Friday, October 5, 2012

Diary of a Lead-User

 Lead-Users live in the future, which makes them both invaluable to understanding where an industry is headed, but so difficult to describe to those of us who are living in the present.

I truly believe that Eric von Hippel’s great gift to students of innovation – the concept of the Lead-User – is one of the most important elements of the “new innovative thinking” that we are seeing all around us. Yet, it is also one of the most difficult of concepts to get across to busy executives who have been browbeaten into an allegiance to everything regarding   customer centricity to the point where anything that the customer says is taken as “truth.”  In fact, the customer is as confused about the future as we all are, and, consequently, highly unreliable as a source on which to base significant long-term decisions. That’s where lead-users come in!

I think about this a lot because it is difficult to come up with meaningful examples of lead-users that are neither sports-related nor “otherworldly,” but this morning I woke-up and found that I was, myself, a lead-user!

It all started with an article in this morning's Financial Times regarding a British manufacturer of interactive white boards, which has lost 90% of its IPO value since it listed on the London exchange in 2010:   The article quotes an analyst as saying: “The company has failed to grasp just how bad things are…. It’s own take on the market has been seriously wrong.”  I think that this is both accurate, and a bit unfair. What we are seeing here is disruption in real-time, in front of our very eyes, and it illustrates just how difficult it is to protect yourself from such surprises. In fact, this is yet again another instance of sloooowprise, and the amazing thing is that no one seems to recognize this.

I have seen several big investments be made in interactive white boards at various schools in the past, and I’ve also noted that for the last several years – years; this is a long time! –  nobody uses them anymore. They’ve been disrupted by mobile phone cameras, of all things, where the participants write on non-interactive flip charts and white boards, snap a photo of their work, and email it to the professor who then displays it on the screen in the front of the room. A solution that is much simpler than the complicated, never really user-friendly, interactive technologies, and much cheaper as well!  A solution, incidentally, that has been proposed by lead-users such as myself who are eager to have their students focus on their work without being frustrated by the “only-occasionally interactive” white boards.

I’m sure that no one in the interactive white board industry ever thought that they would be disrupted by mobile phones, just as the overhead projector folks never saw interactive white boards coming, either. To say, as the analyst did, that the company in question’s “take on the market has been seriously wrong,” is, of course, correct, but unnecessary. I’m equally sure that the analysts assessing the IPO never saw this disruption either, but by 2010 it was already in full-swing.

Of course, no one that I know of who is actually working in these classrooms was ever asked about what was going on either! And, that’s where it turns out the lead-users were living.

One final thought: not surprisingly, the company in question has a completely different perspective: “Over the longer term, the impact of interactive learning technology is proven and this, coupled with the development of our integrated software and hardware strategy, means that [we] remain well positioned to benefit when market conditions improve.”  Well, they’re wrong!  The end for interactive white boards has already arrived. Thanks to mobile phones, the technology that they offer is now unnecessary. It has been disrupted by something cheaper and more accessible and the solution is better. This is how disruption unfolds, and the recognition of what is happening turns out to always be a lagging indicator for the industry incumbents, as they are never speaking with lead users. 

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