Sense Worldwide: Transforming the Rules of Innovation

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“Why don’t we convene a bunch of creative thinkers and doers from around the world, get them to tell us what’s going on out there and collaborate to develop new things?” Jeremy Brown, CEO

This was the founding idea behind Sense Worldwide, set up in the late 1990s and based on the simple but profound insight that ‘people will always pay for ideas’. By 2000, Procter and Gamble was asking the company to develop its seminal open management module, ‘Working with Culture’, and by 2011, Sense Worldwide had grown to include over 3,000 members across 55 countries working with high-profile clients such as IBM, Unilever and the BBC.

In this two-part case series, Patrick Reinmoeller, Cranfield University School of Management, and Alessandro Giudici, Cass Business School, UK, trace the company’s rapid global success and the challenges it faced to maintain its position against unexpected competitors. Patrick and Alessandro begin by explaining why they decided to write the case series.

Reflecting students' needs

First, given our classroom experience, we thought it was important to create a case that would better reflect the needs of our students. The challenges presented by new social media and crowd-led innovation require new ways of thinking about how to gain competitive advantage and we could not find any suitable existing cases. Second, we wanted to cover a broader range of industries in our courses to facilitate the discussion of key strategic concepts, and the creative industry was a perfect fit.

Third, it is very rare to be presented with the lucky opportunity to write a case about an entrepreneurial firm that – according to the Harvard Business Review – was a pioneer in co-creation practices. Co-creation is such an influential and important concept and we were delighted to have the opportunity to

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learn from Sense Worldwide how it was originally developed as a new way to innovate and then grew to become such an important everyday practice.

Finally, we all know the important case of IDEO Product Development and the deep influence it has on how students learn about innovation. The case of Sense Worldwide complements it perfectly, taking design thinking even further into the world of strategic management through co-creation.

Jeremy Brown, CEO, Sense Worldwide

A pioneering approach

We first heard about Sense Worldwide through friends and began to learn about how its network of Sensers were helping companies understand their markets. The way Sense Worldwide co-creates innovation with its clients truly captured our attention and we became determined to develop the study. Sense Worldwide supported Procter & Gamble (P&G) at the very start of its journey towards an open culture, helping it to develop a seminal management learning module called ‘Working with Culture’. Sense and P&G worked together on many original and influential concepts about how to foster collaboration inside P&G and co-create ideas. This was before important popular books, such as Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, were published or became mainstream. Sense Worldwide was truly an early pioneer in building the whole co-creation and open innovation movement.

Relying on the passion of people

It is very common nowadays to think that digitally-sourced big data can provide a true understanding of why people get excited about new products or services and about how they think. Yet, such data often creates big headaches because it can be very difficult to make sense of what is going on.

To overcome this, Sense Worldwide proactively maintains a large network of people passionate about very specific things or creativity in general. With their support, Sense Worldwide helps organisations learn how to be open, to understand trends and to develop real innovations that connect and build on internal and external expertise. Sense Worldwide is in the business of facilitating this encounter between creative thinkers and doers both from within and outside client firms. This is a very powerful enrichment of the critical insight that ideas are what matter: bringing people together is the mechanism through which Sense Worldwide nurtures such innovative ideas.

Keeping rivals at bay

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The uniqueness of Sense Worldwide’s approach cannot be overestimated. However, this also means that it needs to keep at bay rivals who seek to imitate and catch up. Its unique approach, and the process and tools it developed over time, make Sense Worldwide an excellent model for understanding how co-creation and open innovation can provide firms with beneficial insights into the lives of critical stakeholder groups. Yet, it also shows how a breakthrough innovation can inherently constrain growth as well as foster it.

When we began to appreciate the great significance of the two important phases of the company’s development, we decided to increase the effectiveness of the case by presenting it as a two-part series.

One simple proposition

Many great successes start with rather simple propositions or questions, such as Sense Worldwide’s ‘people will always pay for ideas’. Consider how Schultz got his inspiration to develop Starbucks on a trip to Italy where he experienced what an Italian espresso bar could be like. He wanted the same at home and sensed his opportunity. Or think about Dell who realised how R&D and manufacturing were becoming less important than the ability to deliver home PCs directly to consumers’ homes. More recently, Netflix understood that people want to watch movies at any time and in many different locations, rather than just on the sofa or in cinemas at pre-set times. Look at Google whose phenomenal success is built on the single idea of organising all the information in the world!

However, although the initial insight might be simple, its refinement into a successful business model takes time – as in the case of Sense Worldwide.

Revising the case

We went through many (many!) iterations of the case. Clarification questions and comments posed by many students based on their own industry insights or work experience helped us to make the case clearer and more to the point. We were always delighted by the positive response of the classroom and went away to make further improvements. We are extremely grateful to everyone who helped make the case even stronger.

Engaging students

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The case is written to support teaching primarily in strategy related classes and has a highly practical approach to help students understand the frameworks and why they are important. It is particularly useful to discuss internal and external analysis and topics such as strategic resources, core competencies and dynamic capabilities. The case is theoretically very rich yet also very versatile and is a powerful support in the classroom. We paid a lot of attention to the development of clear, practically step-by-step teaching notes that explain the different options and teaching paths.

Patrick teaches mainly executives and many of them – particularly those located far from London or other creative hotspots – find the opportunity to dig into the strategic aspects of the creative industry and Gen Y social media very exciting. Alessandro often uses the case with post-graduates and MSc students and for them the case is very useful to understand strategic concepts in a context they can easily relate to and, because of their ‘native’ knowledge, they are able to energise the discussion with sharp and insightful questions. 

Strong online presence

Sense Worldwide is a community-centred company which is also very open. Its online documentation, virtual platforms and communities are accessible 24/7. This strong online presence mean that the case can be often be used to foster interaction with potential contributors and this makes active participation possible for course participants.

An insider’s view: Brian Millar, Strategy Director, Sense Worldwide

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Brian Millar describes his experience of being involved in a case as ‘inspiring and thought provoking’, and explains the many benefits of taking part.

 

Validation

We felt that Sense Worldwide received validation as having a world-class, original and successful approach to innovation. We’ve also benefited from the advocacy and enthusiasm of students who have come into contact with Sense Worldwide and its stories. That a leading business school chose to celebrate Sense Worldwide as a groundbreaking and unconventional business has also undoubtedly added to our gravitas.

Fresh insights

The ideas and challenges generated from the students have been thought-provoking and inspiring. Whether they were quizzing me about how Sense Worldwide will defend its competitive advantage, future opportunities, or even how the business model could be transformed; each and every conversation has helped to shape and validate Sense Worldwide's future direction.

Taking it to the next level

I’ve seen the case taught and it’s always fun to watch the more conventional thinkers in a room gasp with amazement when they hear about how the radical individuals from the Sense Worldwide network get to collaborate with some of the world's largest businesses. It spurs us on to think about how we take it to the next level!

Be prepared

I would say to anyone considering whether or not to take part in a case about their organisation that they must be prepared for a long journey!

Case details

Sense Worldwide: Transforming the Rules of Innovation
Patrick Reinmoeller
Cranfield University School of Management
Alessandro Giudici
Cass Business School
Ref 314-101-1
Also available:
Sense Worldwide: Transforming the Rules of Innovation (B)
Ref 314-102-1
Teaching note
Ref 314-101-8 

About the authors

Patrick Reinmoeller is Professor of Strategic Management at Cranfield University School of Management.
e patrick.reinmoeller@cranfield.ac.uk

Alessandro Giudici is a Management Lecturer at Cass Business School, City University London
e Alessandro.Giudici.2@city.ac.uk

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