Sponsoring higher education programs is becoming an increasingly popular tactic for large companies in need of a steady stream of specialized labor.
(TNS) — Around the start of the year, broadband conglomerate AT&T embarked on a new customer relations initiative.
Consumer expectations and competition are on the rise, AT&T executives said, so they needed to look more at how to better cater to customers. Specifically, they saw a need to invest more into the concept of design thinking, which is a method of step-by-step cognitive, strategic and practical processes used by designers to create design concepts.
As an increasing number of industries try to create better human-centered technology such as smart home systems and autonomous vehicles, experts say skills in design thinking have become crucial, with research showing that companies investing in design are pulling ahead of their competition as new programs rise from the demand.
The growing demand has given rise to educational programs like the University of Texas' School of Design and Creative Technology, an undergraduate program that debuted in 2017 and has grown into the College of Fine Arts' largest undergraduate school. This year, the school began partnering with corporations to teach design thinking workshops. AT&T was the first, piloting a design thinking workshop with the school for a small number of its employees, an initiative the company said it plans to expand to thousands of staff members in 2019.
"We recognize there will be positive impact by adopting design thinking," said Ryan Lutterbach, an AT&T executive that leads the company's design unit. "We recognize there is good evidence of design thinking being a best practice for businesses."
Three years ago, amid declining enrollment at the College of Fine Arts, UT launched a design thinking course for undergraduate students that became so popular university officials decided to expand the program and create a school.
Industries are being increasingly impacted by design thinking, according to Doreen Lorenzo, assistant dean of the school.
This includes everything from architects needing to build facilities that cater to human experiences -- such as projected lighting and wall movements -- to the design skills needed to build products like Amazon's Echo home system. The Echo and other artificial intelligence-powered products have been successful it part because designers have made them as human-like as possible. The skills also translate to numerous other challenges across various industries.
Investing in design has also been proven to help business' bottom line. A study published in October by management consulting firm McKinsey, for example, found companies that made design skills a priority outperformed industry benchmark revenue growth by as much as two to one. The research firm said it tracked the design practices of 300 publicly listed companies over a five-year period in multiple countries and industries.
UT's school of design offers degrees in various specialties, including design and arts and entertainment technologies. In just over a year, the school's enrollment has grown to about 500 students, becoming the largest undergraduate school in the College of Fine Arts, which enrolls roughly 2,500 undergraduate students per year, according to Lorenzo.
At the heart of programs is teaching students how successful designers work, Lorenzo said. This can include teaching steps successful designers at companies such as Uber take to be innovative, as well as how to work with engineers and other professionals of different backgrounds to create successful products.
"Companies started asking us about these classes," Lorenzo said. "They are learning from us, and we are learning from them."
To date, the school has run a design thinking or innovation-related workshop with five companies, including AT&T, Southwest Airlines and financial services firm Charles Schwab.
In total, more than 175 employees across the companies participated in design-related courses, said Julie Schell, the executive director of the program.
While UT professors have been leading the workshops, the idea is to also train corporate leadership in distributing course materials and lessons across companies to be able reach more employees. The workshops typically run three days and cost about $60,000.
While the price is high, the lessons can be crucial for any positions that deal with customers, said Lisa Hingson, a manager at Southwest Airlines' innovation division.
Lutterbach at AT&T said company executives are confident that investment into design thinking can result in better business practices.
Like AT&T, Southwest began a new initiative in recent years that is focused solely on innovation and entrepreneurship.
"The pace of change is very fast," Hingson said. "And it's only going to get faster. We want to stay in front of that pace of change and continue to attract the right talent."
UT said it is working to form similar partnerships with other Fortune 500 companies. While it is not the only university investing in design and conducting outreach -- SMU in Dallas is another -- UT leaders said they're trying to take advantage of a growing corporate hunger for design skills.
Lorenzo said the school is working to expand its services. This includes planned summer courses for high school students concentrated on graphic design and game design, as well as courses UT is working to establish for graduate students, K-12 students and for nonprofits.
Although investment into design skills was not ramped up until recently, Schell said the school now has both the demand and support to continue scaling.
"Companies now have problems that don't bend to the typical problem solving approach," she said. "Companies come to us with problems like, 'we are losing customers,' or 'our wait time is too long,' and what we do is we teach them a human-centered design system to solve those problems."
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