Applying design thinking to talent mobility management: how to get started By Olivier Meier, Mercer In a time of rising employee expectations and talent shortage, fostering a positive employee experience is high on most companies’ list of priorities. At the same time, mobility complexity is increasing: attempts to segment policies and individualize propositions for individual employee threaten to make HR tasks unmanageable if companies stick to the same old rigid processes. The benefit of digitalization itself will materialize only if it implemented in a user-friendly and human-centric way. More and more companies claim to put people at the heart of what they do, but without new approaches and ways of thinking, change will come slowly, if at all. Design Thinking is one of these approaches. Its concept stems from product design engineering and is increasingly being adopted by HR teams to develop new processes, organization structures, and HR solutions. Similar to other concepts like Agile Management, Design Thinking brings a breath of fresh air to HR and talent mobility practices by leveraging approaches successfully implemented by other parts of the business. What Is design thinking? Design thinking is a collaborative approach to finding new ideas and solutions based on the input from all stakeholders, as opposed to trying to impose processes on people and make assumptions based on theoretical concepts disconnected from the day-to-day activities of employees. The fundamental questions behind the Design Thinking philosophy are: How to put the employee’s experience at the center of the solution development process? How to learn from stakeholders and end users’ experiences to simplify processes and make tool and solutions intuitive and easy to use? Ultimately the objectives are to increase employee and business stakeholder satisfaction, leverage efficiencies, and increase return on investment. Design Thinking shares aspects of the Agile Management philosophy, and the two approaches overlap to some extent and can be combined. The focus of Design Thinking is on finding new solutions, while Agile Management provides a useful approach to develop and continuously improve these new solutions. Both approaches put emphasis on collaboration across functions and flexibility. From a practical perspective, Design Thinking breaks down the development process into different steps: Inspiration / “Empathizing”: The first step involves interacting with all stakeholders, observing them when they are performing their tasks, and gatheingr as much information as possible to understand the experiences, expectations, and constraints of the users. Some Design Thinking practitioners insist on the need for empathy, putting themselves in the shoes of these users to discard false assumptions and misunderstandings. In practice, that means the design team would use the tools employees rely on, or travel to the locations where international assignees are relocated. Defining: The objective of the second step is to define the core problem based on the input collected. An important aspect of the Design Thinking approach is that the problem should be defined in employee/user-centric way. For example, a problem could be defined as “international assignees and their families need to have a smooth relocation experience to increase their satisfaction while on assignments” rather than “we need to increase assignees retention by 20% to meet our business objectives”. Ideating / brainstorming: Creative problem solving techniques are used to come up with solutions designed to address the problem. The team meets for ideating sessions during which lateral thinking and new ideas are encouraged. Diversity matters: cross-functional teams including members with different backgrounds are strongly encouraged. Prototyping: In this step the team aims to have something to show to users to gather initial feedback. The prototype phase is a way to understand the limitations and constraints as well as the benefit of potential solutions. Rather than investing time and money to start developing a comprehensive solution that might not work, a scaled down version is designed. Ineffective solutions can be discarded, leaving the best one for the testing phase. Testing: The prototype selected is thoroughly tested by the team as well as selected end-users. The results of the tests are incorporated in the development process and if necessary the team goes back to the previous steps to refine its approach, brainstorm further, and get additional feedback from stakeholders. It is important to stress that the Design Thinking process is not a linear and rigid one. The different steps can overlap to some extent. The five-step model has been popularized by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Standford University. There are different models relying on 3 to 7 steps but following the same philosophy. An earlier 7-step version from Nobel Price Herbert Simon replaces the testing phase with “choose” (the best solution/prototype) and adds two steps: “implementation” and “learn” (from initial implementation.) Example of concepts and tools to help with design thinking Persona Personas are group of employees or users that share the same characteristics and needs. New solutions need to be developed with different personas in mind. Different assignee personas could include, for example, young professionals focused on learning and boosting their careers, older employees having specific requirements in terms of health and preparation for retirement, single parents concerned about day care, families worried about schooling issues and dual career development, top managers with high expectations, and locally hired foreigners who are already based in the host location. Journey map A journey map is a way to detail visually the story / experience from the user's or employee’s perspective. For mobility management, it will be the entire assignment cycle from initial candidate selection (talent pool management) to post-repatriation career management of former expatriates. The map should show clearly the different steps, timeline, and touchpoints (interaction with the different stakeholders). It could also include additional feedback such as the emotions or concerns associated with each step as well as the different channel used to communicate/interact with the business. Text can also be added to the visual display to provide more details and discuss how to balance the user’s experience with business requirements. Different personas might require different journey maps. Empathy map Understanding what users think and feel is an important part of Design Thinking. An empathy map is a method to display user’s input. For each step of the employee journey, the map show what the employees do / try to achieve, what they see / hear, what they think (comments & quotes), the problems (pains) and positive outcomes (gains) they experience. Additional information such as influences (what the employees might be told by other people) can be added. The empathy map is a way to dig deeper into the different steps detailed in the journey map and can be done for each assignee persona if relevant. Reverse brainstorming The ideating phase of Design Thinking usually relies on many different methods to foster creative and collaborative think. Reverse brainstorming is just one of them. Reverse Brainstorming is about reversing the issue to come up with new ideas: e.g. if we tried to make sure that this specific step of the relocation process went wrong, what could we do? After listing all the possible things to make it go wrong, would doing the opposite help identify possible solutions? The five steps of Reverse Brainstorming are: Identify the problem. Reverse the problem. Collect ideas. Reverse ideas. Evaluate solutions. While this approach is very simple, it can help in situations where team members struggle to come up with new solutions or cannot see beyond current problems. It is also a good way to highlight all possible issues. Touchpoints Touchpoints are the interactions between the employee and the organization. What are the assignees doing at each step of the assignment cycle? Channels Where and how are the interaction between the employee and the organization taking place? Are the assignees communicating with the mobility team by emails, using an online self-service tool, downloading an app, or calling their local HR team in the host locations? Prototype A prototype would be a limited and small-scale version of the final product designed to elicit initial feedback from the users. For a policies and processes, prototyping could be about doing an experiment with a small group of assignees and / or for only one part of the assignment cycle. How can it be applied to talent mobility? Much emphasis of mobility management is put on defining policies and set processes. In practice, mobility managers face a number of challenges due to the disconnection between mobility practices and the actual experiences of international assignees: “Soft issues”: success or failure of assignments is largely driven by human factors such as the satisfaction of the assignee with the relocation support provided, family and dual career issues, and cultural understanding. These factors are difficult to control by the company, but focusing on the employee experience can help mitigate some of the biggest problems resulting from international moves. Managing diverse expectations: the mobile workforce is becoming more diverse – more nationalities, different age groups and generations are being sent on assignments. They all have different needs and expectations. Making assumptions about what employees need and expect is hazardous. Different groups have different experiences on assignments and more individualized approaches – at least in terms of communication – is often required. There are also many erroneous assumptions about how mobility is perceived by stakeholders (local HR and line management): expatriation and its related cost are often perceived in subjective terms based on previous experiences (successful or not) or based on scant pieces of information and clichés (“expatriates are too costly”). Again, digging deeper into the roots of these perceptions and experiences can help understand what the company is doing right or what mistakes are being made. The ever growing complexity of mobility management processes means that rigid, one-size-fits-all approaches are rarely effective. At the same time, complicated segmentation and multiple policies can fast become a bureaucratic nightmare. A compromise has to be found to strike a balance between sophistication and simplicity. New technologies and digitalization could facilitate greatly assignments management but benefits will be achieved only if new technology are implemented with the end users in mind. Self-service tools, automatization of mobility admin processes and chatbots have the potential to enhance the employee experience but also to be a source of frustration. A company can have the best and most comprehensive policies but still delivery a bad mobility experience if the delivery channels (communication and processes) are not working well. HR and management in the host location might not understand properly the policies. Great relocation support is available but in practice assignees struggle to find the right piece of information or use tools provided to support their assignments. Local circumstances can derail standard processes or are not supported by the solutions designed centrally. Design Thinking can be used to create a “red carpet” experience – a great assignment experience from end to end. This doesn’t mean that the company should agree to every requests or increase the mobility budget. The focus is on identifying satisfaction drivers and efficiencies, as well as simplifying choices for assignees and management. In particular, Design thinking can be used to: Review the organization structure and how the mobility function should operate with a focus on the interaction with the different stakeholders. What channels are used and how they can be optimized? What’s the path that assignees, local HR, and management have to follow? Are there grey policy areas, communication issues, or tools and solutions that are not user friendly? Where are the touchpoints when dealing with the different assignment types? Increase employment engagement. How to gather ongoing feedback on assignment experience or encourage employees to take self-assessments and raise their concerns early in the assignment process? Drive digitalization in the right direction. What interactions should be handled by humans and which ones can be safely automatized? How should the human-machine interface be designed? Implement analytics. Which metrics and analytics can really make a difference for the business? How to capture relevant information and avoid data overload? The workplace is changing fast and HR teams have an opportunity to help reshape it. Understanding Design Thinking and other concepts like Agile Management or Employer Branding is a way to participate in strategic discussions about business transformation and position HR and mobility professionals as “people experience architects” – i.e. key players in the future of work. This implies upskilling the mobility team, but it is above all an opportunity to learn from best practices from engineering or product development and expand the horizon of HR professionals.