Starting a new job can be a humbling experience. There might be a new building to find our way through. We try to understand who’s who and what we’re supposed to do each day. Training or orientation might happen right away or months later, and despite good intentions, only bits and pieces may stick with us.

There has to be a better way.

One telecomm company tried. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently shared an interesting story of a company who chose to approach onboarding differently.

Rather than trying to teach new employees everything they need to know all at once, they designed an experience that would span a full year. They used elements of design thinking to create professional learning that was customized for a specific role in their company.

To begin their planning, the company studied the job of a retail sales agent over the first nine months. Brilliant. In the design thinking world, this is starting at the ‘empathy’ stage. Spending time observing and speaking with others to better understand whom we’re designing for…

  • What are their urgent learning needs? What needs to be addressed immediately?
  • What systems need to be learned?
  • What products do they have to understand?
  • What processes will they need to learn over the first year? (e.g., getting to know customers, product experts, fundamentals of sales and customer service)

With this information, the company could get a sense of what learning is imminent and what might be offered over time. And time has been found to be an important facet of effective professional learning…

From the report, Effective Professional Development in an Era of High Stakes Accountability (2013), in order for professional learning to be effective it needs to:

  • Take place over time
  • Provide support at the time of implementation
  • Be active, and not passive

From the article, it sounds like the company’s design thinking approach did just that.

Learning Over Time

Rather than learning everything they needed to know in a few days/weeks with no follow up, there was a planned progression to the learning based on agents’ needs and their work.

From the company’s observations over nine months, they developed a “journey map” that showed what agents needed to know the first day, the first week, the first month, and then over the first few quarters. True, deep learning could take place over time.

Providing Support at the Time of Implementation

To help us truly understand new information and develop our skills, we need multiple opportunities to use it. As the old adage goes, “use it or lose it.”

To support employees implement their learning on the job, the company built an app that looked more like a game than a learning system. They could access videos on demand, add social connections, sign up for coaching sessions, and share their learning with others online. Rather than receive an overwhelming amount of information in an isolated training session (maybe months before they’d use it), they could access exactly what they needed and when they needed it. Just enough, just in time, just for me.

Active, Not Passive

There are lots of different ways we can learn something new. We might watch how-to videos on YouTube, read, listen to podcasts, sign up for online courses, observe others, discuss… we learn in varied and active ways. Sitting passively and being told what we need to know doesn’t work for us all.

Although the HBR article didn’t share the specifics of how each learning session was designed, we can begin to imagine how we might make learning more active for those we design for.

All in all, I loved reading the HBR article, Using Design Thinking to Embed Learning in Our Jobs. It was encouraging to read about a company who was interested in understanding the experience of new employees and were open to taking a new approach to previous practices.

I recognize the article is a snapshot and I don’t know whether the company created an onboarding process that made a difference for employees. I do, however, appreciate how the article inspires us to approach learning and onboarding differently through the lens of design thinking.

We can do things differently.

We can learn more about the people we’re designing learning for. We can think about what learning might look like over time and say goodbye to the archaic practices of orientation days or isolated training sessions. From both our own experiences and findings from research, we know they need to be a part of a much bigger picture.

Design thinking has a role in our organizations, especially when it comes to how we learn. It’s a matter of asking ourselves, how might we get started?

Author’s Note: If you’re interested in learning more about the design thinking process, Stanford has a great overview and a video from 60 Minutes shows the process in action.

Design Thinking Process. Image from: