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How "The Wide Lens" Applies to Higher Ed
May 7, 2012 - 8:00pm

The Wide Lens: A New Strategy for Innovation by Ron Adner

Published, March 2012

Ron Adner (a valued colleague at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth- full disclosure) did not set out to write a book about innovation in higher ed. I'm going to do my best to convince him to turn his considerable powers of analysis to our industry for his next book. The lessons of The Wide Lens are however essential for higher ed to grapple with, as we attempt to understand how to effectively innovate our industry to remain relevant and prosperous in the digital age.

In The Wide Lens Adner asks, "is execution enough?" We often hear that good ideas and smart people are necessary but not sufficient conditions for success.  What really matters is the ability of organizations to execute. Adner's thesis is that if success depended only on execution then the success rate for products, services or startups would not be so low. A high level of execution should be considered a baseline for success. What really separates the products and services that gain traction are those in which the needs of all the players in the product/service ecosystem are proactively considered and managed.   

Being a business book, written by a business professor, The Wide Lens does not rest purely on theory. The book is strongest and most enjoyable when Adner applies his analysis on the root causes of success and failure to specific cases. The book contains many examples, my favorite being the story of the e-reader industry.  In tracing why Amazon has succeeded with the Kindle and Sony completely failed, The Wide Lens reveals just how important an understanding of the context of a new product or service is for success. 

I had not fully grasped just how innovative and advanced Sony was in the e-reader device market. Sony's original reader, launched all the way back in 2006, was a technically advanced piece of hardware. It contained the components that would show up over a year later in the first generation Kindle, including an e-ink screen and long battery life. Unlike the original Kindle, the Sony e-readers also looked great. 

Yet the reason that Sony failed and Amazon succeeded was that Sony did not invest in understanding or serving the entire e-reading ecosystem.  

Books could not be purchased directly on the Sony device, rather the books needed to be bought through a (limited) web storefront and then manually synced with the e-reader. What Amazon got right with the Kindle was not the device, which lagged behind the original Sony e-reader in design, but in creating an ecosystem that allowed readers to buy directly from the device from a large selection of books at a price low enough to convince readers to change reading habits. Amazon also was willing to initially lose money on every book sale, pricing the e-books below what they paid to the publisher to make sure that the selection of books was large enough.

The Wide Lens is full of great examples like the Kindle story around the power of The Wide Lens. These stories are often about technology (the electric car, run flat tires, and many others), which makes the book accessible and interesting to ed tech folks.

What I take away from The Wide Lens is that in our planning for new programs or services in higher ed we need to take the time and develop the expertise to systematically evaluate the roles and needs of partners and colleagues. 

Working to understand the entire ecosystem around our new services or programs is a commitment we often make, but fail to follow through with due to lack of time or resources. As a result, our new projects or services fail to deliver, and we end up wasting more time and resources in back-filling what should have been done proactively. 

Adner gives us a set of tools and methods in The Wide Lens to ensure that we are doing the work to systematically think through the larger implications and dependencies associated with our new initiatives. We would be wise to spend some of our scarce capital convincing our colleagues in higher ed to take the time and energy to absorb and apply the lessons of The Wide Lens.

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