New product development practice is simultaneously creative and grounded in the specific context of the business where you operate as a product manager. There are infinite problems and needs you will uncover in customer discovery, but relatively few of these will be an ideal fit to pursue for your company or organization. Content-based, technology enabled products, such as are the focus of this series, will only succeed if they are built to: 1. Fit the business strategy, 2. Can be supported by the existing technology powering the business and 3. Can be delivered by the organization’s marketing and sales structure and teams.
1. Fit the Business Strategy
I often describe my career as divided into two parts. Part one is the 10 years I devoted to sales, product development and editorial work in the higher education learning businesses of Cengage Learning and Pearson Education. Part two is the 10 years I worked with the library-facing businesses Business Expert Press, Alexander Street and ProQuest; all three focused on launching both research database products and learning-focused products. These two distinct blocks of similar but different industry experience have allowed me to differentiate learning products as those designed to support curriculum and course design as compared to research products designed to support the research process. To be sure, a research project is often a component of a specific course, but a textbook or a streaming video product are core elements of a course and not designed to support researchers.
So why do I belabor this distinction between learning and research products as a function of understanding fit with business strategy? Would Pearson Education be well-suited to design and deliver a database of previously undigitized archival documents based on fieldwork notes from notable twentieth century anthropologists? Would Alexander Street be ideally positioned to deliver a next generation, AI-powered adaptive learning platform? I hope the answer is clear. In both cases the company would be operating well outside of its respective competitive advantage, and this is a recipe for failure. Before we embark on deep exploration with our customers into the challenges and problems they face in conducting their work, we must first understand the business strategy within which we operate. Beware the senior business leader that cannot quickly and clearly define your business unit focus and your competitive advantage and thus guide your customer discovery in directions aligned with the business strategy.
2. Supported by the Existing Technology Powering the Business
I focus on technology powered products that enable the delivery of content for research and learning. Each business in the higher education technology sphere is powered by a unique approach to its technology. Countless human resources, capital investments and moments of insight and ingenuity fuel the launch of these platforms and the sustained, iterative development process that defines each company’s unique value proposition . New product development efforts must align with and extend this technological footprint, but extend only to reasonable limits.
For example, at Alexander Street we developed a best-in-class video player and constantly extended its capabilities in response to our customer’s needs. We created clip-making and viewing tools, searchable transcripts, on-screen captioning, citation tools and more. Our customers asked if we could include quiz making and assessment tools with our video titles. We experimented with assessments across 100 of our titles by using a third-party application loosely connected with our platform infrastructure. We quickly learned the faculty wanted the ability to create or edit test questions; the quiz results needed to feed the learning management system gradebooks and there was an expectation we would provide hundreds of questions, constantly updated, across each discipline we covered. In short, were we to include quizzing and assessment with our 70,000+ videos, we would be moving into courseware, which would have taken us well beyond the capabilities of our technology and into a new competitive sphere, that of courseware and assessment platforms.
3. Delivered by the Organization’s Marketing and Sales Structure and Teams
I participated in a structured new product development initiative several years ago that generated some of the best ideas I have seen come out of a group of product managers. We were placed in teams focused on distinct problems or user groups, such as first-year college students and the research process, and encouraged to propose new products as solutions. The teams then generated product concepts and iterated on the presentations to the broader group through three and four rounds. In my view, the hands down best proposal was for a student-facing application that would take students, step-by-step, through the research and writing process to the delivery of a final research paper. I taught college freshmen in a writing across the curriculum course in the late 90s and recalled vividly the struggle these new college students faced with producing the cumulative components of a final research paper.
But developing, delivering, marketing and monetizing a student-facing mobile application would require an altogether different business strategy than that which the company was organized to pursue. The marketing and sales organization was designed to bring database and workflow solutions to librarians for institutional deployment. The products were priced for institutional access. The marketing team was focused first on the challenges and tasks librarians perform and secondarily on faculty and students. The launch of a student-purchased or otherwise monetized application would require an entirely new marketing and sales approach. The proposal for a student-facing application was an excellent solution to a clearly defined customer problem. But the entire go-to-market structure and competence of the company was not built for such a product launch.
In part two of this eight part series I will turn to the customer discovery process, which is my favorite part of new product development. But new product thinkers must enter the discovery process with a thorough understanding of the constraints and opportunities that their unique business affords. As product managers engage with the pain points and challenges of their customers they must do so within the strategic framework of the businesses’ competitive advantage, within the reasonable capacity of the current technology and most definitely within the confines of the core marketing strategy and sales organization structure.
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