Design Thinking: A Vital Skill Learning Professionals Need Today

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Design Thinking
I recently attended a webinar in which the speaker (a learning leader from a very larger organization) was asked the following question, “If you were to add someone to your team today, what skills would you want them to have?” A relevant question, certainly, based on the recent flurry of social media postings and news articles referring to studies on the skills needed for the future workforce.

His answer, while I can relate, disappointed me: an app developer. He expounded on his response by stating that having someone on the team with the ability to modernize the learning experience, create mobile learning experiences, and do so without the involvement of IT, would be a dream.

Is that where we’re headed? Do we need to learn code to stay relevant in our roles? Personally, I don’t believe that is the case. I don’t feel that having an app developer on my learning team would be enough to modernize the learning experience. After all, someone must design the learning event for the developer to build.

So, let’s look at what the L&D industry is currently looking to hire. Browsing through job postings online, I find we’ve divided the learning work into two main camps: instructional designers and course developers.

The postings for instructional designers seek candidates who are well versed in the “theories of adult learning” and the models of instruction, who follow the standard process of instructional design (learner needs analysis, objective writing, storyboarding, and so forth), who are detail oriented and excellent writers. The course developers, need to be familiar with a variety of authoring tools and learning management systems, graphic design tools, video editing tools, audio mixing, and be able to facilitate QA using a ticketing process. A third camp, though a lot less sought after, is the facilitator or “trainers” who must be able to engage the audience and deliver the content presented to them by the instructional design team.


The problem with these requirements, which is what prompted that flurry of social media and news articles about the future of jobs, is that the skills organizations are seeking and hiring today are the same skills quickly being replaced by algorithms, robots, and artificial intelligence(AI). In many of the articles about the future of work (which begins today, by the way) having the knowledge of, and being able to follow, a set of rules, processes, and directions are the exact same skills that AI is quickly able to build and perfect.

I’m not intending to scare anyone; I’m stating facts. Over the past few years, AI has advanced from simply providing an answer to a question, or performing a simple task, to perfecting skills many would consider uniquely human—like writing news stories, driving a car, or providing customer service support.

In my (15+) years in this industry, I’ve evaluated thousands of courses, across every industry, and I can tell you that modern instructional design is, all too often, very formulaic. To create a course, you take a set of content documents, ask a series of standard questions, and write a list of objectives (which is literally based on a formula). Then, you provide the agenda or objectives page, a content page, another content page, one more content page, and so on. Then, you ask quiz/knowledge check on the content just provided. You repeat that loop until you have content and questions that tie to each of the objectives. A final assessment pulls in the highlighted content and a score is captured. Now, it’s been a long time since I did any programming, but I can almost see the code for that formula.

So, what do we do? What skills do we need to start building in order to remain a viable profession and worthy business partner? If I were asked the same question, “What skills would you want a team addition to have?” my response would be vastly different. I would say, “I want someone with a high degree of empathy. Someone who isn’t afraid of trying something and failing. Someone who doesn’t strive for perfection but for improvement. Someone who embraces their human birthright of creativity and finds joy in helping others succeed.” In other words, I want a design thinker.

I’d love to see our industry embrace and leverage the work that has been done in the product (and yes that includes technical products) design world and focus on building learning experiences that are user centered and build with and for the end user. The philosophy and tools used in design thinking can help us elevate our end product, can enable us to be creative rather than formulaic, and can keep the human in the equation.

So, sure, I think partnering with a great app developer is a wonderful idea, but if we don’t do something, as learning professionals, to radically change the value we bring to the workforce, the workforce will soon replace us.

About the Author
Angel Green is a senior instructional strategist for Allen Interactions’ Tampa studio, where she is responsible for providing consultation and instructional design expertise to clients, partnering to build engaging, interactive learning experiences. Angel has worked for organizations such as IBM, MetLife, and Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and holds both MS and BS degrees from Florida State University. An accomplished speaker, Angel has held positions as an adjunct instructor of public speaking and is past president of a Toastmasters International Chapter. She is also a frequent blogger on Allen Interactions’ e-Learning Leadership and Iterations Blogs.
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I'm in the midst of applying the design thinking process into a traditional instructional systems design approach. It offers flexibility in designing non traditional learning experiences. Ocustomer- centered should always be our focus. Thanks
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Very true points!
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Good luck Angel on your Design Thinking Workshop in May. I love Design Thinking. I spent 9 weeks out at the at Stanford working on a project. Loved the experience!
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