Setting the scene for disruptive innovation

With technology, data and data analytics – and the right mindset – we can transform and reimagine the products and services we offer

John Danaher, MD, MBA, is President of Education for Nursing & Health Professions at Elsevier.Recently I was at a baseball game watching the Philadelphia Phillies play the Chicago Cubs. One of the people with me was an executive at one of the world’s leading commercial real estate companies. On the face of it, the company manages buildings and finds office locations for clients. What was interesting was that when my colleague described the company, he did so in terms of helping customers gain strategic insights into their business needs and unlock employee productivity gains.

Members of his organization meet with customers and determine their mission-critical business and talent needs. The company then finds the right cities, the optimal areas within the cities to attract sought-after talent, the most productive office configuration, and the right standards to meet their corporate social responsibility needs. This organization spends more than $100 million a year on data insights – and by the way, he added, they also do commercial real estate.

What he described was a big data company finding a way to bring out its employees’ greatest potential through offices and workspace.

For me, Elsevier has embarked on a similar process. It’s fascinating to see our evolution from the perspective of businesses that have already transformed or are in the midst of the transformation process. In health education, we used to think of our assessment products as an end in themselves. Historically, we defined the business by the exam or the test. Now, the test is a means to an end. Our evolving business is providing insight and data to the faculty, deans, institutions and ultimately the students about how to optimize their performance – for example, how students can be taught more effectively and how the curriculum can be improved.

[pullquote align="right"]“If we’re going to continue driving innovative thinking, we need to keep reexamining our business from fresh and “disruptive” perspectives.”[/pullquote]

If we’re going to continue driving innovative thinking, we need to keep reexamining our business from fresh and “disruptive” perspectives.

The same is true in publishing. We’re looking at ways to use content and technology to unlock insights that help faculty be more efficient and effective teachers and help students retain more information and perform better in their studies. It’s no longer just about publishing content but about marrying that content to learning technologies, such as recommendation engines, and seeing what insights that marriage generates. The content is no longer the “end goal” – it is the way we reach our new end goal of providing meaningful insights that help our users accomplish their goals.

We’re not the first company to make this kind of transition, as my real estate friend illustrated. There are many other examples in business, such as the way Xerox realized that they didn’t just make copying machines but were actually in the knowledge distribution business. Or Apple realizing that they were not just in the hardware business of producing computers but rather in the business of supporting multiple forms of streaming content on platforms people can use no matter where they are.

What links all these examples is that they stem from finding a new way of thinking about the business and then reconfiguring the organization to support the broader purpose. If we’re going to continue driving innovative thinking, we need to keep reexamining our business from these fresh and “disruptive” perspectives.

[pullquote align="right"]“The CEOs of Airbnb and Uber didn’t come from the hotel or transportation businesses. They brought a fresh pair of eyes, and because they did, they came up with innovative services.”[/pullquote]

The CEOs of Airbnb and Uber didn’t come from the hotel or transportation businesses. They brought a fresh pair of eyes, and because they did, they came up with innovative services. Bringing in people who have different mindsets is essential, which means sometimes looking beyond the people who have traditionally worked in a sector, or the people who are most seasoned.

The other vital component to innovative thinking is collaboration, which we’re seeing a lot more of across our businesses at Elsevier. The more people interact with other parts of the organization, the more conducive it is to innovation. When we started shaping our interactive learning products, we began placing previously isolated development teams into the same offices with an eye toward those teams being able to more easily share ideas and get fresh perspectives. To my mind, these teams are now producing some of their best work ever. Also, we are seeing more close collaboration between our technology organization and the customer service and operations teams, which is making for a much more collaborative environment for product innovation and development.

“Do not build this from a publishing perspective”

We’ve taken what we’ve learned about disruptive innovation – that new way of thinking – in other parts of Elsevier and applied it to the development of Sherpath, our new Optimized Learning Suite, which we’re unveiling this week at the National League for Nursing’s Education Summit 2015. When we started working on Sherpath, a learning system that utilizes adaptive learning technology to help professors teach more effectively and students retain more and perform better, the challenge we gave ourselves was clear: “Do not build this offering from a publisher perspective.” If we did that, we undoubtedly would have biases about what customers wanted and what would work and not work; we would limit our horizons and potentially constrain our thinking. We needed to be truly expansive in our thinking. We needed to approach every business challenge as though we were a newly minted, top-notch MBA looking at the education space, or the publishing space, for the first time.

That’s how we’ve been able to come up with a fresh perspective on a traditional problem – how to use data to create a better, more effective learning experience for students, and a more efficient and productive teaching platform for professors. I’m quite proud of what our teams have developed, and we expect Sherpath to have a big impact on the education market as a whole.

It’s hard to go through these changes, to transition from being a legacy publisher to a “big data” and analytics company. It’s challenging to stay innovative and change a business model from one suite of products to another. But as long as we keep that fresh perspective on the business, and as long as our employees are willing to be flexible and accept change and become change agents themselves, we will succeed. As they say in baseball, we will “hit it out of the park” if we can create our own destiny through disruptive innovation.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Dr. John Danaher, President of Education for Nursing & Health Professions at Elsevier, is a prominent leader and expert in health and the business of health. Prior to joining Elsevier in 2012, he was President of the Schools of Health Sciences and Nursing at Kaplan University. He brings a great depth of experience in digital media in health care and education from his time at Kaplan, Discovery Communications, and as Executive Vice President of WebMD. John has deep domain expertise and a successful track-record in managing health information businesses. His experience, in both government and the private sector, extends into global markets, including assignments and experience with Japan, Pakistan, the UK and Australia.

John received his MD from Dartmouth Medical School and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine. He received his MBA from Stanford University and earlier in his career was Resident & Chief Resident in Internal Medicine at Stanford University Medical Center. John has served on diverse corporate and nonprofit boards, community organizations, teaching faculties and fellowships, including a White House Fellowship.

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