Using participatory design for redesigning organisations

I awoke to a beautiful morning in Melbourne today – perhaps Spring is finally on our doorstep and realised that in fact I was supposed to be in beautiful Spain today instead delivering a paper at the Information Seeking in Context conference. Thankfully I have a wonderful co-author and our ‘compromise’ was I would develop our presentation and she would have the ‘tiresome’ job of travelling to Spain and delivering it on both our behalves. I still haven’t quite worked out the equality in that deal…

Within Auraria Library at the University of Colorado, Denver something is happening…employees are engaged in collaboratively designing their workplace structures and systems. A new University Librarian, Dr Mary M Somerville,  was catalyst to providing the opportunity for change. Auraria Library was transformed into a social organisation in which individual and  collective capabilities developed through workplace socialisation processes.

Within just the first few weeks a new leadership structure was in place – not a radical organisational restructure or overthrow but a shared leadership structure – not based on heirarchy, but on drawing together a representative group across all functions and levels of the organisation.

This first phase of the  project used an appreciative inquiry process where each staff member was engaged in a conversation with the University Librarian or a senior leader (yes, the people at the top) in regard to their personal histories and future aspirations – liberated from corporate memory and past performances. Long term employees in this regard were offered a fresh start and the opportunity to tell their own story. This looking back and forward process empowered staff with not only a voice but also recognition of their service and wealth of experience. Through this process of discovery, staff were able to reframe their histories and renegotiate their roles. This resulted in the reorganisation of staff and redefinition of teams and roles in line with strategic goals, immediate business needs, individual skills and interests.

Phase two of the project employed participatory co-design approaches to imagine and redesign organisational information and communication systems. This process was facilitated through participatory design workshops on communication, decision making, and planning system elements which support the Library’s shared leadership philosophy.

The workshops allowed participants to express workplace values, critique current organisational processes and systems, and imagine an idealised work environment resulting in the co-design of potential solutions.  For example, participants articulated ideas such as valuing learning from one another. This raised the question of how does this occur and how do you implement intentional social learning elements into the work environment? And what measures can provide evidence of the value and impact of these learning encounters? By the conclusion of the workshops, participants had identified and in some cases co-designed a number of initiatives to implement the concept of ideal workplace communication systems.  These ranged from small initiatives such as standard file naming conventions for ease of repository retrieval to much larger and more ambitious initiatives.

Many of the initiatives identified within these workshops are now common work practice within the organisation. They are successful – and staff love them – because they were engaged in the process of ideating and designing them and they are specific to the context and needs of the people within their workplace. This was not a one off set of initiatives but the commencement of ongoing iterative collaborative design cycles to continue to build a workplace with and for Auraria Library employees.

Involving your staff in redesigning the workplace to be more effective for them – as individuals, as teams and as an organisation – is achievable and results in not just better systems and processes but more engaged and happier staff. So it can be done. Have you done something similar in your organisation? If you have I would love to hear about it. If you haven’t I challenge you to have a go – you may just be surprised by the amazing ideas and improvements your team come up with.

There is lots more to the story so if you got this far you may like to read the  full paper.

Published by zaana

Strategic designer and researcher. PhD in design. I care about people and creating better systems, services and experiences for them. I use human centred design as a method to do this. I write and present about design mindset, human centred design, design maturity, design thinking, user experience, service design, human centricity and empathy.

3 thoughts on “Using participatory design for redesigning organisations

  1. Zaana, what a great post, no wonder we work so well together when you consider the vital work that you are researching in your studies. I cant wait till you are blogging about more mainstream organisations adapting this approach to their design.

    Luv your work – but then you knew that 🙂


  2. Hi Zaana,
    I enjoyed reading your article as it reflects something I am doing at the momnnt.
    I am very interested in similar areas to you, in particular design thinking, innovation, and participitary design or co-design. I am particulatrly interested in how PD functions out in the wild, and what value the use of design as an activity can bring for innovation withihn organisations.
    I am undertaking a Masters by Research at the moment looking at these things and am just beding down some large organisations to collaborate with. This has been the tricky part!
    I have a compulsary core unit where I had to undertake a pilot research study. Using Action Research, I looked at how a project team within a pafrticular organition could improve their internal specification system for online project production. Currently it mainly consists of interviews for the first phase where participants explaing their current pain-points and their required information. I am also using Activity Theory as the meta-theoretical lens to analyse the data. It has been a really interesting project so far and I am thinking of writing a paper about this. To be honest, being familiar with PD methods, I found the idea of Action Research extremely exciting. In my opinion, in order to get employees to change and use new systems, they need to be part of it’s design. I think it’s as much about buy-in, and cultivating an attitude to trial and iterate, as it is about getting better system requirements.
    Anyhow, just my 2c.
    Are you planning on going to the PDC conference in Sydney later this year?

  3. Dear Zaana,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your description of the organizational transformation processes at the Auraira Library.

    However, you omitted both your role in the changes and also your contribution to the paper. You’ll recall that you served as an external consultant for one week’s time in 2008 and delivered both lectures and workshops on the importance of collaborative organizational design outcomes which further decision making, communication, and planning results of benefit to campus faculty, students, and staff. Amongst the most ‘innovative’ ideas that you introduced into our workplace culture was the suggestion of ‘tea’ – a time to talk informally fostered by food and drink. We have since adapted this idea to enhance the North American tradition of ‘coffee’ by adding chocolate to the menu. In August, we hosted a well attended “coffee and chocolate” event.

    In addition, you’ll recall that you and I have been co-authoring for several years. So you served as a full co-author for the paper and, admittedly, prepared the PowerPoint presentation solo – although, as evidence of change, I did contribute a cultural community-generated video illustrating the Australian notion of ‘informed learning’. Go to the Center for Colorado & the West at Auraria Library: and select ‘short documentaries’ in the navigation bar. Then select Salvaje y Libre (Wild and Free).

    In other words, we equitably shared responsibilities for conference manuscript completion and PowerPoint presentation creation over the past year. More recently, since we began this collaborative ‘knowledge making’ collaboration ‘with and for’ beneficiaries at three North American institutions, you have enrolled in a doctoral program. So I eagerly await learning about your further insights as your program progresses. In addition, I hope for continued writing, thinking, presenting – and, most importantly – dialogue and reflection opportunities with you in the years ahead.

    All the best,


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