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?

3 thoughts on “Training versus Service Design

  1. ‘Training’ has had a better head start on service design for sure and you present a really compelling case for the strength’s of co-design and the long term benefits it offers business by comparison to the more solitary and extrinsic process of ‘training’.

    However, I’m not sure it’s ‘training’ in general that we are competing against as service designers:

    Training in the manner defined above is a solitary pursuit, it’s what you do as an individual to improve your skills, voluntarily or otherwise, it’s what an organisation that supports or encourages an ego culture sends you to do as an employee if they want quick short term improvements that can be measured comparatively against other employees. The customers views or opinions are not that important in this system and their control over the service they receive is therefore pretty low.

    It is this ego-driven culture that service design appears to be competing against. Co-design by comparison and as you articulate offers stakeholders and/or consumers the opportunity to participate and have some degree of percieved influence on the final service proposition. As you say this is such a powerful tool and those of us who have witnessed it or like yourself have been fortunate enough to facilitate or participate in such experiences quickly become strong evangelists for it. As the old saying goes, there are none so fervent as the born again!! 🙂

    However, my guess is that in many sectors/organisations and countries where an ego culture is still prevalent and where extrinsic rewards are still more widely acknowledged than social good or equality, (I’m thinking of the recent health service debate here). It is under the guise of more established modes of employee skill development such as the ‘training’ that you identify and indeed competitions such as the SDN Competition that is running at the moment, that Service Designers have the best opportunity to approach and convert those that have yet to see the light. 🙂 Or indeed develop their own skills in the manner of those they are working with (i.e. empathetically).

    There are still vast swathes of people who having been educated and evaluated against extrinsic criteria or who enjoy idolising experts (such as sportsmen and women) perhaps Service Design would do well to adapt a well measured and flexible (agile) response to such situations rather than inflexibly dismissing or ignoring situations or contexts that do not presently suit our tools and methods. I’m referring here to the SDN Competition and the response it generated.

    Perhaps that last point comes across a tad strong but it comes from someone who has been badly scarred and yet gained invaluable experience from assuming that the benefits of co-design spoke for themselves in a number of ‘old-school’ institutions, that simply weren’t ready to deal with them. I think it is important that as Service Designers we continue to challenge our own assumptions and take every opportunity to test and develop them.

    Yet another great post Joel. Thanks for raising this important and valuable issue.


  2. Hey Joel. I think your post should be called Training as a method versus Co-design as a method.

    Training is an important part of service design, its not in opposition to it!

    A lot of service design projects I’ve done start with a co-design approach, but in order to scale up across an organisation the ideas need to be formalised into training programmes (specific activities, documentation, scoring and evaluation systems etc).

    One thing that’s worked well for me is using the co-design teams to ‘train the trainers’ – i.e getting the original users/providers involved in designing the training programme with professional trainers/educators.


  3. joelbaileyuk

    Hi Nick. I was in a controversial mood when I wrote this. I think you’re right, but that conversation was not the first where a prospective client has banged on about training being the solution to a service failure. Used in the context of some sort of strategic, wholesale service improvement, then of course training can be useful. And certainly where you’re rolling out best practice. But just relying on training is the problem. That’s what I was arguing against (in my own angry little way 😉


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