Tag Archives: Innovation

Are MOOCs A Disruptive Innovation?

5 Mar

Disruptive innovation as defined by Clayton Christensen:

“Generally, disruptive innovations were technologically straightforward, consisting of off-the-shelf components put together in a product architecture that was often simpler than prior approaches. They offered less of what customers in established markets wanted and so could rarely be initially employed there. They offered a different package of attributes valued only in emerging markets remote from, and unimportant to, the mainstream.”


Are the MOOCs a disruptive innovation that will, in the coming years, compete with and make the traditional universities obsolete? Some people certainly think so. The cost of attending college has been rising dramatically more than income, student loans are higher than credit card debt, drop-out rate is not going down, and college students are not finding jobs upon graduation. All these factors have led to many asking if a college degree is even worth spending time and money on.

If it’s education that I want, isn’t it easier and much cheaper to take courses using free MOOCs, which are putting lectures of renowned professors online, available for anyone to watch? Why spend thousands of dollars on a degree that doesn’t lead to a decent job? This is a fair question, but the answer is not straightforward.

Why MOOCs are considered disruptive
College costs are skyrocketing. Many colleges are very selective. There are limited seats available and the number of applicants is huge. Relocating to a different city to attend a traditional college has its costs too. On the other hand, MOOCs admit anyone who wants to learn. Period. They increase access to great content, and it’s free or costs a fraction of the cost of attending a traditional college. Though the dropout rate is extremely high in MOOC courses, about 90% compared to about 43% for traditional universities, the number of students graduating from a MOOC course is still very high. It is possible, at least in theory, that most of the students sit at home and learn without spending much money while the traditional colleges shut their doors because there are no students to teach. In short, MOOCs appear to solve a real problem.

MOOCs’ value proposition
The value proposition of MOOCs is access to great content for general populace and low cost. However, great or at least good, content has always been available on the Internet for free. The only thing people needed was to search the Internet. So the value of MOOCs comes from the fact that the best universities and professors are bringing the best lectures to the masses. The MOOCs are also helping instructors flip the classroom by asking students to go through the lecture before coming to the class. A hybrid course helps colleges cut costs too. A person, anywhere in the world and motivated to learn a subject or a topic, can just go online and learn without any hassle and monetary cost. It’s an incredibly convenient and inexpensive way to learn.

Is great content enough for learning?
I don’t think so. Motivation to learn is far more important than content. A highly motivated student will search and find good content on the Internet or the library. And learning is primarily a social endeavor. Learning in a classroom (even a virtual one) helps motivate students and physical proximity to other students and teacher helps encourage discussion and thinking. Learning about diverse opinions and perspectives from a group of students is a more enriching experience.

Issues with large-scale online courses:

  • Requires self-motivated students
  • There is hardly any accountability in the absence of grades (that the students value)
  • The grades/credits are not accepted (yet) by most traditional colleges
  • Employers do not value an online degree as much as a traditional one
  • No real loss on dropping out
  • No encouragement to work hard or not drop out
  • No personalized feedback on progress (except automated grading and feedback)
  • Academic dishonesty in absence of supervision
  • No requirement to write long papers

Do people go to colleges only for access to great content?
Again, I don’t think so. People go to traditional colleges for a number of other factors:

  • To earn a degree/credential
  • Become independent
  • Learn about the world
  • Have a social life and enjoyment
  • Have an enriching college experience
  • Develop soft skills
  • Discuss and learn from diverse perspectives
  • Participate in sports and other extra-curricular activities
  • Build personal and professional network
  • Find opportunities for jobs and other interests

As long as people value these factors, the colleges will continue to thrive. And that … might just be a good thing!

Related readings
Massive Open Online Courses — A Threat Or Opportunity To Universities?
The Professors’ Big Stage
The Trouble With Online College

The Wisdom of Crowds

22 Oct

James Surowiecki, a journalist, had coined the term – The Wisdom of Crowds – in 2004 (The title of his book). In this book, he argued that none of us is as smart as all of us. Or, in other words, expertise is overrated. Not that the experts are not needed in this world, but the collective wisdom of people leads to better decisions. It seems counter-intuitive, but it has been proven to be true.

  • Google was the thirteenth search engine when it had launched in1998 and yet, it became a resounding success because of the quality of its results. The search algorithm takes into account hundreds of factors but the most important factor is the number and reputations of Web sites linking to a particular Web page. It is, in essence, a vote for a page by other knowledgeable people – a collective wisdom in play.
  • Wikipedia, an openly editable encyclopaedia, allows anyone to make changes to its articles. Instead of relying on the knowledge of a few experts, Wikipedia harnesses the small chunks of information people have on a topic and combines those chunks to create millions of articles. Surprisingly, the articles outnumber the professionally produced Encyclopaedia Britannica and the number of errors are comparable too.
  • Reviews on Web sites like Amazon (products), Rotten Tomato (movies) and Yelp (restaurants) rely on the feedback of many people to produce an aggregate rating.

This concept begs a question, though. Can we put a group of people in a room, give them a task, and they would come up with the best decision? Unfortunately, the answer is not that simple. This concept, to work best, has some preconditions that must be satisfied.

Diversity: The people in the group must have diverse opinions, educational and work backgrounds, experience, knowledge, and skills, which would lead to creative ideas and a large quantity of ideas. A group comprising experts on the same topic tend to think similarly.
Independence: The people must think independently from each other. In a group setting, groupthink takes over and the conversation usually follows the most vocal or the highest ranked person.
Decentralization: There is no top-down directive so nobody is in charge and the problem of mere compliance is avoided. Everyone contributes freely and voluntarily.
Incentive: There must be some incentive for the people to contribute to the overall effort. Intrinsic reasons (because I want to) work much better than extrinsic reasons (I have to because I’ve been asked to or paid).
Aggregation: There must be a mechanism to aggregate the contributions of the group. An online environment (Google, Wikipedia) works great even if the group size is millions. In an offline environment (an office setting), a designated leader can do the collection and compiling.

Additional readings
The Dirty Little Secret About the “Wisdom of the Crowds” – There is No Crowd

Components of Creativity

18 Jul

Innovation, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t happen with a lone inventor working alone in his laboratory, though there have been quite a few discoveries and inventions this way. Per the Harvard Business School professor, Teresa Aambile, there are three components of creativity:  Expertise, creative thinking skills, and motivation. The most creative people are also innovators. They spend countless hours learning, honing their skills, and thus, acquiring expertise. They also possess creative thinking skills. Having domain expertise is not enough. Thinking creatively may involve applying ideas from other disciplines, connecting disparate notions, and observing the physical world for ideas. However, the most important element is the motivation to innovate. The motivation can come from outside (corporate incentives, good grades) or from within oneself (passion, purpose, or interest/fun).

The enabling factor for innovation in an organization is the corporate culture. A culture that promotes teamwork, interdisciplinary problem-solving, intrinsic incentives, exploration, play, and empowerment. Research as well as success of companies such as IDEO, Apple, and Google have proved beyond doubt that these factors lead to a culture of innovation.

  • Collaboration: I believe in the wisdom of crowds. Nobody is as smart as a group working toward the same goal. Rules of brainstorming apply, though.
  • Diversity: A team that has people with diverse educational backgrounds, expertise, work and life experiences, and culture is more innovative than a team with similar type of people.
  • Intrinsic motivation: People are more innovative when they have a purpose. Money doesn’t give people purpose. This is why Samuel Langley and his team of experts, despite spending tons of money failed where the Wright brothers succeeded. A quote from Gordon Mackenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball – “Orville Wright did not have a pilot’s license.”
  • Empowerment: 3M pioneered the policy of letting their employees spend 15% of their time on any idea they wanted to pursue. This led to the development of a large number of new products at 3M. Google popularized this policy with 20% free time.

Related Readings
How to Kill Creativity

Innovation is the Key

27 Apr

IDEO is world’s largest design firm. Originally named David Kelley Design (named after the founder and Stanford University professor, David Kelley) and founded in 1978, it was later rechristened IDEO, which came from the word ‘ideology’. The company has some of Fortune 100 clients and is primarily involved with the design of consumer products. Some of the most popular and innovative products designed by IDEO are the Apple mouse, Steelcase chairs, and Palm V PDA. Professor Kelley teaches a very popular course at Stanford University that helps students learn the basics of design and rapid prototype development.

The book The Art of Innovation was written by David Kelley’s brother Tom Kelley (with journalist and Pulitzer prize winner Jonathan Littman), who is also the General Manager at IDEO. The book is intended to share the best practices for developing a culture of innovation within a company, which is practiced at IDEO after years of using and refining. A person at the company is the official ‘Story Teller’ to outside visitors who tour the company to see and learn what makes the company the leader in design innovation.

The book has been divided into fifteen chapters. Each chapter covers a specific topic in the design process or in building a company focused on innovation. Tom Kelley talks about building a company-wide culture that promotes thinking and innovation and what the stages are in developing an innovative product.

Here’s is the summary of chapter 1.

Innovation is the key
In the last 15 years, innovation has become a buzzword widely used in big corporations to tiny startup companies. The CEOs and the executive team members always talk about innovation, be it product innovation, process innovation, services innovation, or innovation in other areas. It has become a top priority for many companies. The methodology developed by IDEO comprises five stages:

  • a. Understand the potential market, users, available technology, and constraints.
  • b. Observe the potential users in real-world situations doing their normal activities instead of setting up focus groups and laboratory research.
  • c. Visualize how and what the products will be in future and how, where, and when they will be used.
  • d. Build a prototype and continuously test with real users and refine it.
  • e. Commercialize the concept by launching the product in the market.

Innovation is a mindset, a complex, time-consuming, and difficult process, but it is the only key to future growth. It is the only way to remain relevant in today’s hyper-competitive market.

Suggested Readings
You Call That Innovation?
Innovation Is a Discipline, Not a Cliché