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Design Thinking In HR

Increasing employee motivation and performance.


Ian H Smith

The human resources (HR) professional has a crucial role to play in knowledge-intensive tech and services firms, where people are the most valuable and often, the most expensive assets in the organisation. In my experience, this goes beyond commercial firms to public sector organisations too. A notable example of a knowledge-intensive government organisation is the UK National Health Service (NHS).

Design Thinking is a people-oriented way to harness innovation and this blog post argues for its adoption by HR professionals operating at the centre of all aspects of the knowledge-intensive tech or services firm (or say, the NHS).

If people are the key assets of a modern organisation, it follows that paying attention to employee motivation and performance is key. But how many HR operations are set-up to focus on these important topics - versus managing the mechanics of payroll, etc? Often, leaders within knowledge-intensive tech and services firms will talk about being a 'values-based' organisation. But are they really talking about values, or are they referring to something much more difficult to explain: culture?

In this lengthy blog post, I have divided this topic into four sections (excluding a Summary), all oriented around technology as the enabler of next generation HR - the Skilo Talent Management Platform:

#1. Being Different. 

Recognising that differences in any organisation are a reality to be embraced.

#2. Being Conversational. 

Managing conflicts positively through open communications.

#3. Being Structured. 

Applying Design Thinking as a method to achieve meaningful innovations.

#4. Being Platformed. 

Utilising a tech platform to take advantage of positive network effects.

#1. Being Different

One of the things that fascinates me is 'corporate culture': this intangible, yet real set of behaviours, beliefs, customs and ceremonies that characterises a particular organisation, or even an industry sector. This led me to become interested in anthropology and ethnography, since these academic topics are inherently the study of humans (anthropology) and the method of study (ethnography).

If you want to read more on my thoughts on anthropology and ethnography in business - and how this relates to Design Thinking, go to my bog post (and book review) entitled Find The Dark Horse.

Design Thinking is powerful. Why? Because it's essentially quite a simple idea: the notion of placing people at the centre of problem solving, and in doing so, enabling a corporate culture where human experimentation and curiosity is encouraged, and fear of failure is minimised. The opposite is Group Thinking, which is what happens when a strong culture inside an organisation unconsciously leads to discouraging people from challenging 'business as usual'.

Design Thinking can counter Group Thinking. (For more about Design Thinking versus Group Thinking, see blog post.

But this need for organisations to embrace Being Different is nothing new, and we should spend more time reading what business thinkers were saying 60-100 years ago. Back in 1941, as the Second World War was raging, the first management consultant of UK - Lyndall Urwick - in his book Dynamic Administration, was reflecting on the wisdom of the first management consultant in USA some 10-20 years earlier - Mary Parker Follett.

To quote Urwick in Dynamic Administration, p30-31:

"As conflict = difference - is here in this world, we should, I think, use it. Instead of condemning it, we should set it to work for us. Why not? What does the mechanical engineer do with friction? Of course his chief job is to eliminate friction, but it is true that he also capitalizes friction. The transmission of power by belts depends upon friction between the belt and the pulley. ... We talk of the friction of mind on mind as a good thing. So in business too, we have to know when to try to eliminate friction and when to try to capitalize it. ... That is what I wish to consider here, whether we can set conflict to work and make it do something for us."

What Urwick said is not a mindless point about everything in business needing to be frictionless. Friction can be a good thing if, as Urwick (and Mary Parker Follett) says, that we should "bring the differences into the open". At a global tech firm, the CEO says he has "committed war with friction". Is this question for 'frictionless commerce' purely a question of process mechanics and an one-sided argument in favour of eliminating all friction in a business or other organisation - or are there consequences to be taken into account in such a single-minded pursuit?

There have also been many complaints from employees working inside a tech giant's distribution centre that such a 'war with friction' has resulted in less than satisfactory employee conditions. Perhaps some friction is needed here: creating the right balance between what represents frictionless commerce, yet allows friction to act as a 'brake' on too fierce a 'leaning' of working conditions inside a distribution centre, which proves counter-productive, overall.

Urwick said that there are three ways of dealing with conflict: domination; compromise; and, integration. In the case of a, fast-growth tech firm, it is integration that provides the answer to conflicts between, say, the executive pursuit of 'frictionless commerce' and creating the right working environment for all of its employees. Here integration means each party fully understanding the true needs and desires of the other by, to quote Mary Parker Follett: "bring the differences into the open".

Being Different should be embraced in a firm, as it is in modern, open society - and for the same reasons: it leads to progress and the embodiment of real innovation, coming from both inside and outside of the knowledge-intensive tech or services firm. It is essential to avoid excessive Group Thinking, and an insular, inward-looking culture, in a world where change is the only constant.

Being Different is something that every organisation should embrace.

#2. Being Conversational

In many ways, bringing differences into the open also means Being Conversational, so the network effects of a Talent Management Platform must also deliver a free-flowing communications ('chat') capability - and this is where Chatter - an integral part of the Salesforce Sales Cloud - delivers on this important cultural enabler. This is also part of Being Platformed - as expanded upon below.

Chatter is a social network and combines with the Talent Management Platform described below: Skilo. Each employee (or contractor) has a profile page with image and work-related information that explains their role and their interests. Employees (or contractors) can 'follow' both people and documents to collaborate on any key business activity or event: e.g. sales opportunities, service cases, campaigns, projects and tasks. Like Facebook and LinkedIn, Chatter allows filtering, where users can manage their feeds and control how notifications are received.

The key point I want to make here is that innovation in business is not pain-free, it is not without conflict - differences - between managers and employees, or between different groups or organisational departments. If being open is a prerequisite for success in business innovation (and organisational transformation), then how do you truly achieve this? I think that the answer lies in the implementation of Design Thinking, as set-out below in Being Structured.

#3. Being Structured

In Why Design Thinking Works (Harvard Business Review, September-October 2018), the author Jeanne Liedtka published some important findings from a seven-year study and fifty projects, where Design Thinking was applied. In this work, the author identified the human behaviours that act as barriers to innovation and how Design Thinking, applied as a social technology, helps to overcome such limitations. In this blog post I share some thoughts and ideas on how HR professionals can apply Design Thinking and combine this with a Platform called Skilo to maximise innovation and increase employee motivation and performance.

Crucially, Design Thinking allows for human conflicts - differences - and encourages the openness and integration that Mary Parker Follett and Lyndall Urwick talked about 70-90 years ago. Again, to quote Urwick:

"... we have to uncover our sub-articulate egoisms, and then, when we see them in relation to other facts and desires, we may estimate them differently." 

Or, in modern Design Thinking, and one word: we need to empathize. We need to place ourselves the shoes of others, to better understand their point of view, or experience their challenges or pain.

As Jeanne Liedtka says, being structured when engaging in innovation helps employees to add a sense of security to what is, essentially, an uncertain outcome, when trying to solve business problems or introducing new ideas or policies. As the infographic above illustrates. the 5-step Design Thinking method created by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University ( can be applied in an iterative way.

Design Thinkers are both designers and non-designers, but what they all have in common is being inherently curious, empathetic, challenging, non-judgmental and open-minded. With the Stanford method, you start with Empathize. Here it is important to ensure sufficient levels of receptivity, rapport and trust generated among all stakeholders in the Design Thinking-based innovation process. This creates a solid foundation to then move through Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test steps, in rapid, iterative cycles for best results.

The Stanford approach to Design Thinking is all about creating an organisational culture that encourages experimentation, that rewards the curious, and removes fear of failing - suggesting that it is better to fail fast, than not try something at all. Underpinning a solid Design Thinking method for innovation, also means creating an equally solid Platform for rewarding employees, contractors, partners, customers and suppliers for engaging in the innovation process.

In many ways, the five steps of the Stanford Design Thinking method are a commonsense approach to better understanding a business problem, and through placing people at the centre of the work, leading to a more relevant, meaningful solution outcome. In 1927, AJ Greenly wrote Psychology as a Sales Factor, and talked about 'The Tools of Psychology', used in the context of better understanding the relationship between producers and consumers:

  • Observation
  • Introspection
  • Experiment 

From my personal experience in studying on a Stanford course, I think that a strong focus on Observation, Introspection and Experiment was evident throughout the application of the five steps of Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. I would add that a certain amount of Introspection is healthy, but must be countered by a more outward-looking Observation and the validation that comes from Experiments. The sentiment here at Stanford is 'do', and do it now - and do not fear failing - just fail fast.

What I will turn to now, is how can we measure and reward employees in the pursuit of innovation and problem-solving, applying Design Thinking: Being Platformed.

#4. Being Platformed

It has been a recent fashion to describe a business as 'a platform', even 'government as a platform'. By platform, we generally mean a technology platform, operating in the Internet world of human user devices, and increasingly, non-human devices or interfaces (e.g. machine-to-machine interfaces and 'the Internet Of Things').

As Geoffrey G. Parker, Marshall W. Van Alstyne and Sangeet Paul Choudary said in Platform Revolution (2016), the power of a platform is all about positive 'network effects' if it is delivering significant value for each user of the platform. From a human resources (HR) perspective, what are these network effects and how do they translate into measurable value creation - underpinned by Design Thinking?

Whilst talent acquisition has obviously benefitted from the network effects of LinkedIn, what other aspects of HR become strengthened by Being Platformed? As described in Platform Revolution, network effects can create a structural change that turns firms inside-out. This enables people to create networks both intra- and inter-organisation and with this comes new ways to deliver talent development, through online learning, coaching and mentoring.

Whilst online learning is a mature, established way of delivering education and training, online coaching and mentoring has yet to find popularity at scale. This latter point about online coaching and mentoring is showing a cultural lag, not a technology limitation. More generally, to quote Platform Revolution, network effects means that management of HR shifts from employees to 'crowds'. Perhaps this move towards inside-out structural changes will help knowledge-intensive tech and services firms to more readily embrace the outsider, cast in the role of coach or mentor.

For knowledge-intensive tech and services firms, a Talent Management Platform enables HR to harness the power of virtual teams and engage contractors to become as effective as employees, removing the traditional constraints of physical location. However, as with online coaching and mentoring, many knowledge-intensive tech and services firms, previously hung-up about office versus remote working or employee versus contractor, are beginning to embrace a more flexible approach to hiring, locating, motivating and retaining talent.

This move towards a more flexible workforce is in direct response to a younger generation of knowledge workers who are increasingly rejecting the limitations of 9-5 working and commuting and demanding a more flexible work-life balance. This trend is especially true for employees and contractors aged 30-40, where couples both work, and where bringing up children requires both flexible working hours and more cost-effective locations for places to live and bring up a family.

As we enter 2019, the role of HR must become more proactive in the facilitation of a more flexible approach to work and introduce platform-enabled services to better facilitate every stage of the employment lifecycle - permanent or contract - from talent acquisition, through on-boarding to ongoing personal development and beyond. A Talent Management Platform must deliver a rich seam of services and make the most of positive network effects.

At Being Guided, I work with a Talent Management Platform called Skilo. As the infographic above illustrates, Skilo is a native cloud app, built on Salesforce Lightning Platform, and designed to work with Salesforce Sales Cloud solutions, including Chatter. In HR, there are a bewildering number of technologies that fall into the category of Talent Management, but I see Skilo as the best Talent Management Platform of choice, because of the following two inherent and distinctive strengths;

  • A No-Code Platform that allows key Modules for Goals, Development, Training and Reviews to be configured, without expensive, time-consuming software rewrites.
  • A Low-Code Extension that allows Custom Apps to be created and published on the complementary Salesforce Sales Cloud, with mostly clicks, and less code.

The No-Code Skilo Modules enable HR professionals to rapidly implement a Talent Management Platform, taking advantage of standardised features, yet allowing for the ability to customise each Module, without resorting to expensive and time-consuming coding.

As illustrated in the infographic above, the Custom Apps built on the complementary Salesforce Sales Cloud, allow HR professionals to design compelling Employee Experiences and create a very tangible and individualised link between Goals set-up in Skilo and Compensation and Rewards (financial and non-financial) as Custom Apps created with Salesforce Sales Cloud.

Often, the problem with creating individualised Rewards is the lack of integration between Performance and Pay. However, with a Custom App for Compensation, integration with an internal Payroll system (or external Payroll services) can enable a tangible link between Goals, Rewards and Compensation.

The combination of configurable Skilo Modules and Custom Apps built on Salesforce Sales Cloud enables the HR professional to introduce many innovations with the Talent Management Platform, including coaching and mentoring that operates both inside and outside of the boundaries of the organisation. This provides Continuous Learning as an everyday service, where time-critical activities and events may be directly linked to granular coaching and mentoring sessions.


Being Platformed means enabling HR professionals to introduce timely, cost-effective innovation through the optimum mix of No-Code and Low-Code technology combinations. All of this is underpinned by Being Structured, applying a 5-step Design Thinking method, encouraging an organisational culture of experimentation, rewarding curiosity, and removing the fear of failing.

What matters most in talent acquisition and retention is Being Different. This means dealing with the organisational realities of difference - conflict - yet encouraging open communications, where the combination of Skilo, Salesforce Sales Cloud and Chatter can mean Being Conversational: creating a conversational culture, inside and outside of the knowledge-intensive tech or services firm.

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