Is this how business schools model the future of learning for organisations? 

Is this how business schools model the future of learning for organisations? 

There is no doubt that Harvard Business School is a leading global influencer when it comes to leadership and management education. Now take a look at the picture below.

Harvard lead the way or a new Back to The Future movie poster?

Given today’s general environment, a complex, talent-led, knowledge economy, is this really what executive education should look like in a world leading business school? Learning and knowledge capability (access, embedding, sharing, using and developing knowledge) is key to sustained competitive advantage over time. Ask yourself, does this look like an environment ready to envelop/model exceptional leadership in these areas?

This, to me, looks more like a scene from a new Back to the Future movie than an exceptional business school. Is this what exceptional executive education looks like? Is this how we create exceptional leaders for the future?

The future is created today, as learning design professionals we need to be more conscious of the world we are creating, don’t you think?


How can you improve your use of case studies?

How can you improve case studies, while at the same time enhancing the complexity of learning and developing the learner’s curiosity? More than this, how can you do it at no cost, using tools that you are already familiar with?

One challenge I face as a Learning Design Advisor is the perception that game-style environments cost a lot of money and require specialist development skills. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The link (click on the image below to download the pdf) will take you to a post-graduate case study for an MBA in Human Resource Management module, developed in PowerPoint and exported as a pdf. The case study uses a blend of approaches (slides, through to hyperlinks, audio files, pdf documents) to demonstrate what can be achieved in 4-8 hours of development time, depending on your level of experience, using everyday tools.

I hope you find it useful and, please, drop me a line if you have any feedback or questions: or

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Design Thinking: designing winning arguments for action

Design Thinking: designing winning arguments for action

Strange BrewIn a previous life (20 years ago) some of my poetry was published in journals in the US, I dabbled in dinner theatre (a singing Henry VIII), I play bass (badly), drums (not as bad) and I was in a band (Strange Brew) – I used to come out from behind the drums to sing a 5 minute ad lib story set to Van Morrison’s Gloria (sorry to all who were there). Why am I telling you this? I love the arts. I am a creative systems thinker, which provides me an interesting insight when exploring the science of business. It is also one of the reasons that Design Thinking resonates with me so deeply.

In my last post, I touched upon the science of business – Design Thinking really is based an a scientific process (Abduction – Induction – Deduction) – but users of the process also need to to be pragmatic; this is where designers, and their love of the artistic process, struggle in the business world. This is also a warning to all those playing with the new shiny toy that is Design Thinking, are you about to get stuck in the mud of the observation phase?

Observing and engaging people may help in developing deep empathy, but permissions have to be given if empathy is to move to meaningful action. In business, this means that Design Thinkers need to focus on gaining “permissions” to proceed  by designing “winning” arguments that open funding gates.

Winning arguments
Empathise, but use the “intelligence” to craft winning arguments!

Such arguments use the “intelligence” gathered during the empathy phase (all those rich observations) to design arguments for progression. Some things to consider:

  • Is your argument credible – is the evidence from your observations and engagement dependable and credible (e.g. findings that fail to consider the law of large numbers)?
  • You want to prototype! Okay, no problem, are your reasons logical? Do they fit with the goals (mission, vision, strategy) of the organisation; do they align with the value of the organisation; do they fit with the organisation’s standards? Have you considered that the argument for disruption is more-often-than-not more difficult than an argument for incremental change and relies heavily on a connection to emotion? [I’ve published a case study on this, which has just been announced as one of the top 5 winning articles for the 2016 CMI Articles of the Year Award, and I’ll share the decision process we created in the next couple of weeks]
  • Does your argument trigger emotion? We know that the two strongest human emotions are love and fear, so your argument should act as a tuning fork that creates the perfect pitch – see what I did there 🙂

Now, ask yourself, do you know your audience? You need to communicate your message in such a way that it resonates with individual stakeholders, their  groups/teams and the organisation/wider world.

This method isn’t a silver bullet, but it will certainly help you to move from dreams to reality. The bottom line, respond to these challenges and you’ll unlock the gates to action. Miss any of these challenges and the risk of failure increases.



Design Thinking: a scientific approach to learning in business/schools?

Design Thinking: a scientific approach to learning in business/schools?

Design Thinking, the “new” (not really) shiny toy for organisations the world over – see the Harvard Business Review article, “design thinking comes of age.” The best kept secret of designers the world over, brought to the wider organisational setting by the likes of Stanford D:School.

The Design Thinking process (empathise, define, ideate, prototype, test) is one of increasing certainty.

 Design thinking for advocacy | by Christine Prefontaine
Design thinking for advocacy | by Christine Prefontaine

It is usually represented as a linear process, but, in practice, it is very much a back-and-forth evolution toward certainty, as opposed to a step-by-step progression. The “secret,” or not, for those interested in consulting/Research Informed Teaching, is the scientific method that underpins the Design Thinking process: abduction – induction – deduction.

“At its most basic level, scientific method is a simple, three-step process by which scientists investigate nature. Begin by carefully observing some aspect of nature. If something emerges that is not well understood, speculate about its explanation and then find some way to test those speculations” (Carey, 2004)

The challenge is one of practical deployment, how do we (the learning designers) deploy such scientific methods as part of our approach to teaching, learning and assessment in higher education?

For example, at Swansea Business school we have been trying to enhance post graduate student understanding of why so many organisational knowledge management, human resource, organisational design et al. projects fail. My challenge, as a practitioner academic and learning design advisor, has been to paint scientific methods (rarely popular with experienced pragmatic professionals) from a practical perspective – e.g. how does unconscious/bias contribute to unintended outcomes?

This is where Design Thinking comes into a world of its own – a practical method with a scientific heartbeat. To help explain, the following is an example of my approach to developing “empathy” with postgraduate Human Resource professionals at Swansea Business School:

Design Thinking Swansea Business School
Design Thinking at Swansea Business School with HR Professionals

Empathise: your CEO comes to you and says that the organisation needs a new “return to work” policy, as there is a problem with absenteeism, where the organisation is 2% points above the sector average.

The typical approach by HR professionals is to accept the singular view of the CEO, create the new policy and implement it – reactive, top down, directed focus. Often, there is little consideration for the stakeholders or the situational factors relating to context – where is the empathy? Solutions are developed in bubbles and imposed instead of co-developed with stakeholders, for stakeholders. Here, people swarm around proximal causality (absenteeism = better return to work policy) instead of the underlying causality (e.g. absenteeism = stress from poor communication in an austerity-driven redundancy environment). The outcome is policy and practice that often lacks congruence with stakeholder needs.

Also, all too often leaders and managers fault to understand that by not empathising, by failing to consider stakeholders and their context, they miss the complex nature of the problem. Forget scientific method for a moment and think about risk, where such practice moves against basic risk governance principles for complex environments. The result, failure and an increasing vulnerability to highly negative unintended outcomes.

In such scenarios leaders and mangers fall in love with the solution, when they should really be falling in love with the problem.

To help students to understand the nature of the problem, as well as the need for them to develop empathy, I use several tools/approaches in combination:

  • start with the Cynefin framework (enrich their understanding complexity in relation to other task domains)
  • progress to the International Risk Governance Council Governance Framework, (a way to guide action in complex environments)
  • use a basic Socratic Circle method (moving the student away from proximal causality)
  • finally, taking a lesson from anthropology, get the students to ask a more powerful question, e.g. “what does a good return to work policy look like to our people?” (you can’t answer the question without engaging the people in the organisation).

I find this approach provides a strong platform for developing  approaches to developing deep empathy through empathy mapping, observation, immersion etc.

the D-Thinking task really did bring it home that we all encounter similar issues, and that sometimes what the “powers that be” decide needs “fixing” is often not the root cause.  Whilst daunting at first to be confronted by so many issues that are interconnected in some ways – it was reassuring that by using this really helpful approach, there is a structure and logic in how you go about tackling it, it’s not insurmountable! It encourages you to move fluidly between the different parts – it is all too easy to get carried away with how to work on a solution. (Swansea Business School student)
The bottom line? Design Thinking is more than just a shiny new toy for organisations to play with. Design Thinking is a powerful scientific method kept “secret” by designers the world over for centuries. The world of business should never be the same again!

Innovative teaching, learning and assessment (a Pecha Kucha presentation)

Innovative teaching, learning and assessment (a Pecha Kucha presentation)

This is a Pecha Kucha presentation for a conference on innovative teaching, learning and assessment being held at the University of Wales in November, 2015. The presentation focuses on some of my work as a Learning Design Advisor within Swansea Business School.

Let me know what you think of the content …

Cheers, David

Critical thinking starts with learning design

Critical thinking starts with learning design

I have a basic philosophy that if we (learning designers) are to be more than mere transmitters of content we have to model research informed behaviours with, not for, the learner.

More than this, if we are to improve “employability skills” (agile learners) we have to stimulate curiosity and critical thinking in our learners. How can we do this if all we do is transmit textbook content:

“Model “x” is taken from Chapter “y.” Here you will see that theorist “Z” is demonstrating how “A” can improve performance. Now, how would you deploy this in organisation “XYZ.”

Far too often the learner is prompted to accept that any given theory/model/framework/process is valid and beyond challenge. Why? Because we, the learning designers, present it as such. In practice, speaking from a social science perspective here, the reality is rarely so concrete.

The challenge for the learning designer is take basic research principles (behaviours) and model good practice through the design of the learning experience. A brief example:

  • I work to design experiences where learners are provided information about the nature of the environment the model/theory/practice/framework/process is set in (including time – i.e. when it was first conceptualised, then and now).
  • I then ask the learner to explore an accepted model/theory/process in light of this context via a “quest” – usually a widely accepted founding theory/practice/process (e.g. Chartered Institute of Personnel Development’s promotion of the Resource Based View as a founding principle for HR practice or the SECI model in Knowledge Management). Click the link (picture) for a Powtoon presentation that provides and example of a “quest” set for postgraduate students.

Bad Model quest

  • From here the learner is asked to present evidence that supports/disputes its use.
  • Learners are then encouraged to present evidence-based amendments to accepted theory/models/frameworks/processes.
  • The learner is encouraged to explore next steps, via suggestions for testing any proposed amendments.
  • Finally, I work to provide a critical analysis of my own, as a means for the learner  to compare and contrast their work – the Powtoon presentation below (click the picture) will provide you with an example of a “quest” conclusion.

Quest report

The outcomes often evidence the delivery of memorable learning experiences:

How far do we take critical thought?  I am calling into question the ‘best practice’ reported by CIPD.  If we, as a post grad team, can tear apart models that the CIPD call best practice what do our businesses think?  To evolve HRM to fit modern business in current environments is surely a good thing?……why then are models such as Farnham so far away from what we need HRM to be in the context of our retrospective businesses.  Come on CIPD!  (p/g Human Resource Management student reflective blog)


A basic requirement for a good piece of research is a critically informed literature review. We ask learners to demonstrate this ability in their assignments and yet all too often we fail to model these behaviours in our learning design.

We need to ask ourselves, if the learning experience has been focused on content transmission, who is at fault if such behaviours do not emerge when we ask the learner to communicate understanding via an assignment?

I challenge myself and the learners I work with with one question every day, how can we learn if all we do is what has been done before?

Nike & Lecturers: what future are we creating?

Nike & Lecturers: what future are we creating?

I admit, I’m a rebel with a cause. I want to see us, administrators, learning designers and learners, contribute more to the future.

I’m tired of assignments that are created six months before the learner is even known; a one-size-fits-all approach, in a world that implores us to nurture the individual. I do not accept the norms that dictate students complete a 5,000 word academic assignment that bears no relationship to the real-world experiences – unless, that is, the learners is to become an academic! I resist examinations that “test” simple knowledge when the learning/task domain is complex; this is just not good enough and goes against everything we know about adult learning. So why do “we” do it? Why do we treat adults, with their concept of self and existing experiences, in the same way we would a child? Why? Why? Why? The future starts with us, the learning designers – you might have guessed, I don’t see myself as someone who “lectures.”

Picture yourself in the learning space provided for your students today. Now, for those of you old enough, close your eyes and push your mind back twenty-five years. What does our future look like today? Has that much changed in the last 25 years – technology has moved on, but what about practice?

1980s - 2015
1985 and 2015 (inset)

This week Michael J Fox was given a pair of self-lacing trainers by Nike. For those of you who are not familiar with the story, Nike first imagined the self-lacing trainer for “Back to the Future II” in 1989 – Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) travels to October 21st 2015 and one of the “innovations” he sees is a Nike hightop trainer that laces itself when a foot is placed in it. In 1989 Nike had a vision for the future that tickled our imaginations. What we didn’t realise is that Nike would deliver on this vision for the future. On October 21st, 2015 (real world), Nike delivered Michael J Fox the first “real” self-lacing trainer – the product will go on general sale in 2016. Nike envisioned the future, gave us a glimpse of it, and then delivered it! Now, compare that with the picture of a university classroom in 1985 and a university classroom today.

Nike 1989 - 2015
From 1989 to 2015

We, learners and learning designers, are shaping the future. What is the shared vision? What will our actions create? What will we learn if all we ever did is what was done before? We love to talk, us academics, but words can lie, where as actions tell the truth.

I’m a rebel with a cause and I dream of fully immersive simulations – the Holodeck will be the “norm.” What about you?