October 27, 2023 TOPICS

[Ambitious Graduate Students]Harnessing the Power of Design to Confront Complex Issues:Design Management for Government Organizations

Haruhi Miyoshi, Graduate School of Business Administration

Design thinking and design management. In recent years, several books with these terms in their titles have been published.

When most people hear the word "design," they probably think of the means of visual expression, such as graphics. In reality, however, design encompasses not only the means of visual expression, but also the concept of reframing problems to give them new meaning. As the trend to incorporate design into many organizational operations and business scenarios is spreading worldwide, Haruhi Miyoshi, a second-year master's degree student in the Graduate School of Business Administration, is harnessing this approach to conduct research on public administration organizations.

Design management:An approach to reframe issues and generate new meaning

In today's uncertain times, as globalization and IT continue to spread, design management, which applies design thinking to organizational management, is attracting a great deal of attention as a way to solve various problems and help us adapt to a new kind of society. For example, the design mindset is said to play a significant role in the innovations of world-leading companies like Apple and Starbucks. So, what exactly is a design mindset?

“It is difficult to define design, but I believe that one of the important things to consider when you talk about design is the 'attitude’ or ‘mindset' toward things. In design research, this is called the design attitude (Boland and Collopy, 2004*1), which refers collectively to the beliefs and methods that designers use when confronting problems or situations involving problems, and I think it could be described as the attitude one takes toward creative problem-solving. Professor Kazaru Yaegashi and his colleagues at the College of Business Administration at Ritsumeikan University wrote a paper*2 that outlines previous research on design attitude. For example, Michlewski (2015)*3 indicates the following five aspects of design attitude: ‘1) Embracing Uncertainty and Ambiguity, 2) Engaging Deep Empathy, 3) Embracing the Power of the Five Senses, 4) Playfully Bringing Things to Life, 5) Creating New Meaning from Complexity.’”

One of the reasons Miyoshi became interested in design management was the concept of "reframing," which she learned forms the core of design. This refers to redefining the problem statement for the situation at hand by looking at things from a different perspectives outside of the existing framework.

“There is a famous anecdote about an elevator that illustrates what makes reframing so interesting. Residents of a building complained about the elevator being too slow. If this is taken, as is, to be the problem, then you end up coming up with a difficult, technical solution like upgrading elevator performance. However, if you reframe the problem as having to wait too long for the elevators, then you can come up with a different solution: install a mirror. When this solution was actually implemented, people began to groom themselves while waiting for the elevator and the complaints stopped. I remember being very excited when I heard this story about how you could bring about a completely different world just by slightly changing the words you use, how you define an issue, or the way you look at things.”

Providing the essential value of design to government organizations

The topic of Miyoshi's current research is design management for government organizations.

“Being raised by a mother who was a teacher, I once aspired to become a public servant, so as I became more and more enamored with design, I came to develop an interest in design management for government organizations. Unlike for-profit companies, which have a clear goal of pursuing profit, the needs that government organizations have to meet and the roles they have to play are complex.”

In recent years, the trend to incorporate design into government organizations in Japan has been gathering steam. In 2022, the Japan +D Project was launched by young employees of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to popularize design thinking. While this is a research field that is attracting a lot of attention, there are also concerns about negative aspects and disadvantages.

“Looking at the prior research, I found many studies and practical applications where design was introduced into the activities and policy making of government organizations. However, there have been reports of cases in which the traditional decision-making process in government organizations has been contradicted and confusion has arisen when the methods practiced in companies are adopted as is. If design is promoted without regard for the realities of the organization, a government organization without foundations in place to embrace the concepts cannot enjoy the intrinsic value of design.”

Therefore, Miyoshi is working on extracting the design elements that lie dormant in the organizational culture of government organizations, and she is examining whether design management can be built up internally rather than adopted from the outside.

“There are cases where processes are replete with design thinking, like the establishment of progressive public institutions. However, in many of these cases, the design elements are already built in. When it comes to the organization as a whole, it seems to me that the concept does not permeate well because you must seek a balance with various systems. I also think that practices with design thinking built in are often a matter of tacit knowledge. Therefore, while I use case analysis to extract those design elements that are already ‘baked into’ the organization, I am also thinking about and studying how these design elements can be disseminated throughout the organization.”

Miyoshi’s master's thesis focuses on the people who belong to organizations. To understand the reasons for the project's results, she is using a qualitative research method called Trajectory Equifinality Modeling (TEM) to investigate the background of each of the participating subjects.

Transcending disciplines without fixating on fields of expertise

Although the idea of incorporating design management into government organizations is attracting a lot of attention, Miyoshi says there are constant challenges unique to the field of public administration that she must deal with when conducting her research.

“There is still not enough research on design management in government organizations, so we need to find the case studies ourselves to overcome the lack of available cases. What’s more, the bar for information disclosure is high, and it's not always an easy task for us to access information.”

When conducting research in the face of difficulties like these, Miyoshi says she strives to emphasize an unbiased and fair perspective.

“Precisely because we are promoting design, it is important for us researchers to avoid fixating on the approaches from our own fields of expertise. I believe that honestly addressing viewpoints and opinions from a diverse array of academic fields, including business administration, sociology, and psychology, will produce valuable research outcomes, which in turn will lead to the creation of a better society.”

In terms of diversity, Miyoshi says the global environment of Ritsumeikan University's Graduate School of Business Administration has also had a positive impact on her learning. When communicating with international students from various backgrounds, she has found that they have more in common and can understand each other better than she had imagined.

“I realized that just as Japanese people have different ways of thinking and different values, there is no need to have a special attitude toward students just because they come from overseas. I feel that I have gained invaluable experience by putting myself in a highly diverse environment.”

In October 2023, an essay that Miyoshi wrote on the importance of design attitude for the DMI Student Essay Competition, which is sponsored by the Design Management Institute (dmi: https://www.dmi.org/) in the United States, was selected as a winner. Expectations are high for her to continue publishing more global research outcomes on design.

Aiming to be a professional who can put research outcomes into practice

Miyoshi has loved to read since she was a child, and she used to want to be a copywriter for advertisements. She says the concept of reframing also applies to copywriting.

“Coming up with the language that will allow a large number of people to easily understand the benefits and roles of a product or service requires you to think in terms different from the existing meaning. As I continued my research, I realized that the approaches used in both copywriting and design are very similar in this respect. I find it interesting that design has something in common with the world of advertising, which I have always loved.”

Awakening to this interest in design, Miyoshi, who was taking Professor Yaegashi's seminar in the College of Business Administration, took advantage of the early entry program. She skipped her fourth year of undergraduate study and advanced to the graduate school after completing her third year.

“I could have spent my fourth year preparing for graduate school, but I have learned that practice is important in design thinking. I had already completed all of my required undergraduate credits, so I took the plunge. Although the program's name might lead you to believe that the emphasis is on academic performance, placement is determined with a selection process that requires you to submit a research plan and sit for an interview. This is why I recommend it to any undergraduate students who are thinking about going to graduate school.”

Miyoshi plans to enter the doctoral program and continue her research with an eye on starting her own business.

“I enjoy delving deep into my thought process and expanding my knowledge, so I will continue to focus on the topic of design as I have done so far. In the future, I would like to put business administration and organizational design management into practice as a professional while analyzing and producing new research outcomes as an observer. I aim to speedily translate my research into practice, then feed that back into my research.”

*1: Boland Jr, Richard and Collopy, Fred. Managing as designing. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.
*2: Yaegashi, Kazaru, Ando, Takuo, Goto, Satoshi and Morita, Takafumi. “Kigyo no dezain-ryoku wo sokutei suru tame no tsuuru no kaihatsu” (Development of tools for measuring corporate design proficiency). Dezain Kagaku Kenkyu (Journal of the Science of Design). Vol.1., 2022.
*3: Michlewski, Kamil. Design attitude. Burlington VT: Gower Publishing, Ltd., 2015

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