Design Thinking & its relevance for HR

Author: Sanjiv Jain – Enabling World (

Originally published in Academy of HRD, India Quarterly Newsletter April-June 2020

Design thinking ( DT) is simply a human-centric approach to solve a problem. As per Design Thinking principles the end-user is the central focus while solving the problem. The process of developing the solution is iterative, with periodic user feedback.

Initially during the  1950s and 1960s  Design Principles were used by professionals to mainly design consumer goods and houses.  The Concept evolved gradually involving both industry and academia and the next 20 – 30 years human angle and empathy with user became essential components of the approach. Recently especially in the last decade Design Thinking is used in a variety of fields from products to services. Some of the key companies that leverage DT are Google, Microsoft, Apple, Starbucks, IBM & Cisco.

In my view last decade four key trends  have contributed to the application of DT in HR

  1. A) Consumer behavior  – wanting to get a personalized, online and instant service
  2. B) Influenced by employee’s consumer-like expectation,  HR is transforming from one fit all, annual processes meant for masses to ongoing, personalized processes with a focus on employees experience
  3.  C) Design Thinking application in services besides products
  4. D) Technology revolution: especially Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning  helping HR design personalized and on-demand HR systems 

While there are many prevalent models of Design Thinking, I feel Enterprise Model is best suited for HR being used largely by enterprises. Whatever be the model, there are five steps in this approach e.g.   Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. In the process, you not only worry about what will employees or candidates want but what will they value. It’s a typically Consumer-Centric approach.

The current pandemic situation across the world has had a major impact on the way organizations and HR processes work. The Majority of the organizations are forced to adopt work from home policy depending on the nature of work. As a result, many HR processes that were not meant for virtual working were changed overnight. The meaning and approach to employee engagement saw a major change and engaging and managing remote employees became an essential and new skill essential for Managers and HR. Organizations are quickly finding solutions to these new problems and are a perfect opportunity to leverage Design Thinking with empathy with the key user –  employee.

There are two ways for HR to leverage DT for re-creating its people processes to meet the new reality. The preferred one is for HR to learn the DT process,  principles, tools, and techniques. As an alternative, one can borrow DT process champions from business to work with HR specialists. Of various HR verticals, Talent Acquisition, Performance  Management, Learning, and Employee entitlements have seen the greater application. IBM used DT principles to completely change its performance management system to Checkpoint with the deep involvement of employees at all the stages including naming the new system. Cisco created a new Onboarding application YouBelong as one of 105 ideas created during Breakathon leveraging DT principles. There are numerous other such examples

There are various tools used while implementing DT like Brainstorming, Empathy Map, Prioritization Grid, and Storyboarding. The selection of these tools depends on the type and scale of the project and also prevailing management practices in the organization.

To conclude, I will say that DT is a Process, Framework, and Mindset all in one and is a great tool for HR to keep in its arsenal to fight with current and new challenges.

Sanjiv Jain – Enabling World

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