innovators and the university (the d-school)

[the last of a 3 part series on innovation and the university]

I think d-schools (design schools) have a good shot at helping the university turn out capable innovators.  They are better positioned, for instance, than the b-schools discussed yesterday.

For one thing the d-schools believe in consulting carefully with the consumer.  Thanks to the pioneering work of Jay Doblin, the design field believes in ethnography, and this method flourished there well before its present popularity in business research circles. 

For another thing, the d-school believes in culture. 

Brands_before_design As it stands, the b-school tends to think about the product or brand in terms of utilities,  functions or benefits.  Brands and products create value by doing work in the world. 

For one expression of this position, here are  Christensen, Cook and Hall on the "function brand."   

a simple rule has been forgotten. To build a product that people want, you need to help them do a job that they are trying to get done.

the marketer’s fundamental task is not so much to understand the customer as it is to understand what jobs customers need to do — and build products that serve those specific purposes.

What gets lost in all of this is the other face of the product or brand.  "Meanings and associations" are neglected. 

In the famous HBS case study discussed yesterday, Black and Decker discover that their success in the consumer category has diminished their appeal in the professional category.  More simply, construction workers who use a Black and Decker toaster at home want a more robust brand of tools at work.   Still more simply, a Black and Decker sends the wrong message.  One of the tradesmen quoted in the case study says,

On the job, people notice what you’re working with…if I came out here with one of those Black and Decker gray things, I’d be laughed at.

In his teaching note for the Black & Decker case study, Dolan says,

[The tradesman] wants tools that won’t get him laughed at by other workers on the job site.  His tools are a badge – he sees status – with potential clients and peers via his tools.  Also, just as some clothing brands yield self-esteem, so do the "right" tools.  Having the "Right Stuff" gets you membership in the club of real professionals.  [New paragraph] These benefits can be delivered by the product and the brand. 

Bob Dolan is one of the smartest guy on the planet.  I mean, to honor his native Boston, he is wicked smart and then some.  But this is NOT the way to think about what is going on here.  The The meanings of the Black & Decker product at home (domestic, daily, female) has leaked into the Black & Decker brand on the work site.  What ought to be industrial, exceptional and male (and at the limit, heroic) has taken on new cultural meanings.   The Black & Decker response, in the creation of the DeWalt brand, is unmistakably about regendering the Black & Decker offering, so to restore it’s industrial, exceptional, male and heroic meanings.  (There is another level of meanings here but I leave that for another discussion.)

It does not help to call this brand a badge.  It actually muddies the waters to say this is about status.  It is not about status.  This is one cultural meaning that is not active here, except distantly.  This is a wonderful case, not least because it makes for great classroom theater.  But even a guy as smart as Bob Dolan proves incapable of identifying the real issues at issue, and this, I would argue, is because culture does not a place in the explanatory heavens of the business school (however, active it might be in the heads of b-school students, see my reply to Deighton’s comment on yesterday’s post). 

What I mean to say is that this jewel of the case study rotation is intellectually and pedagogically flawed.  And further to the theme at hand, when Black & Decker created the DeWalt brand, it did the right thing for the wrong reasons.  This innovation was stumbled upon when it could have been embraced sooner and more exactly. 

Enter the d-school.  A good d-school graduate would have "cracked" the Black & Decker/DeWalt issue before the end of the first interview.  I had a chance to hear IDEO’s Jane Fulton Suri and Suzanne Gibbs Howard at the Advertising Research Foundation meetings in San Francisco this month, and they were superb.  At one point, they showed how they used what they learned in a NASCAR pit to redesign the Emergency Room of a hospital.  Brilliant!  One part of culture made available to another, because these innovators are a citizen of the many worlds that make up our world. 

D-schools have a natural advantage here.  They situate themselves across the divide we observed above.  The d-school grad, if I understand him or her, assumes from the outside that the product and brand will have both sets of properties, functional and meaningful.  Indeed, theBrands_after_design_now_png better schools will persuade him/her that this distinction is for some purposes unnecessary and gratuitous.  In effect, the full complexity of the brand and product is restored through the intervention of a profession that takes for granted that presence and mutuality of benefits and meanings. 

By bridging what b-schools put asunder, the d-schools can steal a march on the b-schools in the area of innovation.  Indeed, this may have happened already.

To make their business culture more innovative, managers are hiring thousands of new people who can think and act more creativity.  More and more, recruiters ask if people with a degree in "administration" are up to the task.

If engineering, control and echnology were once the central tenets of business culture, then anthropology, creativity, and an obsession with consumers’ unmet needs will inform the future.  (Hempel and McConnon, BusinessWeek)

The former Dean of the Harvard Business School, Kim Clark, used to say that what kept him up at night was the possibility that HBS might lose its position of preeminence to a new, more virtual, business school.  But, who knows, the real challenge and the real possibility of eclipse may come from a more modest, much less technological threat, the failure of business school to embrace the full complexity of consumers, producers and the marketplace. 

Some business schools are replying to the challenge.  The most conspicuous of these is the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto run by Roger Martin.  Some years ago I had a look at the program and it did not seem to be to satisfy even modest anthropological ideas of culture or method, but that may have changed.  Indeed, it is not clear to me that the design schools always have a fully realized idea of culture.  I don’t know of any design school that teaches a course in American culture of the kind that would prepare graduates to exhaust the analytical and creative options it makes available. 

But we can say at least, that the d-schools are at least open to what the b-schools continue to "read out" of the problem set. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the d-schools can master the analytical skills that b-schools are now so good at. 


Anonymous.  2006.  Design Methods.  Wikipedia. here.

Christensen, Clayton M., Scott Cook, and Taddy Hall.  2005.  It’s the Purpose Brand, Stupid.  Wall Street Journal.  November 29, 2005; Page B2.

Dolan, Robert.  2005.  The Black & Decker Corporation (A): Power Tools Division.  Harvard Business School Case Study. 9-595-057, Revised June 20, 1995. 

Dolan, Robert. 1998.  Black & Decker Corporation Series.  Teaching Note.  Harvard Business School Teaching Note. 5-598-106.  February 12, 2998.

Fulton Suri, Jane and Suzanne Gibbs Howard.  2006.  Human Insights and Creativity. The  Advertising Research Foundation conference: Advertising, What’s Next?  Held December 13-14, 2006. San Francisco.

Hempel, Jessi and Aili McConnon.  2006.  The Top Design Programs.  BusinessWeek.  October 9, 2006, p. 66.

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  And Stop Calling Me Stupid.  The Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  November 30, 2005. here

4 thoughts on “innovators and the university (the d-school)

  1. steve

    Grant’s analysis of the Black & Decker case illustrates my point about the potential of cultural awareness to improve critical thinking more than innovative creativity. Note that B&D did “the right thing for the wrong reason,” so the cultural argument is a critique of the justification for an innovation, not a pointer to greater innovation or more creativity. The payoff to cultural awareness is the same as the payoff to economic or technological awareness, i.e. that innovations with poor justifications turn out more often to be avoidable failures. Critical thinking improves one’s odds.

    This case analysis also provides an example of why sociology or social psych is not enough and anthropology is called for: “Status” is a very general construct which in this case gives little guidance. Cultural meanings such as “masculinity” and “professionalism” (and their opposites) are specific to the situation and provide more suitable guides for decision-making.

  2. Rob Kleine

    Grant – Are you channeling Virginia Postrel in this post? Or … perhaps Kernan & Sommers’ bit about meaning being an aggregate perception of a thing’s attribute and performance characteristics? Or have a completely missed your meaning? rk

  3. T. Boult

    Nice three part post. Should probably separate the two issues how/if universities do/drive innovation and how well they prepare future innovators. In both areas, I think you missed a big piece of the problems of academics and B-school, D-schools and such — they are self-limiting by their self-imposed specializations and silos. Innovation today requires not one point of view but a general multi-disciplinary view of problems and alternatives and a broad team to turn the rough ideas into the real innovation. I don’t see it as something any silo will really solve; it takes a team. And teaching it takes an equally multi-disciplinary view, with practice not just theory. This is why the new Bachelor of Innovation(tm) family of degrees at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs is a joint effort between engineering and business. (Personally I wanted to see an “School of Innovation”, merging engineering and business, but that was too radical — a joint venture was easier to sell than a true merger. It also would have been nice to get the Psych and Anthropology types involved in the program, but many liberal arts faculty seems to view products, technology and business as impure motivations.)

    This is a unique new approach. Its not a degree, its a family of degrees like a BA or BS. Each of the BI majors in business and engineering take their standard major courses, but they also share a common core in innovation related materials including six terms of innovation teaming to get it practiced at many levels. Each student has a choice of a cross-disciplinary core (more than a minor, less than a major) in either business, technology, globalization or creative communications. The goal is to start early and shape them to embrace innovation, entrepreneurship and the value of diverse views and multi-disciplinary teams. And, to practice innovation with corporate partners solving real problems and writing real proposals while still in school. It is not a B-school, D-school or E-school, is a experiential team-based approach to innovation education. You can find more about it at

  4. Felicia D.

    I found your blog while searching for info on Decor & designer antiques in Europe. I’m going on an antiquing tour that may be of interest to design students because it is a no frills inexpensive trip to the antiques markets at Arezzo in Italy, Swinderby & Newark in England and the paris flea markets in France. Check out this website: Felicia.

Comments are closed.