The need for creating and sustaining a learning culture in organizations is critical given the rise of digital technology, the rapid pace of change, the complexities of globalization, and the growing development demands of a diverse workforce. However, the challenge of changing the culture of an organization can seem overwhelming, especially if you work in a large, established, conventional company.

So I was intrigued to hear that IBM, a 100 year old, world-wide company of over 370,000 employees, is embarking on a culture change that is heavily dependent on learning.  According to a column by Steve Lohr in the New York Times, IBM is seeking to reinvent itself as a “design thinking” company. Lohr writes:

…the IBM initiative stands out. The company is well on its way to hiring more than 1,000 professional designers, and much of its management work force is being trained in design thinking. “I’ve never seen any company implement it on the scale of IBM,” said William Burnett, executive director of the design program at Stanford University. “To try to change a culture in a company that size is a daunting task.”

Critics have responded that design thinking is nothing new, that their own companies have always been customer focused and responsive to customer needs. I’m sure IBM employees would have made this same argument prior to the design-thinking initiative. However, design thinking is different in its intensity of focus on the customer and on the customer’s problem that needs to be solved, in the relationship between designer and customer, and in discovering creative ways to solve a problem. It’s not about customizing products and services to meet customer needs; it’s about finding the best solution to a problem given the circumstances.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO and author of Change by Design, writes that design thinking is:

…the collaborative process by which the designer’s sensibilities and methods are employed to Designthinkingmatch people’s needs with what is technically feasible and a viable business strategy. In short, design thinking converts need into demand. It’s a human-centered approach to problem solving that helps people and organizations become more innovative and creative.

It would be a mistake to assume that IBM designers and their customers (internal and external) will become proficient in design-thinking by simply attending a workshop or taking a set of courses. That might be the start, but learning and application of that learning must be an ongoing process. People need to learn the principles and tools (e.g., iterative prototyping) of design thinking. They also need to learn how to develop empathy for their customers. And, as David Kelley describes it, they need to learn “creative confidence”, a belief in themselves that they can be creative regardless of what they have been telling themselves since elementary school.

IBM employees will need to learn how to help their customers learn how to be creative. So it’s not only about their own learning; it’s also about facilitating the learning of others and helping others develop creative confidence.

IBM can be successful at bringing design thinking into its culture if it has the mindset of continuous learning by everyone. Start with formal workshops and courses and then, at The Pivot Point, transition designers and other stakeholders (sales, marketing, R&D, etc.) to all of the various forms of informal learning that will result in application of the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs of design thinking over time.