Bruce Nussbaum recently asked via Twitter whether design thinking was the new liberal arts. He describes design thinking as "the integrative solvent that brings together the programs through a powerful methodology that solves a myriad of problems." He says we should be moving away from the MBA and on to the MBD (Masters of Business Design). I agree with the importance of "design thinking," but will focus my thoughts here on systems design.

Systems design more clearly, for me, includes all of technical, organizational, and people systems than does the term "design thinking." I'd also push ahead and say not just "liberal arts," but "general education." Basically, I think Mr. Nussbaum and I are both saying that systems savvy and design skills are critical for all of us, and need to be included in broad-based educational offerings.

Universities are getting on-board (and I hope high schools are as well -- do you have any links to share?). Atwater, Kannan, & Stephens published a 2008 study of the extent that Business Schools teach "systemic thinking." While the definitions varied, the majority of the top 63 graduate schools of business were teaching aspects systemic thinking, and 74% of the respondents agreed that the topic was essential in graduate education.

How do we teach systems design skills to people without a technical systems design background?

A simple translation of the basics of systems analysis provides a start. I've translated Hoffer, George, and Valacich’s information systems analysis concepts to a more general work systems form with the acronym: BUILDER. The idea is that the first skill you need is how to map where you hope to go with your systems design, and the context that you must deal with to get there.

  • Business objectives: These are the basic motivations for what you're trying to do. You may not think of them as "business objectives," but it will certainly help you get organizational support if you do. For more personal systems design, just ask, what do I hope to gain from this new tool (e.g., iPhone upgrade) or practice (e.g., telecommuting)?
  • Universe: Context and history are valuable both so you can learn from past efforts, and to help you begin to understand the other stakeholders' interests. Understanding these interests are critical to any future "negotiated implementation."
  • Information needs: Who needs what information, and in what form? For example, in team performance, Transactive memory: Knowing who knows what, who needs what information, and how to coordinate given that knowledge is a key predictor of success.
  • Laws: Policies, required procedures, regulations, and the like are an important backdrop to any design. Perhaps you don't want these to limit your initial thinking, but they ultimately have to be considered, even if just to attempt to change them. For example, financial firms may have federal regulations regarding the archiving of communication. In those settings you must conform to regulations even in the use of social media.
  • Dynamics: The time frame and sequencing of stakeholder interactions and build order (Do I have to delete an existing application before I can install the new one?) are the basics of this aspect of the mapping. For any major information technology design it should have "full backup" as a first step.
  • Events: By what milestones should the design and implementation be judged? How will you know if you are progressing in the way you hoped? What metrics can you use to track the process.  Tracking is critical as otherwise you can't know if you need to make adjustments.
  • Reach: What is the magnitude of this project in terms of people, money, number of other systems touched? Reach also helps you consider the ROI. How much investment in the process is wise or supported given the reach?

I see BUILDER as providing a set of mapping topics to prepare for the design process. I look forward to taking the next steps: What is design thinking in the context of work systems design? What do all of us need to know? How do we evaluate our TOP (Technology - Organization - People) design skills?  Do we need everyone on the team to have these skills, or is it enough if just one of us does?