Academic journal article Academy of Strategic Management Journal

Design Thinking: Organizational Learning in Vuca Environments

Academic journal article Academy of Strategic Management Journal

Design Thinking: Organizational Learning in Vuca Environments

Article excerpt


Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, the acronym VUCA, has come to define the digital economy as highly disruptive environment and potentially punitive to incrementally focused organizations. Learning is cumulative, incremental and as such, the efficiency of learning is highly dependent upon learning structures and the richness of existing knowledge. To further complicate this incremental paradigm, organizational learning relies on the accumulation of individual knowledge as well as communication structures to external and between internal environments of the organization. As a result of the incremental accumulative nature of learning and the difficulty in communicating knowledge, novelty in problem solving and innovation has become much more challenging in the new VUCA environment. Successful organizations operating in the VUCA environment are breaking this incremental paradigm to develop structures to intensify external knowledge absorption.

While quantitative, big data, analytics have come to define the digital VUCA environment, prevalent use of data mining methods rely on historical customer behavior and do not solely yield competitive advantage. In response to disruption, organizations are increasingly pioneering new models, frameworks, methods, structures and processes to engage with the customer to sense and seize emerging patterns and future trends not easily defined from quantitative historical data. Design thinking has emerged as an absorptive capacity and integrative learning method to approach complex and often ambiguous problems from the perspective of the customer. Popularity surrounding design thinking in recent years has been largely due to its application within innovation which has resulted in anecdotal successes of design thinking practioners operating in highly disruptive VUCA environments. Therefore, it is incumbent upon researchers to further the study of design thinking and its usefulness in a variety of contexts and organizational settings to gain a deeper understanding of design thinking and its absorptive capacity capability to promote organizational learning.

This research study addresses how design thinking is used as an organizational learning process to pre-empt disruption of the VUCA environment. While absorptive capacity and organizational learning research is rich and extensive, providing a firm basis to explore design thinking, there exists a need for additional empirical research of design thinking in a variety of contexts including highly disruptive VUCA environments. Extending on previous research, the purpose of this empirical study is to describe and document the perspectives of subject matter experts on how design thinking is used to facilitate absorptive capacity and organizational learning in VUCA environments. As a result of data gathered and thematic investigation, this study confirms the ability of design thinking learning structures to facilitate absorptive capacity and promote organizational learning in a technology driven, highly disruptive, VUCA environments.



Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, the acronym VUCA, was first developed by the US war college to define conditions military leaders encounter on the battlefield. Recently, the concept has come to define the competitive environment of the digital economy (Bennett & Lemoine, 2014) in which organizations must adapt past structures to match environmental change (Heugens & Lander, 2009). Desai (2010) affirms the role of technology and digital disruption noting advances in interactive technologies as reason for the changes in the way stakeholders learn. In a VUCA world, organizations can no longer focus on internal learning and instead should focus on co-creative and collaborative learning (Desai, 2010; Baltaci & Balci, 2017) outside the boundaries of the organization. Bartscht (2014) proposes that organizations must continually explore the VUCA environment, gaining situational understanding to sense and seize on opportunities and threats. …

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