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More “not invented here” – on design thinking and Australia

Billy Bragg, Speakers' Corner, London, 7 February 2010 by ed_needs_a_bicycle, on Flickr

More “not invented here” – on design thinking and Australia

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.

Stephen Collins
  • Jon Yeo
    Posted at 22:53h, 01 April Reply

    That’s not quite how I read it. I read it as something like “because they don’t get design thinking, the fail to know what a good and/or qualified design thinker is in order to hire them”.

    I think there is plenty of talent in Australia. Educating the market as to the need and value of design thinking is not as mature as it could be. The multinationals have more of an idea but they are not the major employer in this country. It’s small and medium business. They don’t get design thinking as a general practice at all.

    I do agree with your perspective on the education system.

  • Leanne Sobel
    Posted at 07:29h, 08 April Reply

    Jon, yes I agree it is more about how designers engage with business, and also how business look to designers to deliver design thinking – if they are looking to engage in it at all… overall the research found that Australian businesses tend to not see a need or are aware of it.

    It is important to differentiate between the complete research paper posted on SSRN and the Financial Times article. The Financial Times article was written for a business education section, and as such the article focused only on the research findings based on this context. The research paper on the other hand explored many themes beyond this and was written as a broader investigation into the status of design thinking in Australia – looking at the topic in relation to the way in which both business and design are engaging with it.

    The research report is written based on the views of professionals working in the industry and so we are only drawing from the experiences of those persons, and in relation to your comment about the skills gap – they provided specific evidence that they had to hire from overseas. This also comes back to the capacity/context in which they engage design thinking with business – and for that I think they have specific need for skills in that area. As such the below excerpt from the paper, may speak more directly to this feedback and to your questions in your post:

    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?

    Excerpt from report: “Currently there appears to be a significant gap between design and business in relation to the way design thinking is discussed and collectively explored in Australia. The design industry is pursuing design Thinking in order to “demonstrate design’s capacity to work within business and government”, while business are looking to it as “an approach to innovation that starts with people” or as “an approach to explore solutions to challenges” This demonstrates that businesses are not necessarily seeking design thinking from designers and the design industry’s agenda does not necessarily align to that of business. “I still think it’s early days and I think what we need are more spokespeople who articulate, and come speaking the language of business rather than the language of design”.”

    In the report the above is discussed based on the idea of designers and businesses people working in a more hybrid space based on this feedback from professionals working both in (and with) business and design. A common theme discussed was the difference between the language of business and design – also another theme was the idea of ‘t-shaped’ people based on Tim Browns definition in providing relevant skills in this space. (

    We disagree with the idea about the ‘academic paper’ being driven by self-interest in recommending education as an opportunity. This is because a designer wrote it (I am a designer and wrote it as a research report to conclude my masters in business management) and the content comes directly from insights provided by professionals working in this space – professionals from design, business and academia who have an interest in seeing the development of design thinking within their respective professional spaces. We do not disagree with you in that there are many modes or forms of education and backgrounds in which people can engage on this subject.

    We would love to hear the views of others and most certainly welcome feedback on the full report – please be in touch.

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