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Design thinking and knowledge management:
12 takeaways from the K-Community

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Design-oriented firms such as Apple and IDEO have demonstrated the business impact of design thinking. In the context of knowledge management, how can design thinking help with process architecture, tools and a knowledge sharing culture? What issues are involved in change management and business outcomes for integrating KM with design thinking?

The monthly meetup of the Bangalore K-Community, a KM professionals forum, recently featured a panel on Design Thinking and KM. Insights and case studies were presented by a wide range of speakers: Vinay Dabholkar, co-author of the book 8 Steps to Innovation; Saksham Khandelwal, adviser for Wipro’s KM strategy and innovation charter; Makarand Purohit, process engineer at Unisys Asia; Prakasha Parambhat, product development head at CGI; and Sanjit Debroy, head of KM strategy at AgreeYa.

Here are my key takeaways and tips from the discussion.

1 Key contributions of design thinking to KM include: the emphasis on emotion and empathy, focus on rapid experimentation and testing before scaling and confidence even in the face of uncertainty. Thus, buy-in for KM initiatives increases when adequate empathy has been shown to employee concerns and if participatory design elements have been used to come up with the KM architecture and processes.

2 Design thinking calls for a progressive approach to dealing with failure; mistakes are treated as stepping-stones toward a final solution. That can help knowledge organizations by celebrating not just successes and best practices, but also failures as a source of learning. Many organizations have a repository of best practices—how about a museum or gallery of failed prototypes?

3 In their haste toward project completion, many companies focus only on the results and final products. Design thinking allows for creation of extra levels of documentation along the journey, which may reveal new insights of value to subsequent project teams.

4 Through immersion and interaction, design thinking places a greater emphasis on conversations and thus yields deeper clues about employee, customer and business partner expectations and aspirations. The use of customer personas also helps bring more holistic insight into the business modeling process.

5 By focusing first on minimum viable products and then full features, design thinking can help avoid “feature bloat” and large failed projects. KM can help in this regard in capturing best practices of frugal product and service development.

6 Design thinking and agile approaches can be deployed right at the stages of requirements specification and not just design and rollout. Vendors can, for example, have dialogs with business clients right at the early stages and even help them question their understanding of the problem space and solution path. Better alignment can be brought between companies and clients, and lead to new pathways of knowledge co-creation.

7 With its philosophy of “get out of the building and into the street” and “think with your hands,” design thinking brings about better interaction between a company and its customers, particularly in an increasingly digital world where all kinds of assumptions are being made about customer aspirations and problems. That calls for improved formats of interpersonal conversation and knowledge extraction during interaction sessions.

8 By repeatedly questioning basic assumptions behind problems, design thinking helps frame and reframe problem statements in a more effective manner so that more appropriate solutions emerge. KM, after all, should involve not only solving problems in a smarter way, but also smartly choosing which problems to solve.

9. Design thinking blends top-down and bottom-up approaches to problem solving, which can help overcome some of the biases in those KM initiatives that are top-down or led by higher levels of management without adequate factoring of 360-degree input.

10 Find the balance between “design thinking” and “factory design.” There are times when employees need to strictly adhere to established doctrine, and there are times when fundamental operating assumptions should be questioned in light of changing contexts. Thus, best practices certainly play a role—but the shelf life is limited, and design thinking can help come up with “next” practices.

11 Design thinking is not just for designers or product developers. As explained by Jeanne Liedtka, Andrew King and Kevin Bennett in their book Solving Problems with Design Thinking, the discipline has been used for better design of healthcare portals, vision alignment in technology companies, more meaningful visitor experiences at conference booths, effective customer response cultures, deeper citizen engagement in urban planning and collaborative projects in industry associations. Design thinking applies in knowledge interactions of white-collar and blue-collar workers alike.

12 Trends to watch in the field of design thinking include use of 3D printing for rapid prototyping, social media usage for customer diaries and employee sentiment analysis, sophisticated tools such as wearables for mood capture, and the growing profile of design thinkers in key innovation promotion organizations such as venture capital firms.

A useful step-by-step approach for incorporating design thinking in knowledge organizations is captured via the “8 Is” framework: intent, insights, immersion, interaction, ideation, integration, iteration and intensification.

Intent to introduce design thinking perspectives in KM must be followed by deep research and full immersion in the life of knowledge workers and customers. Interaction with them will yield useful ideas and hypotheses, which must be integrated and tested repeatedly until an effective design for a KM practice can be finalized and scaled.



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