Billy Bragg, Speakers' Corner, London, 7 February 2010

When I was on my recent trip to Japan and Korea, I came across an article in the Financial Times describing Australia’s reticence in adopting design thinking in business. The article itself is a high-level summary of research done at MGSM by Dr Lars Groeger and Leanne Sobel.

It’s a little chilling when you read things like:

“The results demonstrate that businesses in [Australia] are often unaware of how design thinking can help with innovation. The study also revealed that even when businesses are aware of the potential benefits of design thinking, they struggle to recruit appropriately skilled staff in Australia.”

I’m not at all surprised by the first sentence, but I’m singularly irritated by the second.

Let’s leave aside the matter of Australian business not yet understanding what benefits design thinking can bring, as it’s addressed in the paper, and, well, we could talk about it forever. However, let’s look directly at the skills issue.

Why is it yet again the case that something akin to the “not invented here” syndrome rears its ugly head? Australia has a rich community of design thinkers and service designers already practicing, and all well capable of helping business at any scale identify and solve complex problems.

So, why can’t businesses find who they’re looking for if the pool is, as I believe, well and truly rich enough? What is it they think they need? What questions are they asking, and of whom? What skills are they looking for?

The paper suggests there is a training and development gap here, unlike elsewhere, particularly in the US, and that the tertiary education sector needs to step up. I won’t entirely disagree, but I’ll also note that the people I know working in design thinking in Australia come from a range of disciplines, few of which were focussed specifically on design thinking. Certainly, offering further education in these disciplines can’t hurt, but it’s very much the case that highly skilled people already work here and do amazing work.

I sometimes wonder, reading academic papers like this, whether a particular kind of self-interest exists? Do academics working on certain problems naturally assume only academia can solve the problem by providing education-based answers? I hope not, because some of the best design thinkers I know are former journalists, demographers and ethnographers, qualitative researchers, and even, in two particular cases, people who have never finished university.

You can read the article, Australia must embrace design thinking, at The research paper is available from SSRN.