Bett has always showcased some new technologies which have lasted, and others which have not. There was palpable enthusiasm the year that interactive whiteboards were suddenly everywhere; a few years later, long queues but ultimately less enthusiasm for demos of new interactive tables. One year the hall was garlanded with eerie 3D TVs that didn’t need special glasses, but did require paracetamol and a good sit down. To a greater or lesser extent, these technologies took a grip of the show for a year or two; only a few took a hold of the classroom.
Whether the technology on the stands is splashy or subtle, disruptive or incremental, BETT reveals the competitive response. The small new entrants with the new technology – or new pedagogy, or fashion – at the core of their offering; and the established players who respond either to threat or to opportunity. Delegates from larger companies can be airily dismissive of a certain type of ‘one-man band’; beguiled by the craft of another.
If there are questions about which technologies survive, and which new entrants succeed, then there’s a question too about how the big players make a decent fist of the new. I’ll not rehearse adventures in SCORM, everyone’s perennial Planning Tool or the dash from Flash; instead, I want to ask how, given the chance, the new kids would set about developing and running the grown-ups’ products.
The advantages of a small team are pretty clear: focus, energy, and a shared vision. Nobody’s excluded from the conversation by jargon – instead, collective understanding means they’re empowered by a shared language, coining new terms that help them communicate more quickly and effectively. Neither are there the balanced antagonisms necessary in a bigger organisation – the small team pulls together, and finds that almost every direction it goes in is forward.
The startup is free to trim its sails to fit the shifting wind. Its people can turn as one to pursuing its goal, and it lacks many of the constraints of a larger organisation. Some of this freedom will give the startup pure advantages: it can expect to have able and committed staff with excellent understanding of business goals and how they, and the team they are in, can achieve them. (There’s nobody who’s putting off reading about the advantages of QTI–SCORM integration till the first seven minutes of next month’s steering meeting.)
Other freedoms that are features of small organisations build up problems for later, for example: pricing structures or promises to early adopters that gouge future income; conflicting signals to the market about key brand features; and high dependence on individuals rather than systems. But actually, it’s often OK for the small organisation to accumulate some of these deferred problems. Early success will give it scope in its first maturity to make the changes it needs.
If we consider a particular project of our larger organisation as though it were instead the bread and butter of the smaller, it’s obvious that some pressures fall away. The project doesn’t have any ‘fitting’ to do; there’s no fear it will trespass on other projects, or pollute a brand. There’s nobody giving the project a nebulous 20% of their time; there aren’t likely to be departmental dependencies, and lines of demarcation aren’t an issue between the members of the small team: there’s little duplication of effort, while the gaps are too small for all that much to fall between.
And so the small organisation, if it’s working well, ends up with a product which is highly customer-focused. Features are in on merit, and some bespoke enhancements which the bigger organisation may have costed and rejected have made it in. There was no catalogue deadline to miss, and anyway, with most of the market untapped, features aren’t the limiting factor for monthly sales; it’s OK to hold back new feature releases until they’re ready.
Can these attributes be brought into larger organisations? More to the point, can they be brought to product teams? Perhaps not all of them, and not every time; but if the ambition is to compete with the dedicated providers, it’s not enough just to rely on the strengths that come with size and experience. We also need to identify the right freedoms (and the rigid limits) for an innovating team. With the right devolution of responsibility, that team will then be able to play the little guy at their own game. It will generate problems, but these will be small and solvable. On the other hand, it will produce bold, relevant publishing.