Open Innovation and the ‘Next Generation Stage-Gate’ process: Reflections on Learning Design processes 2

Next-Generation Stage-Gating

The Stage-Gate concept was developed by Robert Cooper as an innovation management method for businesses. It is now a widely used mechanism to manage the product development process – in the case of a University this may be the development and production of a course. The object of the model is to support the making of a key decision at each stage – the question: should development continue?– or as Cooper puts it; to ‘Go’ with or ‘Kill’ it. For Cooper, the period between Gates consists of ‘information gathering activities’ followed by an analysis of the result which is then entered in to the Gate for decision.

Over the last five years some work has begun to assess and revise the Stage-Gate model. Indeed, Cooper (2008) himself acknowledges the need for the‘Next Generation Stage-Gate’. Reading through this work, I was encouraged to find comments and observations that aligned with themes discussed in my last blog post. Cooper (2008) offers a range of ways to revise or add to his model. I’ve picked out seven below:

  1. A Flexible Process: we observed (see last post) that learning design activities should be planned in advance of the stage commencing and here we find Cooper too  recommending that project teams propose a ‘go-forward’ plan. Furthermore, for Cooper there is a suggestion that the project team ‘has much discretion over which activities it executes and which it chooses not to do’ which is a key aspect to our notion of ‘sufficiency’ and the underlying principle of the toolbox approach to learning design.
  2. Simultaneous Stage Execution: This is the key message behind the diagrams in my last post and something Cooper acknowledges when he suggests activities or complete stages may overlap.
  3. A Spiralling Process: This idea of cyclical rather than linear activity, is clearly shown in the second diagram in my last post and for Cooper the notion of spiral or agile development should be fused to the new Stage-Gate model. One aspect of Cooper’s idea about this is for a ‘full proposition concept test’ to take place before State-gate 2 (what some may consider a business appraisal stage-Gate) where ‘the project team present a representation of the proposed product.’ He clearly has in mind something visual which, so far as teaching and learning goes, suggests visual course representations have value. It is also clear that in moving proto-typing and development further ‘up’ the Stage-Gate process there is an intention for production teams to be involved earlier on.  
  4. Setting Next Gate Success Criteria: Cooper cites successful examples of setting the success criteria for the next stage at the preceding Gate.
  5. Self-Reflection by Project Team: although Cooper fails to really develop this idea, (he suggests that a project team could also score themselves before a Stage-Gate meeting and in small projects manage this themselves) he is identifying the value of self-reflection in the design process. This aligns well with the notion of ‘sufficiency’ / ‘sufficient design work’ we mention: that it is at least in part a responsiblity of a project team to know when they have done enough and to be involved in deciding what ‘enough’ means.
  6. Virtual scoring of Gates: here Cooper is beginning to explore the role of distributed access to Stage-Gate information. I believe this can be taken further, for example, by using virtual portfolios of design work that can be accessed remotely by all stakeholders (as is being implemented by Birmingham City University and shown in our representations as folders).
  7. Accountability: I mentioned accountability in my post, and Cooper too suggests a new Stage-Gate builds a ‘tough post-launch review to instil accountability for the results.’ In general, I would imagine this is an under-achieving part of many product developments so good to see comparison of results against success criteria and continuous improvement being highlighted.

Overall, we have the impression of what Ettlie and Elsenbach (2007) call a ‘modified’ Stage-Gate process. Their work (which compares responses from managers involved in either an ‘original’ or ‘modified’ industrial design Stage-Gate process) found those with modified processes were more likely to be: using more formalised strategies to guide development processes; have more structured processes; adopt collaborative development software support tools and use virtual teams. For learning design projects seeking to achieve more structured guidance and processes, use of support tools and online team working this may be of interest. 

Openly innovating

I’ve also found reference to ‘open innovation’ alongside this ‘Next-Generation’ modified Stage-Gate. The term was coined Henry Chesbrough and a paper by Grönlund et al (2010) gives an example of how the two ideas are being fused. Their definition of open innovation is ‘…that firms should use external as well as internal ideas, and both internal and external paths to market, when they seek to maximise returns from new product development.’

Or put another way to ‘connect and develop’ rather than ‘research and develop’. This of course is a fundamental practice in academic research, however, product innovation activities are perhaps a little different. Grönlund et al. see this as a solution to reinventing-the-wheel and talk about the importance of making ad-hoc practices more formal. This could be achieved by: the seeking and evaluating of opportunities – especially for ‘import’ or ‘export’ of practices; the adding of ‘open innovation evaluation criteria’ to the Stage-gate process; and the continuous evaluation and change of business models. From an educational perspective this underscores the OULDI-JISC project interest in sharing practice (so others can import) and so many other pursuits such as the reusing of learning material.

So what questions could be asked to help clarify the nature of the innovations being managed? Here are a couple of suggestions:

What is the innovation to be managed?

For universities, the ‘product innovation’ is often seen to be creating a new course. And inevitably, and rightly, the initial focus is on the market potential of a topic/content (either new for the university or sector). However, even once the decision has been made to proceed on financial/market grounds, this is no longer the end to the ‘innovation’. Today, the greater choice in pedagogy, technology, production options, and presentation practice means that there are a range of other areas to innovate – many of which may or may not be known or explored until after the market/financial decision has been made.

Examples of such secondary innovations would be the development of a new assessment structure or online collaborative working environment – innovations that ’emerge’ as the production team better understand the design problem space they face (see earlier posts). The question is, are these to still be considered ‘part’ of the original course product innovation or separate to it? If a course could be developed without, say, a new innovative assessment structure then strictly speaking there are two independent innovations going on here: the course product and the assessment strategy. Of course, if the assessment strategy is essential to (a dependent part of) the course product it must remain part of it.

There is, therefore, at least a potential for a multiplicity or nesting of innovative activity and a broadening of what should be considered and managed as a learning and teaching ‘innovation product’. At what point does a ‘product innovation’ that is not a course become important enough in its own right to warrant a separate Stage-Gate process? Is some sort of Dual-Path process required? How should innovations emerging after Stage-Gate 2 or 3 by sufficiently recognised in the innovation management process?

This may require a clarification of the nature of the innovations being proposed at both the second and third Stage-Gate. For example, criteria could ask how much innovation is expected in: (a) market position of course / course topic or content outcomes (b) pedagogy (c) technology being used (d) teaching provision (e) assessment strategy (f) resource use. Such factors could be reviewed at Stage-Gate 3 and, if they change, action taken as necessary.

 For who is this an innovation?

By this I mean; on whose terms is the product/method of achieving the product/method of delivering the  product considered to be ‘innovative’? Is the idea innovative for the sector, the university, the faculty, the course, or the individual? Being clear about this will surely fundamentally affect the terms on which innovation is managed. So, for example, if innovation is being exported from elsewhere then the Stage-Gate decision-makers should be told from where and about the evidence that this has/will be successful. Or, in another case, if the innovation is believed to be entirely new, then information relating to how well the sector has been scoped (to support the ‘claim’ that it’s new) should be provided. A question about the ‘scale’ of the innovation could be asked at a Stage-Gate.

A second question on this theme relates to the student perspective: ‘is this innovative for the student’? This would require consideration of what the student expects and has experienced to date (indeed, ensuring that this is not only innovate but at least on par).

What is the cost of innovation?

Again, the cost of the innovation is likely to be approached differently depending on what type of ‘innovation’ is being considered: if the innovation is truly ‘sector-wide’ then the cost will need working out specifically (as there are no, or only partial, prior cases to go on). However, if it is a ‘university-wide’ innovation then there must be some cost data from elsewhere although this may be difficult to get (especially when case studies of innovation seldom adequately report the cost of it). Moving down the levels again; if the innovation is just ‘new’ for a particular course then there are likely to be examples within the organisation to draw on (although each case may be different).

So in summary, there is a growing awareness of a need to revise the Stage-Gate process and explore how ‘open innovation’ can add a second ‘type’ of innovation (that of ‘importing innovation’) to a more traditional approach associated with internal research and development. Coupled with this, the explosion of teaching and learning choices available to those devising courses today means innovation may occur on several fronts simultaneously. And indeed, with fewer constants, the management and costing of this innovation may become more complex. This may necessitate asking for more information about different types of innovation at different times and accepting some innovations (such as in pedagogy or technology use) may be a response to, as much as a component of, the original course product innovation specification.

Becker B. (2006) ‘Re-thinking the Stage-Gate® Process – A reply to the Critics, Management Roundtable Inc. Link (

Cooper, R. (2008) ‘Perspective: the Stage-Gate® Idea-To-Launch Process – Update, What’s New, and NexGen Systems, Journal of Product Innovation Management, 25: pp213-232.

Ettlie, J. & Elsenbach, J. (2007) Modified Stage-Gate Regimes in New Product Development, Journal of Production Innovation Management, 24, 1, pp20-33.

Grönlund, J., Sjödin, D., Frishammar, J. (2010) Open Innovation and the Stage-gate Process: a revised model for new product development, California Management Review, 52, 3, pp106-131.

The above comments were written as I prepare to co-present a session on Innovation in Learning and Assessment Design at the university’s annual Module Chair Training event later this month.


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