Educating Innovators

When does innovation begin? Is it at the moment of inception, or at the moment of adoption, or at the moment when the new innovation really displaces the old? An interesting question, especially as the implications of each milestone are fundamentally different, yet each is a profound accomplishment in their own right. British historian David Edgerton has argued in his book The Shock of the Old for a focus on something between adoption and dominance; and reliance upon what he calls “use-centered history” to mark the real impact of new innovations.

“Use-centered innovation” will, by necessity, celebrate not only advances in hardware, but also advances in utilization practices, and as our recent experiences with personal computers, smart phones, and tablets have so vividly illustrated, it is often well-after the “platform” is launched that the real innovation begins. What follows is an illustration of how changing learning requirements and changing technology platforms came together to create a real example of use-centering of innovation and in the process taught us about the evolving needs of innovation educators and our students.

Rethinking marketing

Recently, IMD was invited to assist a partner company in rethinking the world of Marketing, and particularly the essence of what we came to refer to as Wow! brands.  We were captivated by this possibility in part because of a growing feeling that a generation of managers has been lost to the core skills of marketing, in part due to the ease of marketing in the peak years prior to recession and in part because the fundamentals of marketing have changed and have become more social, though the opportunity to learn those social processes have not generally been available. IMD had an opportunity to change that.

The firm, a well-known, large, global, fast moving consumer goods company, was interested in what lessons that it could learn from a variety of “hot” brands that seemed to spread virally, energize consumers, and sustain themselves in the face of fierce competitive challenges. There was also a recognition in the organization that perhaps its own high-potentials, mid-thirties in average age, might already be too “old” to be conversant with the new social media that has emerged in such a short period of time[1].

The program, as a result, was designed to not only learn at the cutting-edge, but to adopt cutting-edge learning practices so as to shorten internally the time between innovation inception and adoption.

The program, as a result, was designed to not only learn at the cutting-edge, but to adopt cutting-edge learning practices so as to shorten internally the time between innovation inception and adoption. Accordingly, we decided that given the global spread of participants and their experiences we not only wanted to identify Wow! brands around the world, but to examine them using the most current practices we could assemble; in this case: iPads and social media for learning platforms.

An IMD team including Research Fellow Willem Smit, Learning Lab Manager Carlos Cordero, Marketing Professor John Walsh, Director of Partnership Programs Tania Dussey-Cavassini, and myself (Professor of Innovation & Technology Management) was given the opportunity to really be experimental in our pursuit of the program objectives.

Starting out

The program began by insisting that every participant become an “auto-anthropologist” and go out into the streets of their hometown, no matter where that might be, and video-record interviews with consumers regarding the brands that excited them. From these snippets of consumer reality, each of which was posted onto the participant’s personal blogsites, we formed teams of similar brand-orientations and then, using Facebook, had these teams work virtually to begin to build a mosaic from the individual “tiles” they had created. What we were looking for was a “story” that would come out of each team’s experiences, and which could be shared with senior executives in their firm.

Such is the power of social media that once they physically assembled at the Corporate Learning Center, the participants were already acting as “teams”, even though most of them had never met before. At the same time, we realized that the whole of our group was much more powerful than any few parts of it, and we turned from a traditional faculty-broadcasting role to real co-creation of the program’s content and delivery.

The bulk of our program time was devoted to group work – recognizing, distilling and generalizing the lessons to be learned from their team’s Wow! brand; the participants contributed the vibrancy of real-observation, while the faculty offered the distilling catalyst of frameworks, which also provided a common vocabulary for sharing insights and learnings. Together, we created stories that were sharable, generalizable and which offered rich insights into the new world of Brand Marketing.

The substitution of iPads for binders of paper material, made it possible to change everyone’s conversational habits so that we could take advantage of information on demand, at our fingertips, 24/7, and create: fact-based conversations as the norm rather than the exception; simulations, scenario comparisons and prototyping as common ways of testing new ideas; and instantaneous contact with much larger virtual communities via social-networking sites to bring co-creation into our everyday lives.

We think that it is no exaggeration to suggest that this program was fundamentally different in form and content from anything that we had ever participated in, in our long history of program delivery.

Learning about the brand

Best of all, from our perspective, was that we were big-time “net learners”, and among the biggest lessons that were learned were:

  • Wow! brands creators dream bigger than others, but if you rely only on corporate insiders for your dreams, you will have very few dreams.
  • Wow! brands all invite regular customers to share their dreams so as to co-create a shared future.
  • Most companies push innovations to customers, rather than inviting their customers to pull them based on their own needs. Wow! brands enjoy the power of pull from their fully engaged, co-creating customers.
  • Every organization needs to appoint someone to be responsible for making co-creation happen; it doesn’t happen on its own.
  • Co-creation requires the managerial self-confidence to allow outsiders to help plot an organization’s future.
  • Finally, successful managers need to understand the value of social networking technologies in making sound strategic decisions.

Our biggest personal takeaway from the Wow! brand experience was that, as always, getting more minds engaged in sharing the burden of creating new ideas both made it easier to find those new ideas and also produced much more interesting ideas than if we had tried to do it ourselves or even with a small team.

Learning about innovation education

The lessons that we took away from this program:

  • More minds are always better than fewer in searching for new ideas. Relying on everyone, particularly as they came from a diverse set of national backgrounds, increased the probability that we would be more interesting and more relevant to the audience than if we relied upon our own “teaching plan” as is so often the case with instructors.
  • “Co-creation” is also reliant on “pull” rather than “push” for getting ideas across. Since the program was “co-created”, everyone in the room was directly involved in determining what sorts of content were and were not included. This means that they all had a direct role in indicating what they needed to know; hence, “pulling” out the content that they were most receptive to receiving. This increased considerably the “fit” between content design and applicability to participant need. This does not mean that there was not also a place for occasional “push” content, but only that it was included when we were conscious of the impact that it was designed to have.
  • “Co-creation” is a form of “pre-selling” ideas. When the client is involved in co-designing the program, there is a greater likelihood of their being enthusiastic with the experience. It also became abundantly clear that “co-creation” was essential if we were to capture all the “local nuances” that comprise a global marketplace.
  • The use of iPads profoundly changed the nature of the conversations that we had. Instead of there being a source of distraction, as we had been warned about, they turned out, instead, to be an excellent way of having continuous shared, data-driven, and deeper conversations than any prior experience we had had. In addition, by loading all of the relevant materials we could think of, we allowed each individual participant to customize their learning experience by how they chose the depth they wished to explore in any specific field. In the past, we merely assumed a common level of interest for all participants and each received the same “depth” of material. With the iPad, we could literally add as much information as we had, allowing each participant to determine the amount of reading on any particular topic was “right” for them
  • The engagement assignments managed to increase the learning efficiency. The pre-program had successfully opened the debate before the participants met each other for the first time in the program week. Normally – without such engagement assignments – each program week starts with losing some learning time in letting people to get to know each other. In order to get familiar with each other, they need to go through group-storming and -norming stages. In this case, the teams had already started working together intensively and gotten acquainted with each other. Having co-created a story on the future of Wow!-brands before they arrived to the class room. The virtual (online) teams had already well advanced in their team dynamics, were (more) ready to learn. Almost all energy could be dedicated to learning.

By Bill Fischer

About Professor Fischer

At IMD, Bill Fischer is professor of Innovation and Technology Management. He is program director for two of IMD’s flagship Innovation programs as well as teaching in several other senior executive programs. He has a career that spans many industries (including WHO) and geographies and has deep knowledge of China, where he has worked extensively. He holds a DBA from George Washington University. 


[1] In particular, the firm was alarmed by the image of a “lost generation” of marketers, as portrayed by a former Unilever marketing executive in Tim Bradshaw, “Warning Over a ‘Lost Generation’ of Marketeers,” Financial Times, April 5, 2010.

  • Guest

    Sounds like a good way to get them to play Angry Birds…

  • http://www.facebook.com/jimtincher Jim Tincher

    A really good article.  I particularly like the quote:  The use of iPads profoundly changed the nature of the conversations that we had. Instead of there being a source of distraction, as we had been warned about, they turned out, instead, to be an excellent way of having continuous shared, data-driven, and deeper conversations than any prior experience we had had.

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