The AV News Awards Keynote Address: Developing the market for innovative business technologies By Nancy Knowlton, CEO, Nureva

The AV News Awards this year was particularly honoured to have as its keynote speaker, Nancy Knowlton, who, in 1987, with her husband and business partner David founded Smart Technologies. Now engaged in the development of their new venture in interactive collaboration, Nureva, AV News invited Nancy to express her thoughts on how our industry might further develop the market for collaborative and other innovative business technologies.


“I’d like to reflect just a tiny bit, if I can, on the experience that David and I went through building Smart Technologies. It’s hard to believe but it’s over 30 years ago that Dave had the idea for the interactive whiteboard. Many people, through the years, described it as being an ‘overnight success’. When we were deep in the midst of trying to figure out how we were going to make payroll, it didn’t feel very much like an overnight success.”

“In fact, it took quite a number of years to establish the brand-new category. If we look back, there were a lot of important lessons that we learned about the creation of a brand-new market for technology. I think one of the big things that we found, in education, that in fact IWBs were a transitional technology. Something that made teachers very comfortable, moving from something that was very tried and true for them, a blackboard to something that moved them into the digital world.”

“We saw on many occasions in the United States, and in different countries around the world, that there were many initiatives whereby teachers were purchased for teachers. Sadly, many of those devices remained unused, and so one of the key lessons here is it’s easy to buy technology, and far less easy to encourage the actual use of the technology.”

New horizons

“Dave and I left Smart after 25 years there and working 70 – 90 hours every week. We had a good run, and on leaving we kind of sat back and relaxed for a period of time and got good at golf. Having taken a break, we came back to it. We’ve now built a team at Nureva that is about a hundred strong.”

“About 70% of our team has a strong back ground from Smart Technologies, so they’ve got a lot of the learnings and perspectives and an element of confidence about doing the right things to build a market for innovative technologies. Time has moved on, and we’re now able to leverage many of the new technologies, and the new environments, to build a brand-new kind of company.”

“Today’s topic is one that keeps me up at night. It’s actually what we’ve been trying to do now for close to 30 years. The issue is about broadening adoption of innovative technology products.”

“Sometimes when you are an innovator, you fail spectacularly. You are unsuccessful – perhaps your product is a little bit ahead of its time, or people are resistant to change. So many things can happen that are really outside your control. So, answering this question of broadening the adoption of collaboration products is actually front-and-centre in my mind, so when I try to answer that particular question, I try to take a look at what’s happening in the broader environment.”

Influential factors

“What is it that is on the minds of the people that we are most trying to influence? Every so many years, the World Economic Forum surveys CEOs globally. Back in 2015, they came up with a list of the top 10 skills that CEOs, globally, felt were necessary to drive their businesses forward.”

“The list of skills projected to be essential for 2020 is headed by complex problem solving. The problems that people face in business these days are not getting any easier: the speed of business, the global market pace, where competitors are coming from changing technologies. All of these things are making challenges for typical business very complex indeed, so it’s no surprise that this particular skill set is rated so highly.”

“But what is very interesting, is seeing how some of the other skills have moved up in priority while other skill sets have moved down. The ones that I have highlighted in that light blue for 2020 [see Slide 1], I would suggest are important skills that we could embrace under the umbrella of collaborations. So, right here in this chart, I feel is one of the biggest empowerment for the AV/IT industry for making the case for collaboration tools.”

The nature of collaboration

“When you add to that some of the other factors that are impacting business, you can understand that business now is really quite agitated. Innovation, the need to create products quickly for emerging consumer needs, demonstrates the need for speed the business feels because of competition and changing technologies.”

“The need for agility within organisations is apparent from the vocabulary used by global CEOs. These particular words are at the heart of where we see the opportunity today for collaboration tools. Right at the top of the agenda for global businesses is getting the right people to do the things needed within their business. The hiring, retention and on-going development of their staff has become very, very important. These are the background conditions that make the case for the adoption of collaboration tools today.”

“But what do we mean by ‘collaboration’? I can remember back when Dave and I had created the very first product, within Smart Technologies, we were at a meeting with Intel, about 25 years ago. Intel had recently invested in our company, and we used the word ‘collaboration’. Intel’s senior marketing manager, who was in the room, said, “You can never use the word ‘collaboration’. We have done a lot of work with focus groups, and the word collaboration is most closely associated with Nazis.”

“Eventually, after some time, the word came into broader usage to mean “the process of working with someone to produce or create something”. To add precision to this simple definition, it’s equally important to say what ‘collaboration’ is not. It’s not, for example, a passive process – it’s a very active process, it’s where one plus one is three.”

“That’s a little bit of a cliché, but how is it that people can work together to create something that working alone they could not do as well? Sitting around a conference room table and talking is just that, unless you are advancing ideas, gaining deeper understanding and building on each other’s contributions Unless you’re doing that, you’re not actually collaborating.”

Appropriate tools

“Collaboration also isn’t a single activity. It is not doing just one thing and so there is an opportunity for multiple collaboration tools. You might relate to this little story. Dave came home one day and saw me busy around the house. He asked: “What are you doing?! “Hanging a picture,” I replied. “With the wrong end of a screw driver?’, he said. “Well yeah, that’s all I could find, you know,’ I explained, pounding my nail in with a handle of a screwdriver.  Dave explained that there is actually a better tool for that process. It’s the same in the collaboration arena – not every tool suits every particular purpose.”

“Today’s presentation to guests of the AV News Awards is just that one way to share information. The tool I am using is appropriate for this activity but collaboration not just audio and video conferencing alone. Conferencing companies had been very good at grabbing the word ‘collaboration’, putting it into the Unified Communications pigeonhole for their space. But collaboration is actually many different things, with many different kinds of tools.”

User adoption

“So, as we think about how collaboration technologies might be adopted, it’s actually important to think about who are all of the parties who are involved in that adoption process. Many times, that whole process begins and ends with customers. Customers are best at describing what they’re currently doing – how they think they might like to work, but they’re less good at imagining where technology might be able to take them.”

“I would suggest that that really is the role of channel to get that vision of where the technology could go, with a solid understanding of what the problems and current processes are. Consultants are increasingly being approached by companies to help them with new collaboration environments.”

“For many years, Dave has been going to research events also attended by big companies. It’s interesting to see the concepts that first were talked about in these research conferences, and embodied in papers and presentation 15 or 20 years ago, are just now starting to come out as real products in the market. And the role of influencers is also very important, people who write about new technologies and who bring them to people’s awareness.”

The adoption curve

“The product adoption curve explains a lot about the motivation of people who are embedded across organisations. On the far left [see Slide 2] you’ll see groups of innovators and early adopters. While those people are clearly important, they are far less in number than the majority of users within an organisation.”

“Thinking about how products get introduced, and then migrate across an organisation, is really important. You can hit a wall, as you encounter pragmatists and conservatives. Innovators are willing to take on new products, even if they aren’t fully finished or have all of the resource and support that the people might otherwise think that they should have. The early adopter group is really quite forgiving.”

“From a manufacturer, developer and channel perspective, these people can be very important because they bring new products into the market, and support companies financially as they are developed for majority adoption. Pragmatists and conservatives are a little more demanding. They ask for more support and more complete products something that is more fully.”

“Finally, the sceptics or the laggers: I believe that you should really never should do anything to support this group. When we were selling into education this group was a significant block on the adoption of technology. Just by-passing them or waiting for their early retirement was sometimes necessary.”

Harnessing change

“The adoption of any new technology really is all about change You can either lead the change, or follow the change – but change does happen. In the chart [see Slide 3] you’ll see something called the Gardener Pipe Cycle. It describes circumstances where, for example, a new CEO will come in and we’ve got a new initiative; a new name; a new language; a new roll out – and there’s great enthusiasm about what that project is going to deliver. There is a rapid shooting up of expectations. and it’s as if technology alone is going to deliver the results.”

“Many of these initiatives fail, because it is simply not “the technology alone”. People go through something called the ‘path of disillusionment’ or the ‘trough of disillusionment’.  Fortunately, the adoption of new technologies can also produce sustained benefits, called the ‘plateau of productivity’. Productivity being the big aim of so many of these corporate initiatives, but what this really says is that it takes time, it takes effort, it does not just happen.”

“The sceptics in an organisation have good reason to be sceptical, because change is hard. It is accompanied by new mandates, new training – new everything. It’s almost as if, what was happening in the past, was not good enough or in fact bad or wrong. But in fact, the message here is that while change may be hard, not changing can be fatal to an organisation. Thinking about how new products, new ways of working and new ideas are brought into an organisation is all about sustaining the organisation and making sure it can be successful for a long period of time.”

“Harvard Business Review talks about the ‘pace of change’. The pace of change for the interactive whiteboard gave us the latitude to actually get the product ‘right’. I would suggest actually that that is a very unusual circumstance and we certainly do not think about having a lot of time to be successful with new technologies today.”

“The adoption of innovative technologies, I think, has to start first and foremost thinking about the customer. Putting the customer at the heart of the experience and imagining what the end result is going to be. Like anything that starts with asking questions and not prescribing to the answer, just because you have a particular product in your kit bag. Taking a consultative approach really is, in my view, the only way to be successful today. Thinking about the adoption, so talking about what’s going to happen with the product, in use, first. Increasingly it’s engaging the manufacturer and the developer with end-users, not so that we could “mess up the sale” but to provide a level of insight into a product road map.“

“Your product may not be perfect today, but if the customer can see three, six, nine months out, what the longer-term vision or new functionality will be, the customer shares the sense of a longer-term relationship. Increasingly customers want to feel that they can in fact have an impact on product direction. Increasingly companies like ours are moving to three and four-month delivery cycles for new functionality, customers are able to impact priorities and suggest functionality.”

“And that really means getting to the creation of really holistic plans, and that’s not just at the manufacturer / developer level but it’s also at the channel and understanding the interplay between the two parties. And so, thinking about what the channel rule and mindset really needs to be now, and more than ever, it requires a close working relationship with the manufacturer/ developer It means sharing in both directions – sharing market information, why a sale is won and, just as importantly, why a sale is lost.”

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