Innovation is the key to finding new markets
ALPHARETTA, GA — Few eras can match technical innovations made in the past 20 years. And those innovations – from smartphones to data systems – have changed corporate America in ways no one imagined when they were first unveiled. But, while some companies have prospered by embracing the new technology, others, less willing to adapt to changing times, have been spectacularly left behind. Kodak, a world leader in imaging and photography for more than a century, foundered to bankruptcy after failing to recognize the potential of digital cameras. Blockbuster, with video rental outlets in 9,000 locations just 12 years ago, met the same fate when it was slow to respond to threats from mail-order and streaming-video provider Netflix and video vendor Redbox.
Digital Scientists embrace new ideas
“It goes to innovation and the willingness to prototype, a willingness to fail, a willingness to try new things,” said Bob Klein, President and CEO of Digital Scientists, a technology development and consulting firm in Alpharetta.“ In a way, technology can help companies better connect with their customers, old and new, and it can also help reveal more value within their own company.” Companies embrace technology for a variety of reasons, Klein said. Much of the impetus for change within companies comes from perceived threats. Other times, managers see something else show up in the market, or the CEO reads something about a new technology that can improve efficiency. One of the best routes to change is when a company’s own IT department comes up with ideas that will give their organization a leg up on the competition, Klein said. But, he added, the corporate climate rarely works that way. “I think IT organizations have been seen as cost centers,” he said. “They’ve been focused on making the trains run on time and taking costs out of supporting departments. The new technology requires that IT act as a consulting organization to support the business.”
Klein said waiting for someone to ask for something, a company needs to have the capability to collaborate with their own business and say, “These are some things you could be doing.” Many companies create hardware products – but don’t see the potential of marrying that product with software, he said. A thermostat, for example, can be more than a simple climate regulator in a home or office, he said. When married to the right software, it can create a smart home that can be accessed through the owner’s smart phone. Something as simple as a soap dispenser could be modified with sensors to alert the building manager they need replacing, he said. “The point is, hardware and software are coming together,” Klein said.“It’s rare now where you have hardware without software embedded.”
Huddle Inc. says ‘Be the disruptor’
One company that has taken that message to heart is Huddle Inc., an Alpharetta firm that specializes in marketing for large corporations. One of the company’s largest assets is its ticketing business for high school events. The company prints 150 million high school tickets for about 10,000 high schools across the country. Huddle CEO Joey Thacker said the company realized early that if it gave high schools free paper stock for tickets, it presented Wendy’s with a great opportunity to put their logo on the ticket with a coupon on back. “It’s an entry for Wendy’s to promote their brand and message,” he said. “We now work with about 125 clients on that program alone.”
Thacker said Huddle continuously looks at its operations to see what type of innovation could potentially disrupt what they’re doing. “We want to be out in front of that and do the disrupting ourselves,” Thacker said. The company was looking at its paper ticket operation and began wondering when will digital ticketing come to high schools?
“Last year, we decided we would build our own viable product in a digital ticketing solution,” he said. “We tested it on about six to eight Georgia schools and the tests turned out remarkably.” The company is now rolling out its digital ticketing system to all of the schools in the country for free, any school that wants a digital component to the paper ticketing system.“We knew that other companies had the technology, but didn’t have the knowledge of schools and what the schools needed like we did,” Thacker said. “We had multiple people come to us and want us to license their solution or partner with them. But at the end of the day, we wanted to own the disruption. We wanted to own the piece of technology that was doing the disrupting.”
AdvancED innovation was ‘game changing’
Not all companies are looking over their shoulder for disruptions. AdvancED CEO Mark Elgart not only has an eye on education, but he keeps up with the latest trends in technology. The Alpharetta-based company is the largest school improvement education company in the world. It serves a network of 34,000 schools in some 70 countries. It provides accreditation services, review services and other tools to upgrade school performance, primarily to grades pre-K-12. For years, AdvancED concentrated primarily on school accreditation, conducting thousands of school reviews annually. The information was gathered and collated on hard copy, requiring mountains of paper and months of time. Ludwig van Broekhuizen, Chief Innovation Officer for AdvancED, said as teams were going out to conduct their reviews of schools, they would find reams of documents, meeting minutes, improvement plans and notes from parents’ conferences. Team members would have to pore over these papers on-site, then draw up hard copies for the school.
Several years ago, the company launched its ASSIST platform.“That platform revolutionized how everyone in the world was doing accreditation,” van Broekhuizen said. “It allowed schools to go online where they had their own digital space to upload all of their activities and any documentation they wanted to provide for teams, pointing to their own efforts for improvement.” The system cut down on the time required to examine an individual school’s performance plans and results – and gave evaluation teams a chance to review information before visiting the school. This allowed teams to spend more time in classrooms, and interview parents, staff, and other stakeholders. All the information – from the school and the AdvancED teams – was uploaded.“ That was the first step for an accreditation company to go totally online and digital with all its processes,” van Broekuizen said. “It was a game changer.”
A few years later, the company adapted the same technology and applied it to school improvement plans. One component, called eProve, is an online system which collates surveys from school stakeholders. With a week’s worth of observations, a principal can click a button and take a look at averages across the entire school – or focus on a specific grade level, a specific subject, or a group of instructors teaching the same subject. It allows school districts or anyone else to quantify what’s happening for students and learners in a classroom, van Broekuizen said. “That’s just another way a digital tool has totally turned upside-down how we do our business,” he said.