My country, India, is known by many as the land of the Taj Mahal or Bollywood or even noisy traffic. Few people, however, know that India is also the land of examinations. Indians have to appear for examinations at almost every step in life. We write exams not only to get into good schools but also to get jobs or even to get promotions within our jobs. We call exams that are taken outside of school as ‘competitive’ exams. They do not have a fixed pattern or a syllabus. As a result, many organizations in India provide aspirants with additional help to prepare for these examinations.
I worked for one such organization that was established in the year 2008. My company provided e-learning content such as online lessons and tests to aspirants seeking admissions to B-schools. It focused on helping aspirants prepare for an exam known as the “Common Admission Test (CAT)” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Admission_Test). The CAT was conducted once a year and was one of the toughest exams in the country. On an average, about 200,000 aspirants appeared for it and the top B-schools accepted only the top 3,000. Other leading institutes in India also provided the same services as did my company, but in the traditional classroom format. My company was fairly new and, like other start-ups, it was experimenting with the new e-learning format.
A major disruption then happened in the year 2009. In May 2009, it was declared that the CAT would be held in November 2009 and would follow the online format instead of the paper-&-pen format.
There was a surge of registrations on our website. Our competitors, however, were struggling to correctly and rapidly install an entirely new IT infrastructure to accommodate this change. Although my company did not trigger this disruption, its foresight helped in capitalizing on this fortunate event.
This scenario fits the failure framework suggested in the Innovator’s Dilemma pretty well. Firstly, while our competitors focused on improving the contents of their existing products, we focused more on the convenience with which our products could be used, at least in the near-term. We could improve their quality after the basic products were ready. Secondly, we built our products almost a year before the markets for e-learning products truly emerged. We did not experience a grand start but managed to grasp the market in a due course. Thirdly, unlike others, we did not hesitate to invest in disruptive technologies. We built products cheaper than printed books. We were stepping into a market of unknown volume. Also, we tried to target a different market all together. It did not necessarily include our competitors’ customers, who never asked for e-learning products. We decided to build them anyway.
My key-learning from this experience is that a company’s strategy must accommodate the known as well as the unknown, as described in the five principles of disruptive innovation. My company managed to successfully foresee and embrace change. I hope it continues to do so in the future as well.