Do business students value design thinking and if so, how might they learn it?

  • Greg Holderfield

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The purpose of this study is to bring a greater understanding of the value that design thinking, which Herbert A. Simon (1969) defined as ‘a process of “building up” ideas’, has for business students in the United States and how students can learn it. The researcher defines design thinking as a methodology and approach that enables creative problem solving, which is developed through multiple solutions and iterated with a focus on contextual human behaviour.

The researcher’s interest in this subject, and thus this study, arose from being unable to meaningfully engage his business students in design thinking content—until the researcher launched a radical new prototype course for business students entitled Research-Design-Build(RDB), which is based more upon design culture. The iterative success of this new course led him to figure out what had happened and to develop an evidence-based specification for a curriculum that could be shared with other curriculum developers with similar courses and students.

While design thinking is often linked to literature in the service of product design, this researcher has found that a gap in the literature and academic research exists with respect to understanding the role of design thinking in United States business education and its potential value for students who are pursuing a master degree in business administration. The researcher gleaned further evidence of this gap in knowledge from business students at the host institution, Northwestern University, as well as from academics at universities ranked in the top ten nationally among business schools in the United States. The participating business students had no prior education in design, empathic design, or design thinking. In fact, these students primarily came from quantitative educational and work backgrounds, many of which were engineering focused.

The researcher gathered primary evidence through surveys administered to three 60-student cohorts of business students in the United States over a three-year period, both pre-exposure to the design thinking course Research-Design-Build (RDB) as well as post-exposure. In addition, the researcher conducted in-depth one-to-one interviews with a selected subset of these students and conducted a survey and in-depth one-to-one interviews with peer academic members at business schools in the United States.

A significant outcome of this study is that business students in the United States perceive value in design thinking as the result of their hands-on experience in the subject, which is also connected directly to business outcomes. Furthermore, the research outcomes provide a blueprint for other business schools and educators who want teach design thinking in business schools.
Date of AwardFeb 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Coventry University
SupervisorDavid Durling (Supervisor) & Jane Osmond (Supervisor)

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