A quick look at how to decide the starting point for your next digital project.

By Peter Gillis, Learnovate

At Learnovate we work with organisations looking to leverage the power of technology to enhance learning outcomes. We find their ideas range from improving how they do what they do already, to coming up with the next big idea. Both outcomes are valid but we have found require different supports in order to help minimise risk and maximise the opportunity. There is a lot of talk these days around digital transformation and digital innovation This short article is to bring some clarity to: the areas; the differences; and the different supports we find work.

The spectrum

It is a spectrum and the lines are blurry but focussing on which end of the spectrum you are starting from can help in taking the most valuable next step. To keep it simple and focused on our world of learning technology (although broadly applicable to a lot of sectors), the spectrum goes from introducing digital technologies to either:

a) improve how you currently deliver a product or service, often to scale the business.


b) introduce a new, untested, product or service to market.

What’s in a name?

Tendayi Viki refers to the spectrum under the ‘Innovation’ banner, going from core-innovation’ with a focus on “making incremental changes to existing products for existing customers”, to transformational-innovation, “creating new offerings for new markets”.

Ryan McManus from Accenture talks about four levels of digital strategy; 1. marketing & customer experience, 2. operations, 3. products & services and 4. business model.

At Learnovate we use the term ‘Digital Transformation’ to refer to the process of transforming something that currently exists, and ‘Innovation’ to refer to projects that are introducing a new concept. Most Innovation experts these days will agree that the development path for contemporary organisations should look at following both of these strategies; to maximise potential in the near term while developing for future growth. We have tailored our innovation services to cater for these different needs.

It is important to note that our approaches are underpinned by deep expertise and domain knowledge in the area of technology enhanced learning. These projects work due to our team of: technologists, learning experience designers, user experience designers and commercial experts collaborating on each project.

Digital Transformation

If the goal is to transform a current, valued, product or service through the introduction of digital technology there are components which remain to some extent less risky. When the current product or service is valued it implies: an identified problem; customers who want the problem solved; and a current solution that is supported. Hess et. al. identify some of the benefits of digital transformation as productivity improvements and cost reductions.

The ‘Lean Canvas’ is a 1-page business plan template created by Ash Maurya. The canvas is designed to allow entrepreneurs analyse nine key aspects of their idea and identify the riskiest assumptions they are making when taking a new direction (see fig.1). In mapping a digital transformation project to the Lean Canvas we find three key areas are less risky. The Problem, Solution and Customer Segments. Of course this does not mean there is no risk, but it means at this stage, there are usually more risky assumptions worth investigating and validating.

Fig 1. The Lean Canvas – 1-page business plan template created by Ash Maurya, adapted from Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas

Important Note: Digital Transformation can put ‘Solution’ and ‘Customer Segment’ at high risk if in striving to achieve efficiency, the effectiveness of the solution is diluted too much.

Our digital transformation approach

We start by forensically examining the current offering through service mapping. At a base level it covers the interactions between the Customer, Touchpoints, Staff and Systems/Processes across the service delivery. The map provides insight to the best opportunities for digital transformation, and aspects that might be best left alone.

Typically, we find the service map will identify areas of risk that will require some research to investigate potential approaches to a solution. When we complete our research we can formulate a digital transformation plan. From this point it is important to validate the plan with customers. If validated we adopt a ‘build-measure-learn’ approach to the project, learning from customer input across the development of the project.

Digital Innovation

Digital technologies offer opportunities to completely re-invent how a service is delivered. One of the popular cited examples is how the video rental company Blockbuster was completely overtaken by Netflix as a means to deliver in-home entertainment. At a more practical level, the way we book travel, deal with banks etc. have all been changed utterly using digital technologies. Innovation starts with ideas, these ideas make assumptions about;

• a specific customer,

• their problems,

• the best ways to solve these problems

In undertaking an innovation project and referring again to the Lean Canvas (see fig 1), all areas are new assumptions and therefore a different approach is required to minimise risk and maximise the potential of the opportunity.

There are two approaches that can be taken when exploring innovation ideas. ‘Ideas-first’ is where organisations internally come up with product or service ideas and then test them with customers to see how well the ideas address the customer’s needs. We tend to adopt a ‘Needs-first’ approach. This involves taking the Ulwick ‘Jobs to be Done’ approach. Learning what the specific customer’s needs are, discovering which of these needs are unmet, and then devising a solution that addresses those unmet needs.

Our digital innovation approach

Organisations will normally come to us with: an idea for a solution in the teaching and learning space; an idea of who the customer is; the problem they think they can solve and sometimes, although not always, how they believe they can make a sustainable business. Our starting point is to employ a Jobs to be Done workshop focused on just the customer and the problem. If the thinking on either of these is not valid, the solution and the business model become redundant. The output is a crystalised view of the specific customer and the assumption around what problem the customer has that is currently unmet.

From here, and as with the transformation projects, it is important to validate the plan with customers. If validated we adopt a ‘build-measure-learn’ approach to the project, learning from customer input across the development of the project.

So in conclusion, yes the lines can be blurry, but understanding if the starting point is to transform or innovate, can help get your project moving in the right direction.


Peter Gillis

Innovation Services Lead