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Research · Rob Austin

Tapping into technology

Dec 1, 2016

Man Holding Grid Cube

When film director Tim Burton adapted the musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, for the big screen, he conveyed the darkness of the tale by literally making the 2007 film dark.

Burton had digital colourist Stefan Sonnenfeld turn the brighter original raw film stock to grey, highlighted with bright red for blood, to better set the tone for the story of a serial killer barber in industrial age London, England.

Launched 16 years ago, digital colouring of film is one example of how technology is helping companies improve products and services, streamline tasks, and get creative.
The research of Professor Rob Austin is focused on what’s at the heart of such innovation processes.

Practise makes perfect – Test the waters and get creative

Austin’s research explores how companies use technology or other means to make what he calls “cheap and rapid iterations.” In the same way that painters might create numerous versions of a painting or actors practise a show before the live performance, new technology and different ways of thinking are helping companies to quickly and cheaply create various prototypes of products that can be tested and perfected.

For instance, prior to new computer technology enabling digital colouring of film, the film-colouring business involved painting directly onto film or using light and colour effects on the set. Both required one to get it right the first time because the process was too long or expensive to repeat. Now, thanks to digital colouring of film, there can be many iterations of movies and TV shows testing out different colour effects to create a fitting ambience.

Unleashing creativity

The technology has also created a new form of artistry and a new source of employment for the artists – the digital colourist role.

“The movie-making process is creative, but there was nothing creative happening at the colour stage, other than whatever directors did in the field,” said Austin. “Now suddenly there’s a new creative artist, a new creative process, and a major new revenue source.”

Austin said prototyping products and processes quickly and cheaply helps companies discover how their products and services will be experienced and to experiment more, which might bring better results.

“When your process of trying things is expensive and slow, you’ll work in a completely different way. You’ll try to get it right the first time. You’ll be super careful. You’ll plan and plan and plan before you do anything. A lot of industrial systems work this way,” he said. “But when you have cheap and rapid iteration, you don’t have to get it right the first time and you don’t have to worry as much about mistakes. You can afford to make mistakes and learn from them.”

Think differently

Companies across all fields are incorporating such processes – from banks testing marketing programs on social media to an audience subset, to automobile manufacturers doing digital crash testing to supplement more costly live crash tests. But Austin said they’re more embraced by non-commodity companies. However, he said there are lessons for commodity companies in how to differentiate their products.

“You can work hard to reduce your costs, but there may be other competitors coming from other places in the world that might have cost advantages. To compete, you could differentiate your products more and charge higher prices for them,” he said. “The lesson is: Shift some of your thinking to the revenue side of the income statement. Keep trying to reduce your costs, but also try to think about how to create new and differentiated revenue sources. For many companies, technology is going to be a part of that, but not always.”

Balancing creativity and economics

Austin is currently working on a paper, “An essential conversation: How the economic lives with the aesthetic in creative companies,” with professors Daniel Hjorth and Shannon Hessel of Copenhagen Business School. It looks at how companies can balance economic and creative interests.

“Sometimes companies take on a project because it looks financially lucrative. Other times they take on projects that don’t look financially lucrative because they are interesting to their creative staff. This paper looks at how companies resolve those inner conflicts,” he said.

Austin was also one of 15 thought leaders – including Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google – who contributed to Frontiers Fall 2016, a special collection of essays from MIT Sloan Management Review on how technology is reshaping the practice of management. His essay, Unleashing Creativity With Digital Technology,” explores how digital technologies are reducing iteration and experimentation costs.

Austin joined Ivey full time as a professor of Information Systems in August 2016 after being a professor of Innovation and Digital Transformation at Copenhagen Business School, and, before that, a professor of Technology and Operations Management at Harvard Business School. He has taught the Ivey MBA elective, Design and Technology Management of Innovative Business, for the past three years as an adjunct professor. He will lead Ivey’s learning innovation initiative, which will look at how technology can be incorporated into the School’s programs.

He’s no stranger to innovation in business education. While at Harvard Business School, Austin chaired the executive program for Chief Information Officers and sought to implement the program content in an unusual way. He co-authored, The Adventures of an IT Leader, with Richard L. Nolan of Harvard Business School and Shannon O’Donnell of Copenhagen Business School. The book fictionalized real events. First published in 2009, the book was updated this year and is now being used in more than 400 business schools to teach IT management. In 2012, he wrote a sequel with the same co-authors, Harder Than I Thought: Adventures of a Twenty-First Century Leader, about the same fictitious manager a decade later as he grapples with a CEO role. Parts of the book were filmed and developed into a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Leadership in 21st Century Organizations, from Copenhagen Business School, which is still being offered.