Business musings

Articles and thoughts about UKTI

Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Leadership  Strategic Planning  Technology & Web  

Earlier this month, I was contacted by Yisi Lu, a Masters student in MSc Marketing & Strategy at Warwick Business School. For her dissertation, Yisi is considering design thinking and, in particular, its role in education. She asked me some very interesting questions and I would love to share my answers with you today.

To explain a little of my own interest in design thinking…

I tend to live with one foot firmly in both business and design. For those of you who know me, you’ll know that my graduate studies first began at Coventry University where I completed the first year of an M/Des BSc in Industrial Product Design. While I love design, I gradually realised that what really interested me was the strategic management and business of design.  In 2001, I therefore transferred to Warwick Business School to study their BSc Hons in Management Sciences (now known as Management).

Both business and design remain my passions. Much of my spare time is spent reading technical and design blogs. An A3 pad is a firm fixture in my note-taking armoury and something with which clients will be familiar. I was privileged to attend the 2012 Design Summit earlier this year. I’m a strong advocate of the collaboration between the Design Council and WBS. And, on a lighter note, Debbie will happily recount times that she has lost me in a store only to find me looking at the construction of their shelves!

All in all, Debbie and I work hard to integrate design and business throughout our approach to consultancy. We believe that, particularly in this day and age, the two are firmly intertwined and an integrated approach offers much greater value than one or other alone.

Question One

What do you think is the essence of “design thinking” and how does it lead to better education?

For me, there is not one single thing that defines or is design thinking. Certainly, design thinking is about creation and it always involves a symbiotic relationship between problem and solution. However, part of the essence of design thinking is its synthesis of a multitude of elements; you could say that design thinking is many or all of the following things…

A solutions-based process. Creative. Iterative. Agile. Responsive. Holistic. Needs focused. User focused. Visual. It employs feedback loops, prototyping and testing. It involves creative synthesis. Design thinking holds all elements and ideas in creative tension before a solution emerges. It is about broadening out and narrowing down; zooming in and zooming out. Design thinking ‘stores’ work and solutions visually whilst they are in process to ensure that previous iterations can be referred back to, learned from, revised and improved. People who employ design thinking are not afraid of failure or mistakes—they will often do something deliberately ‘wrong’ to find what could be right; they accept that solutions rarely emerge ‘right first time’. Design thinking explores the whole system and encourages people to step outside of the ‘problem’ in order to discover whether the broader environment is the real source of the issue. It encourages people to look at the bigger picture. It handles complexity without drowning; synthesizes knowledge and understanding; and looks for patterns and links between non-related elements. It frequently employs ideas from other sources, cultures and disciplines. Design thinking is playful and curious. It actively involves people and stakeholders; it is a collaborative process that looks both out and in. Design thinking always demands a clear brief.

With regard to education, design thinking moves people away from a narrow view that is based on their existing knowledge and personal opinions, toward a more expansive, curious, multidisciplinary perspective. It allows people to create and form ideas and solutions in a more creative and flexible way. Design thinking encourages students to look at the world differently. It helps them to understand that, with a defined brief, it is almost always possible to discover an effective solution, even if that solution takes time and numerous ‘failed’ attempts. It moves students away from a linear, analytical, detail-oriented approach toward a more creative, open perspective—away from believing “We first need to know everything about this problem to find an answer” to asking “How do we create a solution, even in the midst of ambiguity?” For me, this is more representative of situations within real-life organisations: often problems and solutions emerge together; the implementation of interventions informs both a further understanding of the problem and its solution; more often than not problems and solutions are continually being worked on in parallel. Design thinking enables students to better listen and engage with those around them. It teaches them to be creative in thought: by learning how to visually represent thoughts and ideas, students add another dimension to their problem solving approach. Many problems, models and ideas are not linear and do not lend themselves to being defined with the lined notepaper approach. Similarly, complex situations often involve many interdependent problems that cannot be solved individually. Use of visual tools enables a shared understanding to be created; it draws people together to debate and create solutions or outcomes that otherwise would remain opaque and poorly understood.

If I had to sum it up more succinctly, design thinking in education is about equipping students with an array of tools that enable them to deal much more effectively with complex situations; teaching them to embrace curiosity and failure; and opening their minds to new ways of thinking and doing.

Question Two

What do you think is the nature of a design thinking process?

There are many potential processes and theories that could be used to define the nature of the design thinking process; however, to get to hung up on defining the process itself is to miss the point.

A design thinking process is about creation. Making and doing. Testing and breaking. Seeing and responding.

Designers have done it for centuries. It starts with an idea, a brief, a desired outcome. The designer then starts to create and, in order to do so, they must pull together ideas and get a better understanding of the challenges that stand in their way. They must implement ideas to see if they work and, also, to discover if they and others like them.

The designer is happy with uncertainty because the process of creation is often messy, unpredictable and, at times, frustrating. However, they drive through towards their goal. They like an idea but then find it doesn’t work. They do more research; they look at other options; they push boundaries. The designer turns around and examines those problems that stand in their way—they look at them from a different perspective; they need to find out if the problems vanish or change when viewed from a different standpoint.

During the process, the designer will sometimes work on their own; at other times, they will open up the process to others—to users, to staff, to colleagues, to the people around them.

Sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly, the designer will arrive at a solution, the end outcome. The solution may be an amalgamation of a number of ideas. Sometimes, a single moment of insight may finally bring the answer.

And yet, however good the outcome, however great, it could be better. The designer may need materials or technology to catch up with what is in their mind’s eye—their ideas are not yet possible with today’s tools. Or, they may learn everything they should do or should have done differently once their completed piece ends up in the marketplace.

All in all, the design thinking process is about a journey from start to finish; from problem to solution; from idea to implementation. But this journey is not linear. It is iterative, recursive and looping. It could take hours or it could take years. But it is always a journey toward a desired objective, travelled with grit, determination and an open mind.

Question Three

What do you think is the best way for universities to teach design? (Should design schools create more business-focused creatives, or should business schools foster creative thinking in their MBAs?)

Ultimately, design thinking is about creation—of ideas, of products, of solutions, of outcomes. And yet, much of the university or business school approach is about the opposite—breaking things down, taking them apart, analysing, critiquing. Always the critic, never the creator.

I am a strong advocate of critical thinking and would never negate its value. However, while theoretical and case-based learning are a vital part of the business school education, I have noticed that students are often not very good at creating. There is a disconnect between their role and that of others—creating is left to ‘the creatives’. Students have rarely experienced the design process for themselves. Few students have ever created a brand; designed a website; designed or created a product, service or a building; created something out of nothing. And yet, in business, the only way that an organisation exists and survives is if it actually creates value; creates a product or a service; creates a market; creates demand. We teach students how to get the most out of what they have but never really to create something new. We leave that to chance, hoping that their innate creativity and drive will enable them to do this on their own. In this sense, we let both our students and their future employers down.

Design schools themselves are however often no better. They teach their students how to create but not how to truly exploit their creations. Creatives and designers can often be left floundering in a business world they do not really understand. They lack the management skills to bring their creations to life and to capitalise upon the value they know their creations contain. They do not know how to build a business structure around their creative process.

The obvious solution would be to bring business people and creatives together. However, with both failing to understand the other, tension begins to emerge. Designers and creatives are reluctant to relinquish business control for fear of what will happen to their creative direction; business people are unable to truly support a creative process they do not fully understand.

This is compounded by the fact that neither business nor design schools teach their students how to manage others in the creation/design process and how to get the best out of those who may ultimately work for them. Gerry McGovern (Design Director of Land Rover) has strong views on this and believes that nobody teaches either business people or designers how to manage other designers and creatives to get the best out of the creative process. Similarly, creatives are rarely taught how to manage their commercial employees to best capitalise upon their creative ideas.

So, in the middle exists this divide. With business people having little or no design, creative and visual literacy, and designers having little or no business literacy, there is a missed opportunity to create real value.

Thinking about organisational ambidexterity, it seems that we find ourselves in a situation in which design schools are teaching their students to explore, whilst business schools are teaching their students to exploit. In reality, as is the case in organisations, students must have the ability to do both—to explore and exploit—for real, long-term value to be released.

Ultimately, I believe it is the responsibility of both design schools and business schools to bridge this divide. Business schools should be embracing design thinking across their programmes, not only at MBA level, but also within their Undergraduate and Masters courses. Design schools should similarly be teaching their students (at all levels) about the commercialisation process and how to exploit the value within their creations.

Question Four

What do you think is the future of design thinking?

I believe there is a strong future for design thinking. With the recent and continuing economic environment, along with the diminished reputations of those who helped create it, the analytical approach has been shown to have significant weaknesses when it comes to solving global issues and discovering appropriate answers. As a result, we are seeing a move toward different approaches, both in how to create real value and also in solving problems. The Singularity University is one such example of how to embrace a multidisciplinary, creative approach. Although design thinking is certainly not the only alternative approach, I believe it is gaining increasing awareness, in part through those higher educational establishments that teach it.

Interestingly, within consultancy, clients also seem to be realising the limitations of the analytical approach and are increasingly resistant to, and jaded by, consultancies that charge high fees, do a lot of analysis, but, at the end of the day, fail to deliver effective solutions and outcomes that create real, practical value where it matters, on the ground. As a result, clients seem to be particularly open to value-based pricing, where the outcomes are clear and the costs are fixed. We ourselves have found that such an approach is hugely effective in facilitating design thinking and a solutions-led approach. As the objectives are clearly defined (the brief), along with measures of success and the value that the outcomes will bring, there is a clarity that rarely exists otherwise. There is also significant flexibility to embrace the complexity and creativity needed to solve the trickiest problems, without worrying about day rates or utilisation. The end outcome: fair compensation for the consultant and a great outcome for the client.

Similarly, in our own experience, design thinking opens up solutions to a multitude of problems that seem intractable with traditional business approaches. Visual problem solving and creative thinking enables simplicity to emerge beyond complexity and solutions to be found.

Moreover, while scientific and theoretical breakthroughs will continue to drive change, many of the most influential breakthroughs of the last century have been design-oriented in nature. Think the automobile, the home computer, mobile phones, the iPod, iPad, and more. Design is literally changing our lives, the way we think and the way we live. Many of the most influential and successful businesses in the world today have, at their heart, design. Their success is not due to either design or business alone but a healthy symbiosis of the two. People are increasingly recognising the power of design and embracing its success. This year alone within Britain, the Design Council hosted the Design Summit 2012; The Founders Forum hosted the Creative Industries reception; the British Business Embassy hosted the Global Business Summit (focused on creative services); various UK Trade & Investment regions hosted Creative Services Summits; the Olympics showcased British creativity and design; and MADE Entrepreneur Festival is focusing on businesses made in Britain, many of which are creative. There seems to be an increasing move toward supporting creative and design-led businesses and design thinking is fundamental to this future.

That said, for design thinking to be truly embraced in academia, I believe there needs to be a change in attitudes. Design thinking by its very nature is often very accessible and can be easily embraced by the populace. It also tends to dislike words. Historically, academia has tended to shun that which appears simplistic, even if at its heart it is rooted in research and grounded in experience. Similarly, design itself has not traditionally had a strong relationship with peer-reviewed journals nor has it taught or encouraged a critical, scientific approach. Gradually both sides of this situation are changing and multidisciplinary approaches are being embraced but such change will need to continue if there is to be a true meeting of minds between business and design.

Posted by Debbie Stocker, stored in: Internationalisation & Exporting  

I don’t know about you but Matt and I have been absolutely glued to the Olympics over the last few weeks. I think the last time that I watched this much sport was back in 1996 when Damon Hill won the Formula 1 World Championship—and that wasn’t compressed into two short weeks when I was also working!

Of course there will always be cynics (we’re British, aren’t we?!) but, for me, London 2012 has been incredible—and we’ve still got the Paralympic Games to go! Sadly Matt and I didn’t manage to get tickets but we’ve loved dipping in and out of the events, watching athletes perform amazing feats of human achievement, and generally soaking up the atmosphere.

Two photos: The photo on the left shows Matt standing to the left of the picture, wearing sunglasses.  Behind him is a crowd and a large screen at the BT London Live Site.  The screen shows Sir Chris Hoy speaking into a microphone. The photo on the right shows Debbie standing to the right of the picture.  The photo has been taken at night and behind Debbie is Tower Bridge lit up in lights and the Olympic rings lit up in the centre.

And, it would seem that we haven’t been alone. Almost everyone I know on Facebook and Twitter has been posting pictures of how they’ve been supporting the Games and, in an almost unprecedented voice of unity, the media have been unendingly positive.

On Monday, the front page of The Times read:

Our revels now are ended, but the past 17 days have been such stuff as dreams are made of. The London Olympics Games ended last night and the greatest party in the history of the world is now a memory. Or a raft of them.

Looks like we got away with it, then. Looks like London 2012 was—well, we don’t really go in for boasting in this country, but it was, shall we say, not bad. Really quite good, in fact. Quite good for us: rest of the world, was it good for you too?  It was, you know. I think a nation can tell.

So why I am writing about this on a blog dedicated to business musings? Well, it seems like a pretty appropriate time to give a shout out to all things British, including business.

For example, did you know before you watched the Closing Ceremony that the theme tune to CSI: Miami is by The Who (as are all CSI theme tunes) and that The Who are British? This was news to me—at least about the theme tunes for a hit American television series being British in origin.

What about Sir Tim Berners-Lee, British inventor of the World Wide Web? In an Ipsos MORI survey conducted earlier this year, only 13% of adults believed the World Wide Web was made or designed in Britain. Fortunately, the people in the know knew better and Sir Tim was given a star role in the Opening Ceremony.

The stunning and beautiful Olympic Cauldron was designed by Thomas Heatherwick, founder of Heatherwick Studio—one of the most inventive design studios in Britain.  Matt and I spent a fabulous afternoon at the Victoria and Albert Museum browsing the first major solo exhibition of their work (this exhibition is running until 30 September as part of the London 2012 Festival).

In addition to the Olympic Cauldron, Heatherwick Studio have also designed the bestselling zip bag, developed in collaboration with Longchamp; a brand new London bus—”the first bus to be designed specifically for the capital in more than fifty years”; the Rolling Bridge at Paddington Basin; and a huge programme of improvements to a Pacific Place shopping mall in Hong Kong; to name but a few.

We’ve got a lot to shout about in Britain and a lot to be proud of. And yet—at least before the Olympics—only 4% of people felt that business was a reason to be proud to be British. Hopefully this is an attitude that will change following the success of the Olympics but I also wonder whether, to some degree, it’s a matter of education. I don’t think we always realise how rich our heritage is and how much us Brits are truly responsible for. Maybe that’s because we’re too self-effacing. Maybe British businesses aren’t very good at getting the word out. Maybe, in a funny way, it’s just part of the nature of being British: we don’t boast, we don’t shout, and we like to quietly go about our business—even when that business is changing the world.

The Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Olympics were great at showcasing British achievements. A film by UK Trade & Investment was also produced several years ago to promote the creative cultural heritage of modern Britain in our bid for the 2012 Olympic Games. Part of UKTI’s ‘Love and Money’ campaign, the film showcases “products and services that balance business ambition and commercial success with the invention and experimentation for which Britain’s creative industries are internationally renowned.”

Having travelled the world, the Love and Money exhibition has received an international reaction that has been “unanimously positive”. And maybe that is something else that we should take away from these Games: international opinion on Britain is generally more positive than we give ourselves credit for. Good news if you’re looking to internationalise!

I’m sure there will be people out there who disagree with me—you may even be reading this article! But, for me, I stand with Declan Carty whose letter to The Independent having travelled to the Olympics from Dublin was featured in The Week:

I have come to the sad conclusion that there seem to be more people with glasses half-empty than half-full, and it is these people who bleat on endlessly about how poor everything is and how it could be better. We must despatch these naysayers and not pay them any more attention than we have to. Our experience, and the experience of dozens of people we spoke to, was a very positive one. Congratulations to all concerned.

Today, I am proud to be British and proud of everything we have achieved. If you’re a British business, be proud of your achievements and consider shouting them from the rooftops, even if at first this is only in a whisper.

Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Internationalisation & Exporting  

If you’ve read our earlier article, Introducing OMIS—your global research network, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the ways in which OMIS (Overseas Market Introduction Service) can help you as your business expands overseas.

To enable you to maximise the value you obtain from this service and to help you create a great partnership between yourselves, your International Trade Advisor (ITA) and your OMIS team, we’ve pulled together our top tips for getting the best out of OMIS. (more…)

If you’ve seen my last post, there are in fact a whole host of ways to avoid playing ‘pin the tail on the country’! OMIS is one such resource.

What is OMIS?

If you haven’t heard of it before, OMIS stands for Overseas Market Introduction Service. Provided by UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), OMIS allows businesses to access the services of UK trade teams located in British embassies, high commissions and consulates across the world. Having used OMIS ourselves for several international client projects, we’ve found it to be a hugely valuable service and would recommend it to anyone looking to break into a new overseas market.

Why do we recommend it?

Internationalisation can be a daunting task, especially when there are differences in time zones, languages and cultures. OMIS provides a wealth of practical support, advice and key market information, supporting you through each stage of your international journey.

Whilst we’d always encourage you to begin the process of market research for yourselves, international research can be difficult when you don’t have contacts ‘on the ground’ and the research information you are looking for is in another language—Babel Fish and Google Translate only go so far! OMIS teams can prove invaluable in finding the information you need and you’ll be amazed by the caché that contacting organisations through the British Embassy brings—it really can open doors that would otherwise remain closed. Imagine sitting at your desk in the UK and receiving a call from an international embassy—you would certainly provide a warmer reception than for a cold caller. The call would probably get past your secretary too! This works in the same way abroad.

When it comes to actually visiting an international market in person, OMIS can be on hand then too. Booking meetings for a market visit and sending marketing material abroad can be time-consuming and frustrating due to the added complexities of tracking down the correct address in another language, dealing with international postage, sourcing meeting venues, and ensuring that you don’t book two meetings at opposite ends of the country on the same day! Using OMIS’ market specialists removes considerable stress and hassle both during the organisation of your visit and once you’ve actually landed in the country. We’ve used this service before and wouldn’t consider organising a market visit any other way.

How can OMIS help me?

OMIS provides a broad range of activities, each of which can be tailored to your individual requirements. You might be looking for more indepth information on a particular market, interested in identifying a new business partner for your services or looking to launch your product abroad with a splash: OMIS can help in any or all of these situations.

To give you a better idea of the types of services you can purchase through OMIS, I’ve put together a list of example activities that OMIS can undertake for you below (the list isn’t exhaustive but it is relatively comprehensive):

Market research

  • Identification of market size, market potential and key trends within a marketplace
  • Provision of localised industry and sector advice
  • Analysis of possible routes to market
  • In-country competitor analysis
  • Assessment of the potential level of demand for your products or services
  • Identification of opportunities and prospects

Introductions and partner selection

  • Identification of possible business contacts and partners
  • Assessment of the level of interest displayed by potential partners
  • Background checks and partner references
  • Provision of marketing material to partners of interest (including provision of cover letters in the partner’s native language and personal follow-up once the material has been sent)
  • ‘Warming up’ of potential partners and contacts
  • Organisation of local market introductions (for example, Chambers of Commerce, trade associations and so on)

During your international visit

  • Organisation of meetings for your market visit
  • Provision of pre-visit briefings and one-to-one mentoring
  • Provision of local support to get you from meeting to meeting in an unfamiliar country
  • Provision of translation, cultural advice and explanations of business ettiquette during meetings
  • Organisation of a launch event hosted at the British embassy (with possible access to the British Ambassador or High Commissioner at the event)
  • Invitation of guests and organisation of bespoke receptions, meetings and seminars where you can personally present your product or service
  • Organisation of follow-up meetings and post-visit support

Sadly, not all activities are available in every overseas market as the activities are dependent upon the presence of UKTI market specialists within a given country, but where OMIS is available the market specialists are solely dedicated to supporting UK businesses (UKTI provides a full list of country specific information on their website—those countries marked in bold offer full local services).

What will it cost?

OMIS services start from around £225 and then vary in price depending upon your requirements, the level of support you are looking for and the country that you are looking to target. Overall, their prices are very competitive compared to commercial in-country support, especially when you consider the reduction of risk and the support apparatus around these services in the UK.

So what now?

Your first step is to get in touch with UKTI (look for your local contact by region) and to meet with an International Trade Adviser (ITA). Your ITA will become your key point of contact and will be able to offer additional advice on your internationalisation process. To enable you to access OMIS, your ITA will put you in touch with the right contacts, help you fill in the relevant paperwork and brief, and support you throughout the OMIS process.

Update 10 November 2011

If you have already started the OMIS process or are thinking about requesting their services, we’ve pulled together our top tips for getting the best out of OMIS in our latest article.

Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Internationalisation & Exporting  Our News  

I recently went to the Baltics on behalf of a client, exploring the potential of the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian markets. The trip was very well organised by UKTI; the visits were hugely useful both in understanding the market dynamics and also in finding out the level of potential opportunity in each country.

Having enjoyed the trip immensely, I just thought I’d give you a taster of it here, starting with the stats!

The numbers…

  • 6 day trip
  • 4 countries (if you include a transfer in Frankfurt airport!)
  • 2 days of traveling
  • 6 flights
  • 3 hotels
  • -1° Celsius average temperature
  • 2 days of snow
  • 4 days of meetings
  • 3 Embassies
  • 3 UKTI local teams
  • 2 evening events
  • 2 ambassadors met
  • 2 government ministers spoken with
  • 15 one-to-one meetings with interested parties
  • 21 companies met with in total

The commercial opportunity…

Well now, that would be commercially sensitive information! Sorry to disappoint.

And a few pictures…

Click on the images to enlarge them