Learning while Innovating


Learning and development (L&D) professionals are increasingly becoming business partners, trusted to optimise performance and sustained business outcomes. We have a critical role in driving a learning culture that permeates throughout the fabric of our organisations.  We design meaningful learning experiences that generate value for our learners, their organisations and the people they serve. 

Trust is a great privilege and has been earned by leaders like Cathy Moore, Jane Hart, Stella Collins, Charles Jennings, Michelle Ockers and Arun Pradhan, to name just a few. These experts have not only role modelled behaviours that enable L&D professionals to generate value, they have shared their knowledge with us so we can do the same. They have moved our profession beyond content delivery to becoming a strategic business partner delivering organisational outcomes.

The theory

L&D professionals draw on their knowledge of behavioural and cognitive science to influence human behaviour. Our understanding of human behaviour has ancient origins. Socrates used questioning as a method of enquiry to support others to learn about themselves and their environment. Forms of the Socratic Method are still used by educators today to uncover underlying beliefs, stimulate ideas and promote critical thinking. Socrates believed that by asking questions, we are able to uncover knowledge that exists within us that may be outside our consciousness.

English philosopher John Locke claimed that humans learned through their life experiences. He is quoted as saying:

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas:—How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience.

Social constructive theorists like Kolb modernised these theories, claiming that knowledge is constructed through social interaction. He proposed that humans learn by experiencing, observing, reflecting, conceptualising and experimenting. This learning can then be applied to new experiences and situations.

Nick Shackleton-Jones argues that when memories are formed they are encoded with an emotion that will influence our future behavioural response. This emphasises the need to make learning a positive experience that appeals to the learner. This will promote learning but is also more likely to provoke a desirable behavioural response.

Clark Quinn addresses Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve by reminding us that knowledge is transient and that if it is not reinforced, it may be lost.

L&D professionals are able to draw on these theories to design experiences that facilitate learning to influence human behaviour.

The benefits

Human centred design (HCD) is an approach used by L&D professionals to facilitate social construction of knowledge to uncover innovative solutions to real world problems. It can occur as part of work so humans remain productive while they learn. It is spaced over a period of time which allows learning to be reinforced which supports retention. Importantly, HCD solves a real problem that is being experienced by those involved in designing the solution. This creates an emotional connection to both promote participation and encourage buy in from those designing the solution.

This is where the value is both generated and realised.

HCD is a form of design thinking that begins by empathising with humans experiencing a problem to understand how it affects them. It is based on the premise that those experiencing a problem are in the best position to arrive at an optimal solution.

The foundation

Professor Kees Dorst from the Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation at the University of Technology, Sydney emphasises the importance of problem framing to promote active engagement. Effective problem framing defines the problem to reflect the attitudes and beliefs of participants in the HCD project.

The effectiveness of HCD will be determined by the knowledge and experiences of participants and their level of engagement. Participants should include a diverse range of humans with varying degrees of expertise. These participants must be prepared to listen to the needs and information shared by others to co-design mutually beneficial solutions.

The HCD consultancy IDEO claims the value of human centred design is found at the intersection of the solution’s feasibility, viability and desirability. They believe that if a solution meets these three criteria, it will deliver sustainable value for those facing the problem, the organisations invested in delivering the solution and their customers.

The techniques

HCD relies on a blend of analytical and creative thinking which requires ambidexterity to move fluidly between exploration and exploitation of ideas. Abductive reasoning drives divergent thinking by prompting participants to consider what might be. It combines inductive and deductive reasoning to explore new possibilities to accelerate innovation and learning simultaneously.

L&D professionals stimulate idea generation by asking what might be. This prompts divergent thinking and stimulates creativity. Divergent thinking is free flowing to allow ideas to emerge. This is where new connections are made, knowledge is constructed and learning occurs.

Participants in HCD collaborate to narrow down the list of possibilities and then create minimalist prototypes for testing. Together they evaluate the effectiveness of the prototype in overcoming the problem using inductive and deductive reasoning.

Inductive reasoning takes experiences and observations, including what we learn from others, to determine what is. It moves backwards from experience and observation to arrive at a theory or conclusion.

Deductive reasoning helps to determine what must be. It supports us to draw conclusions from multiple premises and enables us to narrow down choices.

This process is repeated in cycles until an optimal solution is found.

The environment

Throughout the process, participants engage in conversations to explain their thoughts and ask questions to enable them to consider different perspectives and gather new information. Participants must empathise with others to understand alternate points of view. When the problem is framed correctly, participants are likely to be emotionally invested in solving a problem that matters to them. These social interactions expose participants to emotions and information that will influence how memories form. It is therefore imperative the process occurs in a psychologically safe environment where participants feel safe contributing without fear of negative consequences.

When facilitating a HCD project, L&D professionals must support participants to draw on their human capacity to be intuitive, empathetic, analytical and creative. We must ensure participants have the emotional intelligence to manage their own and other’s emotions. This will encourage social interaction and promote collaboration to provide a positive experience where innovation and learning can occur simultaneously.

The responsibility

We are living in a time where business as usual no longer exists. Now is the time to move forward. We must draw on our expertise to facilitate learning while uncovering innovative solutions. In doing so, we will demonstrate the value we are able to provide to our learners, their organisations and those they serve.


Garvey, J and Stangoom, J. (2012). The Story of Philosophy. Quercus.
IDEO.org. (2015). The Field Guide to Human Centred Design, https://designthinking.ideo.com/ accessed 13 July 2020.
Kimbell, Lucy. (2011). Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I. Design and Culture. 3. 285-306.
Quinn, C. (2014). Revolutionise Learning and Development: Performance and Innovation Strategy for the Information Age. Wiley Press
Shackleton-Jones, N. (2019). How People Learn: Affective Context – The First General Theory of Learning, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lR1Fwqt0G8, accessed 13 July 2020.

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