Training versus Service Design

I was chatting to a prospective client the other day, talking though the benefits of service design for a change programme they’re embarking on. One thing came up repeatedly in the conversation – the client’s instinct to rely on training. This interested me in two ways – firstly, is training really a good solution for a service organisations? Secondly how did training reach this sovereign position – where it is instinctively regarded as a powerful instrument of change, to the point that it rarely has a clear return on investment.

Every new recruit asks about training in their interview, knowing that the certificate is a tangible CV asset. As a result an enormous industry of providers exists, pushing out certificates for any number of skills. And in an era of “education, education, education” few people ever seem to ask “is there a better way?” So why do I think service design, or design thinking, offers a better approach?

Firstly, as a methodology, one of its most exciting characteristics is that it recognises people’s innate resourcefulness, and through co-design seeks to unlock that and apply it in innovative ways. It says “you the people at the coalface know what to do, so let’s work it out”. Regardless of education, most people – given space and a bit of encouragement – can offer up amazing insights into the things they do every day.

Secondly, put people on training and they get away for a few days, come back and – maybe – implement about 15% of what they “learnt”. Maybe I’m being uncharitable but this is my experience. If anyone’s seen any research to this end, I’d love to see it. But even if it was 50% I’d suggest this is a very poor return on investment. Instead, gather your employees together and get them to focus on what they do using design methods, and you’ll not only galvanise them as a group (so scratch the raft building cost too!), but you’ll also have them focusing on the business at hand – not some abstract theory of the business. I guarantee the next day they’ll still be at least 75% and as much as 100% engaged. Again – this is my experience.

Instead I’d argue that modern education and training, with its increasing reliance on certification, rather than the critical and creative skills I believe it should aspire to, puts a massive dampener on this inner resourcefulness. Instead of saying, “you have the answers within you, based on your experience”, it says “you don’t know enough, so listen to this expert”. Sending someone on training therefore risks undermining innovation, and actually damages your ability to truly innovate in a sustained way. And why do that when it’s also not giving you a good return on your investment?

Imagine saying to an interviewee “no – we don’t offer training. We like to work it out for ourselves.” It might sound like heresy, but imagine the sort of people who’d want to jump on board. Aren’t those the sort of people you want running your service?