Digital Initiative Summit: Companies Must Forget—and Borrow

Entering the digital economy, commercial giants must adapt to new ways of doing business, but not forget how they achieved success in the first place.
by Dina Gerdeman

As companies ride the digital wave, many find that switching up old, tired practices and deviating from the norm can be crucial to survival.

But sometimes things can be taken too far.

During the Digital Initiative Summit at Harvard Business School on March 30, business leaders agreed that large, established organizations are wise to consider radically new approaches that address changing needs of consumers in today's digital age. Yet companies should be wary of the temptation to toss out all existing practices because they risk inadvertently losing long-standing, and, in some cases, quite effective business strategies.

Companies might ultimately find more power in adopting a nuanced approach that borrows tested traditional tactics and combines them with fresh, new ideas, said Bharat N. Anand, Henry R. Byers Professor of Business Administration at HBS and faculty chair of HBX, the school's new online education program.

"We often think of ideas in the visual space arising through creative genius. But they actually are shaped through experience," Anand said during a summit session called "Transforming Giants: Forget … and Borrow."

Also leading the session discussion was John Winsor, founder of the Victors & Spoils ad agency in Colorado, who noted that when his agency sold its majority stake to global communications firm Havas in 2012, he was faced with trying to innovate within a larger, more bureaucratic organization.

"How do you integrate between an established business that's been going for a while and a new business trying to shake that up?" asked Winsor, who is Chief Innovation Officer at Havas. He said striking the right balance between established practices and new ideas remains an ongoing challenge.

In creating HBX, Anand said his group knew what they didn't want to do: "The idea of putting a 40-minute lecture video (online) was quite uninspiring," he said.

HBX creators decided to hold to the strengths of what HBS does well in the classroom, particularly the case-based learning style as well as the ability to engage students in discussions. But they reimagined what it looks like in the online world, Anand said.

HBX opted for active, edge-of-the-seat learning by including short video lectures and cases mapped out through videos in which people describe business problems while periodically challenging students with multiple choice questions and seeking other student input along the way. An important element of the program involves the understanding that a student could be tapped at any time. A student could even be cold-called on the phone and given a minute or two to answer a question, with the answer and the student's picture visible to everyone.

"What's the best way for you to learn? You need to be actively involved. Most online courses … put the course out there and see who comes. We flipped this around. Before we think of the content, (we think), who's the user? The student is at the center of the experience," Anand said.

One interesting outcome: Female students participate more than usual.

"Women are asking more questions and answering more questions online," Anand said. "That's fundamentally different than what's happening (in classrooms)."

In the always-connected online world, HBX has had to evolve quickly. For instance, two weeks after students took an exam last summer, HBX leaders found a website selling the test questions. It seemed a daunting task to think about devising an endless list of new questions, so now instructors are crowdsourcing by asking students to come up with questions.

Winsor agreed that organizations are finding interesting new ways to engage customers and garner attention. He described the buzz generated for the upcoming Zoolander sequel when actors Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson walked the catwalk as their supermodel alter egos during the Valentino show at Paris Fashion Week in March. "It blew up on social media," he said. "Unfortunately that displaces millions (spent) in strategy that we in the agency world live on. When you democratize tools in this digital age, you don't have to spend millions to produce content…."

By using the personal video camera GoPro, for example, "everybody is a producer, and anybody can get a lot of momentum. That changes the playing field."

Changes Ahead For Ad Agencies

Near the end of the discussion, Anand posed a question: Ten years from now, where would traditional ad agencies stand? Would they maintain their position of importance in the marketing world? The response in the room from students and other business leaders was mixed. Winsor said he wasn't sure, but he believed opportunities would likely still exist for agencies that found new ways to serve business needs.

"In this age of abundance, where everybody is a producer and everybody has a GoPro, how do you make creativity work for you?" he asked. "How do you solve real business problems? That's one opportunity for agencies."

Anand asked another question: Would HBS play a central role in education 10 years from now? Most people in the room believed it would. Anand argued that the school's long history provides some comfort that it would remain a significant force in years to come, yet he noted that 100 years ago, the best universities in the world were located in Germany, and today few in that country are considered the top schools.

"There's no gift someone has given us to guarantee leadership in business in the future," he said.

Meanwhile, HBX charges for its pre-MBA program, whereas other peer schools are giving away content for free.

"The product is out there, but to create the experience for the user-making learning active and engaging-that's the part of it that we think we can charge a premium for," he said.

He described how one student, given two weeks to complete a portion of a course, finished it off in nine hours. She couldn't tear herself away from the program. "We are optimizing this every single day. This is only going to get better."

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About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is a senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

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    • Radha
    • Senior Citizen, House Wife
    Very interesting question on ad agency after ten years, the dominance world be shared by new race of business entities like me who work in online world for sake of good time but careerist take this opportunity in big business.

    Traditional ad agencies can stand but only after adaptation of online version of ad trends, identifying them in online world too.

    Anand has vision to a future which is taking shape but changing too at the speed of light, survival only for the most active lot.