One of the great things about being an academic is that you get to work with great SMEs (Small-to-medium size businesses), and its with them that you see innovation in practice, and a continual focus on agility and in taking advantage of any opportunity that comes along.
I have spent a good deal of time talking to large companies, often with large teams of people, and which can lead to very little in the end. Large companies are often risk averse, and innovation becomes a process which suppresses the contribution from individuals. Another thing about large companies is that they often miss opportunities when there is a disruption of the market. With Microsoft, they missed the rise of the mobile device, and it was left to others to take advantage of the disruption that these devices have caused on the desktop market.
With SMEs they have to focus on developing within new opportunity with limited resources. A key factor for them is to identify the partnerships that will allow them to take forward their vision, without affecting their key product development. If they pick their partnership properly they can have a continued focus on what they do best. So my perfect case study is Bright Red Publishing, a great Edinburgh-based publishing company, and who create educational material for Scottish schools.
The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was developed on the back of a consultation exercise in 2002: 'National Debate on Education'. It is a fully defined framework which advances the educational infrastructure in Scotland, from 3 to 18 years old. The final document was published in Nov 2003 and it had four key principles for children's education:
While some have criticised the implementation of the plan, there is no doubting that that the key objectives are something that are important for development of an educated workforce, and in creating a fairer society. It also gave Scotland the opportunity to refresh some areas which are struggling to keep up, such as with Computer Science, and create a more integrated approach to core subjects like English and Maths.
Basically CfE was investing in two of the most precious things that a country has: its educational infrastructure; and its next generation. No-one can criticise even one penny of investment on these . With changes too, innovation and enterprise can thrive, and it is a model which many countries of the world have used to stimulate their economy, and with disruption, there can be opportunities for those who can move fastest to the opportunity.
Within Scotland, the competitors for school textbooks are either Scottish-based publishers who focus purely on the Scottish syllabus, or are larger publishers who will often try to minimise costs by scaling material created for the English educational infrastructure into a Scottish context. Other education content has been created, especially by the BBC, and which has required an investment which few SMEs could ever dream of. With the changes in the syllubus, though, existing material will often be "rehashed" to fit-in with the new syllbus, as the large budgets of the past, especially within the BBC, are not available any more.
Within publishing, though, the smaller companies are always going to be at a disadvantage against the larger ones, who have large production teams, and have extensive marketing budgets. The larger companies also have teams supporting Web material that have had extensive budgets for their development. What they have in process, they often lack in innovation and in linking properly to pedagogy. A key failing is often that software developers produce the software that they are asked to produce, and the linkage to the end user is lost. Many software projects often fail, as the systems become full of requirements analysis, with little thought of add the key features that the end user requires.
So how can a small company succeed over the larger ones ... through quality and innovation? With the Cloud and the availability of advanced software processing technologies, a small company could actually create a Web infrastructure which was more dynamic and engaging than the large companies who had spent large amount of money on legacy systems.
So with the changes to the Scottish educational infrastructure, Bright Red Publishing spotted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, especially with the Big Bang around the National 5 (N5) framework, and where every subject was changing. Along with this the new Higher level (N6) would also see changes to ever subject, although these would be phased-in, as apposed to the Big Bang approach of the N5 subject. So, Bright Red's approach was to create a consistent design for their books, with a strong sense of brand, but with colour keys for each subject.
So with the development of the new range of books, each with a re-write focused on the new syllabus, being a challenge within itself, Bright Red knew that each of the books required the associated Web material to be ready as the books were released, and which seemlessly integrated with them. In these days where children typically use iPads in classes and at home, any delay in getting the Web material on-line after the release of the book, would count against the books in their roll-out.
Unfortunately many IT projects within publishing often fail to deliver Web material in a timely manner and of the required quality, so Bright Red were faced with the dilemma of actually doing the Web integration themselves, and risk diluting the main focus of the book roll-out, or pick a strategic partner. A large Web integrator might look to integrate the material, and add little to the aid the production process for Bright Red, and a small company might not be able to provide the required resources to properly develop against the full scope of the project. So, luckily for us (the School of Computing at Edinburgh Napier University), they started to collaborate with our research team through the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) Innovation Funding scheme, which released small amounts of funding to establish the collaboration between the company and the university.
The rest of the article is here.