary to renew the IT applications in its HR department and integrate them better with other systems. The redesign should entail an end-to-end definition of (HR) processes, and the redistribution of tasks would therefore also be necessary.

The result of the one-day design thinking workshop with 15 participants from IT, HR, and the finance department was a better understanding of the required IT support and the dependencies between the task areas. The participants were even able to prioritize their requirements and create a rough transformation map. A major advantage here was the time saved, because similar results had previously only been achieved in much longer workshops. A special feature in this workshop was the use of a departmental “persona,” who was a variation on the persona described above. Because the working environments meant that an ideal-typical user could not be identified, this variation was necessary. A department was described as a whole and therefore enabled the use of a user-oriented approach, despite the complexity. The feedback about this approach was highly positive.

Project example 2: Design of a global HR system to support HR transformation

An engineering company already began transforming its HR department some time ago. It became ever more evident that a global HR system was needed to realize the new HR organizational model and to make personnel work more efficient. In a design thinking workshop, a targeted approach was taken to defining the “personas” of the future users and the “customers” of the HR department, and the requirements of the HR IT system were derived from this.

Project example 3: HR reporting as a business partner

The design challenge was to further develop the function of HR reporting to a business partner within the company. In this one-day workshop with eight participants, the aim was to identify new services that should generate added value for managers and experts in the company.

This workshop involved, among other things, the use of a “business model canvas” for services. This canvas enabled participants to identify and also to articulate the prerequisites for and the results of services. Service solutions can penetrate very easily using this approach. Both workshop groups were given different personas that summarized, on the one hand, the requirements of an HR business partner and, on the other hand, the requirements a manager has of HR reporting. Subsequently, it was possible to implement the results of the workshop directly as services.


Design thinking method

In its original sense, the objective of a design thinking process is to formulate a new product solution for a certain circle of users. The design of a specific product is usually not the task of HR departments. Instead, it is much more often the case that rules, processes, and services must be defined and shaped.

For this reason, service design thinking was developed from the classical design thinking approach over the past years. Service design thinking has been used particularly in the services industry, for example, in hospitals, public authorities, or banks. Service design thinking expands the orientation toward products and adds a service component, which makes the process more complex but adds to the possible results: Complex service processes with many participants and points of interaction, operational services, or organizational models can be tackled in a more targeted way with service design thinking than with a product-oriented design thinking process. It therefore also makes sense to take a closer look at the service design thinking approach in HR.

Within SAP, the design thinking approach is common throughout the world and, above all, is used to create user-friendly software applications and to cope with new challenges, such as those posed by mobile devices. SAP supports the use of the design thinking approach, for example, with the new AppHaus in Heidelberg and cooperation projects with the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam.

The design thinking method has proven itself in practice, for instance in the area of innovative software and service development. Many parts of the method are not new, but their ingenious combination helps companies to develop better solutions.

For HR, the use of design thinking can be relevant in the following areas:

  • Within the framework of HR transformation, it is crucial to develop sustainable solutions that are not excessively oriented toward the current situation.
  • New HR processes, roles, IT systems, and so on must be user-centric. These users are, above all, the managers and employees at the company, as well as the experts in the HR department.
  • With design thinking, the potential for innovation in the company can be tapped and HR can take on a pioneering role.

It is hardly possible to convey the effectiveness and benefits of design thinking in theory – so try it out for yourself!

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      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Once Organizational development and design thinking gel together,it inculcates democratic values in firms.

      A.G. Lafley, CEO of Procter&Gamble , summarizes the challenge as follows:

      “Business schools tend to focus on inductive thinking (based on directly observable facts) and deductive thinking (logic and analysis, typically based on past evidence),” he writes. “Design schools emphasize abductive thinking—imagining what could be possible. This new thinking approach helps us challenge assumed constraints and add to ideas, versus discouraging them.”

      Author's profile photo Jens Obermann
      Jens Obermann
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you for the comment and the additional input!