Disrupt yourself – using partnerships to innovate

Disrupt yourself – using partnerships to innovate

If you don’t disrupt your business, we’re told, then someone else will do it for you. So why wait? Rather than be threatened by hungry competitors, advancing technologies and increasing customer demands, it’s possible to disrupt yourself from the comfort of your office, while allowing your business to run as normal - by finding the right partners to bring fresh ideas and insights to your work.

As Sam Altman (of YCombinator fame) says:  “The ability of a field to accept a contribution from an outsider seems to be very indicative of its ability to progress”

At the beginning of April, I delivered a brief to 30 students from 18 different countries. They were all on an MA in Digital Experience Design at Hyper Island, a new kind of creative business school that provides the skills for tomorrow’s transformative technology. Emerald Group Publishing, where I am head of innovation, was selected as the industry partner for their design in business project and it was my job to introduce them to the challenge.

I asked them: “What does the next generation users want from an academic publisher like Emerald?”

As post-graduates they all had some exposure to academic books and articles, but none had experience of the publishing sector. Over the past month they immersed themselves in the business, practices and processes of publishing. They used a combination of design-led innovation methods including user research, trend scanning, market analysis, creative business modelling and rapid, iterative prototyping to get to grips with the future of publishing.

As well as taking a deep dive into our business data they took a user-centred approach, interviewing tens of users around the world to establish pain points. These ‘problems’ were the starting point for solutions. This week we welcomed our friendly disruptors into the office to hear what the future held. They surprised, delighted and challenged us with their ideas and for days afterwards the office was buzzing with discussion and debate. It’s been a hugely invigorating project, and I share some of their suggested solutions below.

But first, why partner? Innovation is a commercial imperative and a matter of survival. As head of innovation, I’m tasked with developing new and different solutions to an ever changing market, emerging business requirements, and unarticulated user needs... all while keeping up to the day to day of office life and management!

It might look like outsourcing innovation to a partner would save you time, but if you do it properly you need to invest time to find a partner and develop a relationship – my first meeting with Hyper Island was a year ago. The business case is not about efficiencies but about genuine innovation, getting insight and ideas that shock and inspire you into action.

The biggest benefit of partnering with an MA programme has been getting outside input, a different perspective on the business that it’s all to easy to become entrenched in. As much as I try to practice ‘beginners mind’ – an open, eager attitude free from preconceptions – I carry years of baggage. Working with Hyper Island challenged me in so many ways: their curiosity about the business forced me, and everyone else involved in the project, to think differently and question our assumptions.

Like many publishers, Emerald is undergoing a digital transformation. Experience design is an emerging discipline and the tools and techniques used by the students are cutting edge. As they practised their skills we learnt along with them. If you’re interested in exploring a partnership you should consider the following:

  • Check your motivations: it’s not a cheap way to get consultancy, but about genuine openness to outside ideas. Make sure you have a collaborative attitude.
  • Invest time: to find and develop a partnership, write a serious business brief backed up by data, support the students throughout, listen to their solutions, offer feedback, and learn from their insights and ideas.
  • Share ownership of process and outcomes: it’s not a pet project, but a business imperative. Get senior managers involved, ask them to contribute and get their feedback. Share with colleagues.
  • Take it seriously: these are post-graduate students and your project contributes to their final grade. It isn’t a token way to engage digital natives, but an opportunity to experience new ways of working. They are the experts – learn from them.
  • Embrace the risk of failure: it might not work and that’s a risk, but if you focus on the experience your business will be stronger.

As for the future of publishing, according to the students… It definitely involves machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms – you’d be disappointed if I said otherwise. But it’s also about deep human connection, the need for relationships and collaboration in a digital environment, and the creation and sharing of content that has a real impact on the world. The students got a deep understanding of Emerald’s values, and their solutions responded to our position at the heart of management learning. The summaries below don’t do justice to their awesome presentations but will give you a sneaky peek at future possibilities.

  • Prints Charming used artificial intelligence to develop EARNEST for collaboration and content creation.
  • Team Sponge proposed a shift in business model from asset builder to network orchestrator and provided business plans for developing an open access lab.
  • Mind Rocket presented MentorMe – an online space to bring together knowledge, sharing and review with a rewards system.
  • Espresso and Coke designed ‘Jade’ a collaborative platform for PhD candidates to develop academic research and build networks with the goal of publishing better papers.
  • Neuro is a multi-disciplinary platform built by academics for academics to share journals and recommendations.
  • Dream Rabbits’ solution was Emerald Pearl to empower academics and provide better services to the community.