After decades of stagnant and even declining growth, the KM industry, which has been struggling to establish its own identity and business value, may have some hope for a revival in the rapidly growing areas of Design Thinking (DT). However, it’s not going to be easy because, while Design Thinking is clearly an area of Knowledge Management, most Design Thinking communities don’t formally consider themselves to be part of the Knowledge Management community or industry.
A Brief History
While the Knowledge Management (KM) industry is considered to be roughly just a few decades old, Design Thinking (DT) is not new. As a concept and set of practices, formal problem solving has been around for generations and has formally been studied and practiced in many different discipline areas by many different professionals, such as but not limited to scientists, engineers, mathematicians, building architects, Free Masons, and most recently computer scientists (Calcott, 1769)(Sharp, 1899). Design concepts, thinking, and problem solving practices became more regularly documented topics for discussion and learning in the early 1940s (Van Doren, 1940). This being the case, the commonly used phrase Design Thinking and its embodiment of repeatable practices for ideation and creative problem solving is fairly new and has only recently gained massive notoriety, taking off in what one can hope is more than just another fad.
Examples of Design Thinking Frameworks
Examples of such frameworks include but are not limited to:
- Double Diamond Design Process Model (a.k.a. “Double Diamond”): Developed at the United Kingdom Design Council (2005) and formally published in 2006, this framework highlights the kind of creating thinking and problem solving practices commonly espoused by professionals such as scientists and engineers for many generations (Council, Design, 2006).
- IDEO Framework: Attributed to and fashioned by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, this framework espouses Mr. Brown’s view of what makes for creative problem solving (Brown, 2009).
- Solutions Architecture Framework (SAF): The IF4IT’s rigorous and repeatable Design Thinking framework used by management consultants, IT architects (e.g. Enterprise, Solutions & Business Architects), and Engineers.
- Stanford Design School (d.School) Framework: A problem solving framework that uses five clear stages or phases that are interwoven in a manner to express, both, sequential flow and iterative feedback.
Design Thinking as a subdomain of Knowledge Management
Regardless of which framework you pick, what makes Design Thinking appealing is its ability to be taught to the masses. DT simplifies (and some would argue oversimplifies) the approaches and practices associated with complex problem solving in a manner that someone who does not possess a heavy background in engineering, science, mathematics, or architecture can still learn and apply such concepts. In short, DT teaches certain ways to think.
Anyone reading the above statements and who is intimately familiar with the KM industry will instantly notice that DT clearly represents a concise area of KM that focuses on thinking practices for creative problem solving. However, those same KM professionals would have to acknowledge some unpalatable truths…
- In the decades that the KM industry has been trying to establish itself, it has yet to come to any repeatable frameworks and tools such as those that have clearly evolved in the DT space. (Read more about the struggling KM Industry.)
- During this time of trying to establish itself, the majority of KM industry clearly overlooked DT as an important subdomain of KM, even though DT is clearly tied to thinking activities.
- While it is clear that DT is a form of knowledge management, most people in the Design Thinking community do not acknowledge or claim to be a part of the formal Knowledge Management industry, meaning that DT is growing as a stand-alone area of study and practice, leaving KM behind and to stand alone if the KM industry doesn’t do something to tie DT to KM.
The opportunity for the KM industry appears to lie in its ability to claim and establish DT as a clear, practical, and truly applicable sub-area of KM related to areas such as thinking practices, ideation, and creative problem solving. Whether the DT industry accepts such assertions is yet to be seen. However, there is clearly a link that KM professionals can openly make that helps tie DT to KM. When we look at Knowledge Activities such as…
- Problem Solving
…we can make the point that Design Thinking frameworks and practices can clearly used to facilitate some of these Knowledge Activities.
And, when we dissect the above activities, we can also make the case that DT is not necessary for nor does it address all Knowledge Activities. For example, Curation and Persisting are activities that require no significant DT practices for success, unless of course we are solving for new ways to perform such activities in a manner that outperforms the old ways of doing so.
The Pros of Establishing DT as an area of KM
Clearly, given the natural synergies between DT and KM, there are advantages to be gained by the KM industry if it claims DT as a formal sub-area of practice…
- The KM industry can finally point to very clear and tangible frameworks, practices, and tools that yield real results.
- The KM industry can start to introduce other non-DT areas of KM to the DT community, possibly leading to a replenishing of KM interest with new bodies.
- The KM industry might gain some more positive press, which seems to have been diminishing over the last few years.
- By adopting KM, the DT community could possibly branch out toward Knowledge Activities that go beyond DT.
The Cons of Establishing DT as an area of KM
- Getting the preexisting KM community to formally accept, learn, and start practicing DT may take a while. During this time the DT community may continue to grow in a direction that might make it even more difficult to pull it into the realm of KM.
- It may be difficult to teach the large and growing DT community about other areas of KM, especially since DT seems to be the new shiny object in the room.
- The DT community might push back. After all, it’s come this far this fast without any formal association to the KM community and it might want to continue as a separate space.
Summary and Conclusions
While the Knowledge Management industry continues to find ways to establish itself, the Design Thinking community has found a way to grow in leaps and bounds. The reasons become clear when we look at the fact that DT community has circled around a tangible and expressible set of repeatable frameworks that focus on the creative ideation process for solving complex problems, while the KM industry has yet to find such foundations.
The opportunity, here, is for the KM industry to formally adopt and adapt to DT as a specific and controlled practice area for KM, one that correctly paints DT as only a subset of all KM and all Knowledge Activities. Doing so allows the KM industry to finally claim something tangible that it can offer enterprises (e.g. businesses and government agencies) while giving the DT industry a foothold into other critical knowledge areas that DT currently ignores. However, attempting to formally combine the two domains is not without risk as the DT community has done well on its own and may push back when KM professionals try to openly profess that DT is a clear subdomain of KM. However, this shouldn’t stop the KM from trying to cleanly merging the two since, after all, it has nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing so.
- Brown, Tim. “Change by design.” (2009).
- Calcott, Wellins. A Candid Disquisition of the Principles and Practices of the Most Ancient and Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons: Together with Some Strictures on the Origin, Nature, and Design of that Institution… author, 1769.
- Council, Design. “Double diamond design process.” (2006): 258-288.
- IF4IT. “The IF4IT Solutions Architecture Framework.” The International Foundation for Information Technology. 2017.
- Sharp, Archibald. “Journal of the Society for Arts, Vol. 47, no. 2439.” The Journal of the Society of Arts 47.2439 (1899): 755-766.
- Van Doren, Harold. Industrial design. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1940.