Workplace redesign The Big Shift from efficiency

As individuals and organizations experience the increasing pressures of the Big Shift, where better to do creative and revolutionary things than in our workplaces?

It’s great to be back at SXSW Interactive this year, speaking on a topic that goes to the heart of our future as workers, creators, and learners. SXSW Interactive is all about “doing creative and revolutionary things with new technologies”—as individuals and organizations experience the increasing pressures of the Big Shift, where better to do creative and revolutionary things than in our workplaces?

Our organizations, especially our large organizations, are struggling to generate sustainable returns while navigating the ground between informed consumers who expect a product to fit their specific needs and informed talent who have other options.

We all recognize that with today’s rapid technological advances, assets and processes quickly become obsolete. So do skills. Neither hiring for specific capabilities nor developing training programs is a sustainable talent strategy. The most powerful learning and talent development occurs on the job. Deep understanding of a specific context can allow for the innovative problem solving and performance improvement that will help our organizations to learn faster and become stronger in the face of challenges.

We have become adept at applying design thinking to the design of products and customer engagement experiences. Isn’t it about time we apply this same thinking to our work environments? Starting with an objective to unleash workers’ commitment and foster questing and connecting dispositions—that is, the disposition to seek new challenges as opportunities to learn and the disposition to seek relevant experts and others from whom to learn—the principles of design thinking can be applied to each facet of the work environment. Through our research of work environments in action, we identified nine design principles that can promote an environment of deep, rapid, experiential learning.

The work environment includes the physical spaces, virtual platforms and tools, and management practices—I’m at SXSW, surrounded by a wealth of amazing technology and creativity, so let’s focus on the digital, interactive components and the design principles most relevant to them. The right tools and platforms can support and encourage workers to take on new and meaningful challenges, connect with others outside their own team who can help them on the current task and develop new knowledge, experiment with new solutions, operate with real-time feedback, and share their experiences and practices across the work environment.

How might digital technology be used to design a work environment conducive to faster learning? Online collaboration forums, mechanisms for real-time feedback, platforms that make it easy to share and modify design files, reputation profiles that let everyone know what you’ve worked on and what you’re working on now—automatically. Or, when we think about the rapid development of applications for wearable glass technology that a colleague from Deloitte Consulting Innovation (DCI) demonstrated last week, safety glasses that project the schematic of a malfunctioning drilling rig for an oil services driver in North Dakota and that can also relay what he is seeing back to an engineer at the headquarters in Houston, so that they can problem-solve together. Consider the dramatically redefined work environment that the creative application of new technology might bring.

Or consider the Mayo Clinic, where a mobile app helps physicians at the clinic do their jobs better by providing content specific to a condition and putting the physician in contact with the relevant experts at the Clinic. The app has done more than provide content and contact information. The app has shifted the dynamic away from a culture where hierarchy and seniority were sacred and physicians avoided appearing not to know the answers to one where a senior specialist might reach out to a new clinician to check in on the latest thinking about a particular condition.

It’s sometimes hard to believe, when we’re surrounded by new technological breakthroughs every day, that even Google Glass alone can’t reshape the work environment for learning. While technology can enable and support on-the-job learning, the management practices embedded in a work environment can either foster or extinguish it. If a technology company punishes failures, engineers will shy away from trying new ideas or making decisions. On the other hand, if the company treats a failure as part of the process of experimentation and embraces the learning opportunities by making the failure and its learnings visible to others, engineers may be more likely to take on greater challenges.

Once we’ve redefined our workspaces to stretch across geographical and social boundaries, it isn’t a stretch to envision the workplace as spanning organizational boundaries as well. If we reconceive our work environment to include not only our own employees, but everyone outside the organization who has relevant expertise to help us learn faster, the technology can catch up to support it. And once we reconceive the work environment to connect to a few external others, it isn’t such a stretch to imagine connecting our employees and practices with many other workers and their practices. It’s possible to think of a platform that would connect individuals across an ecosystem in joint experimentation and problem-solving, regardless of where they reside. Intuit’s Design for Delight (D4D), for example, was started as a way to develop new product offerings but now serves as an experimentation platform that engages internal staff and external customers in the design and development process through problem definition, prototyping, and rapid feedback.

It’s worth noting that although we are born to learn, being open to learning isn’t always easy. Workers conditioned to accept the constraints of scalable efficiency environments may not welcome the change from defined tasks and boundaries to a fluid world based on questing and experimentation, and the uncertainty associated with giving up hierarchies and tight control. Managers will play a key role, not only in providing permission or removing obstacles to experimentation, but in helping workers use tools to attract others, wherever they reside, to help them learn and improve faster.