My name is Mauro Rego and I am working as a designer at SAP´s Design & Co-Innovation Center (DCC). I design experiences of new digital products and services for business through storytelling and games.
Over the last years, I have witnessed the rise of in-house trainings related to design. Thanks to Design Thinking and the presence of designers in leadership positions (SAP, AirBnb, Google, Apple, etc), business started to look at designers with different eyes. Design skills, tools and “mindset” are being seen as valuable on the strategic level. However, such success and scale has a drawback. I have always questioned how impactful and efficient such trainings are. Can these trainings actually change the culture of organizations or are they only additional “business entertainment sessions”?
Trainings and workshops are offered from almost all kinds of business sizes: from professional freelancers to big-size organizations (like SAP) and they touch different levels of skills and competences. Each kind of training has a specific goal, therefore they can assume different shapes regarding timeframe, exercises and tools.
There are the “standard courses” (or plain vanilla – like one of my colleagues calls it). These are training tracks designed long ago that can be applied by almost anyone who has experienced it before. The cases, tools, and templates are used over and over again (did anyone say “baby incubator” or “MRI for Kids”?). Although experienced facilitators might be exhausted of it, these courses work. They have been working and successfully giving people a first step into a certain topic for the last 10 years.
The problems of such trainings are the capability of the facilitator in adapting it for what the customer needs. No, trainings are not “one fit all” – at least, not the good trainings. People have different needs and they are in different levels of expertise. A skilled facilitator would redesign the course in a way that would be more engaging and meaningful for the customer and for the participants. This leads me to the scalability problem.
Businesses are usually looking for optimizing efficiency, in other words, they want to spend the least time and get the most impactful result, but education simply doesn’t work like that. The only certainty that someone who employs a training has is that the participants will be “exposed” to the content. It is pretty much like buying media time for advertising; you can guarantee the exposition, but you can’t guarantee it will work. The usual KPI’s (Key Performance Indicator) out of education process (number of attendees, ECTs, hours of training, certificates) mean nothing. It only tells you that you have attended the course but not how you’ve changed. And just to add: No, exams are not an answer to that. You actually see the impact of trainings on the life after it. Team meetings might get more dynamic, projects might get leaner and employees might get more motivated. In any case it is hard to have an object-straight-forward measure.
How can I provide more impactful trainings?
I am not saying that trainings do not work. They are important and can have an impact on your working life, but only if a conjuncture of factors come together. The educational philosopher John Dewey says that for a real learning experience, two learning criteria must be satisfied:
The learnings just will be evidenced when another situation calls it. Basically, the participant will learn it by using it. He can hear, he can practice, but he will only learn it when he is confronted with a situation that he can translate the knowledge into practice. I am not talking about “apply”. Apply means a 1:1 reproduction of what is learned. Translating into practice means that someone adapted the knowledge to the given situation “with own words”.
The participants may have the opportunity to use what they have learned outside of the learning environment and adapt it to real situations. Trainings followed by supervised projects over a longer period of time give a better chance to the participant to experiment and get a better understanding of the new introduced methods and tools. Alternatively they can “intern” (or do a fellowship) in teams that are more experienced with such methods and can afford an apprentice/trainee.
If a company wants the employees to acquire new skills, they have to offer the opportunity and provide the space for it. A four hours activity on Tuesday will not bring a proper value to the team.
This criteria describes the matching between what I want to learn and what someone wants me to learn. If this criteria is satisfied it means that the training is meaningful for the participant.
Sometimes top-down decisions make employees attend trainings that have nothing to do with their activities and it is a big effort to place this new knowledge in their working life. When the participant can not foreseen the utility of what he is being exposed to, the facilitator has then to work really hard on convincing and making sense of the content for that specific participant.
I have experienced diverse trainings where the participants did not ask if they could attend. Management has made it mandatory (like those HR trainings on security). It was the least engaged audience I have ever seen.
When management has an specific demand for training that the employees are not aware of, you can always listen to them in order to shape the content and exercises to something more interesting.
When I get such assignment, I always try to get in touch with the future participants. I send them a small survey to learn about their expectations, wishes, and concerns. Then I can reshape the text, presentation, examples, and exercises in a way that will better suit the audience. Obviously I am not able to meet all the expectations, but at least the recurrent wishes will definitely be fulfilled.
“You wouldn’t expect to learn woodworking in a day. Why should design be any different?”
So I can learn design in one day!
Sorry, you can’t. Not even with the criteria. Design Thinking trainings and other skill-set workshops may give you a starting point. And that is it. Without further development (continuity) for a long period of time, you will not get design skills. If you want to get professional design skills in your team, hire professional designers.
Non-designers exposed to design methods and processes will be capable to better communicate and adopt some of the practices (like being visual or prototyping), but don’t expect that they will be capable of replace designers.
All in all, in my understanding, in-house trainings on design-related topics are necessary. Although I think these trainings will not turn the participants into designers, those trainings have the power to inspire and give the participants a starter kit to begin with. It also creates a better relationship between designers and non-designers like managers. Since the non-designers can find out that design is not magic and it is actually a high specialized work that solves problems.