A while ago I read a super interesting HBR article about purpose-driven organizations, and the importance of design thinking in creating an open, collaborative, and more focused work environment.

Feeling inspired, I immediately shared the following thoughts with my professional network: “you do not invent a higher purpose; it already exists. You can discover it through empathy—by feeling and understanding the deepest common needs of your workforce. That involves asking provocative questions, listening, and reflecting.”

To be fair, many ideas that design thinkers have put forward in recent years can long be found in management and organizational communication literature, and qualitative research (such as ethnography) in particular.

However, ever since I’ve come across Tim Brown’s book Change by Design (2009), I have been thinking about the relevance and use of design thinking in addressing some of the most pressing global issues (funnily enough, only covered at the end of the book!).

I strongly believe that approaching organizational purpose as an iterative, ongoing, collective process (rather than a one-time, top-down management strategy) is not only an intriguing but also needed in organizations that wish to build (upon) a strong and committed corporate culture. Especially, when dealing with topics such as CSR and sustainability.

To someone who believes that CSR (or responsibility of any type of organization, really) begins with people who actually live and bring such an organization to life – namely, employees –, the idea that companies need to employ a people-centered approach to tackling societal problems is paramount.

This nevertheless concerns management and leadership processes aimed at successful implementation and execution of CSR strategies within the organization. While managers and leaders continuously recognize their employees as key ambassadors of companies’ CSR programs and activities, understanding what the former have to say about employees’ role in enacting CSR is often not enough.

Too often we hear of stories about companies trying to drive greater employee engagement by introducing new exciting CSR programs for their workers, or using various fancy communication tools and tactics to spread of the world on CSR opportunities in the workplace, but that end with little employee commitment, motivation, and interest – and perhaps even more importantly, little societal impact.

But do employees even care about their company carrying out CSR programs and initiatives? Is social and/or environmental responsibility of their respective employer something that keeps them motivated to come to work? Does their company’s CSR mission make them re-think the ways they perform their daily jobs?

Only by asking the right questions, and continuously reflecting on gathered feedback, can we get closer to understanding why and how people might be willing to gather around the same purpose or cause.

Thinking about my own work, I have conducted several dozens interviews and focus groups in companies across various industry sectors in the United State and Europe to found out that employees commonly have difficulties with understanding what CSR even means, not to mention being uncertain about expectations when it comes to their own involvement in CSR efforts.

These findings reminded me that in order to fully understand and grasp the employee potential in CSR (the main focus of my dissertation), I have to start by asking more fundamental questions, such as why – and whether at all – employees matter in driving CSR.

Indeed, I would argue that asking the right questions – something that design thinkers like to repeat over and over again – is very much in line with how many communication scholars (particularly those who are fond of the constitutive and constructivist views) would go about approaching various organizational issues.

This also leads me to my final thought, namely, what organizational communication scholars can learn from design thinkers? And vice versa, what can the scholarship offer to design thinking?

Or, to use design thinking language: “How might we …?”