Monthly Archives: July 2014

Disruptive Innovation in Professional Education and Decision Support

Communities and services built on curated digital collections of tutorial-format information are disrupting several “industries” including higher education, continuing education, and professional and occupational publishing (textbooks, reference works, and manuals).

A great example is, which has replaced printed textbooks, reference works, and journal articles in many U.S. teaching hospitals and medical practices. Quoting from UpToDate’s web site:

UpToDate® is an evidence-based, physician-authored clinical decision support resource which clinicians trust to make the right point-of-care decisions. More than 5,700 world-renowned physician authors, editors and peer reviewers use a rigorous editorial process to synthesize the most recent medical information into trusted, evidence-based recommendations that are proven to improve patient care and quality.

UpToDate is available, by subscription, to working medical professionals, residents, interns, and students. UpToDate also provides a free “lite” version for caregivers and patients. As such, UpToDate is a great example of a collection-based community and service offering that is certain to be replicated in dozens, if not hundreds, of other fields of knowledge, education and practice.

Generalizing from UpToDate to other fields, a curated collection can provide community and services for at least four major professional and occupational use cases:

  • Instructors/faculty at educational institutions worldwide;
  • Students at educational institutions worldwide;
  • Continuing or executive education enterprises; and
  • Learners and working professionals in enterprises worldwide.

The 22-year-old UpToDate is well known in health sciences but the model of valuable services built on a curated collection is only now starting to come into use (and disrupting industry and practices) in other professional or occupational fields such as architectural programming and construction management; water resource engineering; and design, planning, and operation of logistics systems.

I’ve shared more thoughts on the trajectory and implications of this disruptive innovation in another post.

Accumulating Evidence of the Value of Collection-Based Services

In a June 12 post I described the digital gold rush in occupational education and services. The evidence continues to accumulate that the most promising approaches are built on:

  1. Curated digital collections
  2. Online communities of learning and practice; and
  3. Incorporating adaptive-learning or search-and-recommend technologies.

Traditional information services companies and publishers are leading many of these ventures. For example, UpToDate, described in an another earlier post, is part of Wolters Kluwer and Elsevier has partnered with the adaptive learning company, Knewton, to build “products” for nursing, health professions and medical students in the coming years.

While experience in information services and publishing may be useful, the revolution in digital publishing (think of user-generated content on YouTube, Facebook, or LinkedIn) means that universities, companies, and individuals can produce and deliver digital content at low cost. The Veritas offering in veterinary medicine from Cornell, Texas A&M, and Pfizer illustrates this nicely, as does the fact that the venerable Merck Manual (a diagnosis and therapy “collection” for health care professionals, the first edition of which was printed in 1899 and the 19th edition printed in 2011) is available online.

The promise of these approaches comes from the fact that thousands of faculty members (content experts) worldwide teach almost any topic you can think of, from big data analytics to construction management to managerial accounting. In theory the simple sum of lectures, resource materials, problem-sets, and quizzes that these individuals create in their day-to-day work could be a useful collection. Indeed, YouTube, Google, and collections like iTunes U mean that many of these materials are already accessible as part of unstructured and un-curated collections.

It is entirely a different matter, however, to create, maintain, and make accessible a curated collection for professional and educational uses. Enterprises such as those named above, and including enterprises such as the Khan Academy or, are pioneering these approaches. While we can be certain that services and communities built on curated collections will disrupt education and publishing, there are certain to be plenty of failures.

More on what seem to be the recipes for failure and success in another post.

Six Significant Hurdles (to building value from curated collections)

It seems as though any university, publisher, or professional society should be able create a robust curated collection for education and decision support.  These types of enterprises have most of the right assets and experience. They employ, or have access to, many individuals with directly relevant content knowledge.  They have commercial and organizational experience in knowledge-intensive services such as education, testing and certifying an individual’s competence, or codifying and disseminating knowledge.

Further, the core technological capabilities, from digital authoring and asset management to online communities and adaptive-learning or search-and-recommend technologies, are now inexpensive and easy to access.

As it turns out, however, enterprises considering the development of a commercially viable set of services built on a curated collection face at least six significant hurdles.

The first hurdle is selecting an enterprise model for the collection-based services that meets the needs of a) compensating content authors; b) generating revenue from subscriptions or per-use; and c) engaging both transient and long-lived online communities. This will knock out all but the most innovative and flexible universities and many professional societies.

Publishers have a leg up with regard to the first hurdle as they have a working business model that is similar to what is needed but they come up short (compared to universities) when it comes to the second hurdle: establishing and updating a knowledge map for the field and creating various “paths” through the collection (curricula) that can guide self-paced learners or instructors who want to use the material.

The third hurdle is setting up an editorial/curatorial process to assure the veracity and currency of the content, both initial (solicited) content and user-generated (unsolicited) content. For truly dynamic content, this is as much like traditional editing and curating as speed dating is like a 30-year-long marriage. There are not many organizations outside the new generation of digital publishers who understand how to bring a out a new edition of curated content every few minutes, 365 days a year.

A fourth hurdle is that robust online communities, an integral aspect of virtually every collection-based service offering, need to be programmed, either by a leading expert or by a paid professional (or both).  Simply put, a community programming professional is responsible for creating or orchestrating reasons for users to return to, and engage with the community.  Programming can make or break a community, perhaps even more so than the quality of the content.

Fifth, every collection-based service offering runs the risk of being money-losing vanity press for the organizing entity. Creating a collection, and experimenting with services built on the collection, are only viable strategies if you can attract users in volumes that justify the effort and investment. The branding, marketing, and sales channels for traditional educational offerings, and for professional society or trade association membership, are well understood.  But can entities that are good at these activities mount an effective approach to find, recruit, and retain thousands or tens of thousands users?

Finally, as if to add insult to injury for those who want to dabble or experiment, this is a race where early leaders get a tremendous push forward from users. Adaptive learning technologies and search-and-recommend engines improve the paths through a collection with use and they allow the curator to quickly target needed improvements or refinements to the collection. I am reluctant to say that an early lead in use is unassailable, but it certainly conveys a tremendous advantage in rapid, iterative improvement of a collection and services.

In sum, curated collection-based services innovation is more about establishing an operating entity with the right capability than about technology or content. An effective platform technology and quality content are the ante in this game. The creativity needed is mostly in business and operational processes that that can make a collection and related community activities dynamic and useful to target users.

Many will try and few will succeed.   We’ll see a lot more failures than successes as curated collections disrupt education and decision support worldwide.

Reinventing the University – Thoughts on Where and When

Cover articles of The Economist are always worth reading.  However when the June 28 edition led with “Creative Destruction: Reinventing the University” I was more than a bit interested to read what one of the world’s leading news magazines would say about a topic so close to my own heart.  To be sure, the magazine had previously reported on the potential disruptive effect of MOOCs but a cover story promised much more.

On the one hand I was not disappointed.  They conclude simply that “… as an alternative to an overstretched, expensive model of higher education, they [online education approaches] are more likely to prosper than to fail.”  As much as I agree with that sentiment, they were a bit remiss in not discussing several aspects such as the role of research at universities but also in not examining the timing and location of this disruption — it certainly won’t be the same everywhere.

For my part I don’t have a crystal ball, but a number of excellent studies on service sector innovation can give us some clues.  In particular, we know that innovation in services almost always starts with automation of existing processes.  This typically leads to much welcome improvement in efficiency and often quality. However it is only much later, once familiarity with the new tools sinks in, that one sees fundamental changes in the service itself.

The implication, to me at least, is that the places to look first for fundamentally new models of higher ed are where there are no or few existing solutions.  Much like copper wire has been passed over for wireless communications in the developing world, one can expect new models for universities to first appear in the developing world where the need is great and there are fewer existing universities to change.

Domestically, we’ve seen a great deal of automation and technology applied to improving our existing models of higher ed.  These have been worthwhile efforts but I for one am looking forward to bolder experiments in the coming years!

With warm regards, Damian Saccocio, Co-founder, Course Gateway

PS: For those interested, the Reverse Product Life Cycle model described by Barras is well worth a read.  The model asserts that innovation in service industries flips the classic model from Utterback where product features change rapidly early on, gradually giving way to process improvements (e.g., consider how important process innovation came to be in the automobile industry after features became standard).