When Technology Innovation Makes a Real Difference
Feb 04, 2015
The market for business-grade collaboration solutions is increasingly crowded, complex and potentially confusing. A broad array of endpoint products including high-definition multi-touch displays and panels, whiteboards, video walls, and web, computer desktop and mobile interfaces have emerged to address business users’ evolving collaborative needs. Frequently new technology developments represent evolutionary enhancements rather than truly innovative new products. Certain vendors, however, rise above the competition through a practical approach, whereby the vendor takes into consideration the full berth of issues that customers are trying to address.
Best known for its SMART Boards in education, SMART Technologies also offers highly collaborative solutions for business with its SMART Boards and Meeting Pro solutions. These unique solutions offer true two-way collaboration whether participants are in the same room or across the globe. But SMART has also done something remarkably simple and yet totally unique. It has taken a pragmatic approach to solving a number of shortcomings inherent to the widely popular dry erase board, which had not seen any notable enhancements in decades.
SMART kapp is an interactive digital capture board that preserves all the wanted features of traditional dry erase boards while eliminating its limitations. Truly a balance of simplicity and advanced functionality, SMART kapp maintains the basic free-form collaboration features associated with the familiar and reliable dry erase board while enabling content capture and one click secure remote sharing.
Frost & Sullivan recognized SMART Technologies’ SMART kapp with the 2014 New Product Innovation Award in the interactive whiteboard market. A practical human approach and an in-depth understanding of everyday collaboration requirements have enabled SMART Technologies to innovate more successfully than its competitions and to deliver superior value in this market.
I had the great pleasure of sitting at the same table with SMART Technologies CTO, Warren Barkley, during Frost & Sullivan’s 2014 Awards Gala in Toronto. We had a very interesting conversation, which inspired me to follow up with Warren on some additional talking points.
Mr. Barkley brings over 17 years of technology experience and leadership. Prior to his current role as Chief Technology Officer of SMART Technologies, he served as General Manager in the Microsoft Lync/Skype division. Barkley held several key positions in Microsoft over his tenure and was instrumental in the development of Microsoft Lync as the communication and collaboration software of choice for Fortune 500 companies.
At Microsoft he played a central role in establishing Wi-Fi as a worldwide standard, and building world-class real time communications technologies used by hundreds of millions of users every day. Barkley holds over 35 worldwide patents in networking, wireless and communications.
Hi Warren. It was great to meet you in person at the Frost & Sullivan Awards Gala last December. I truly enjoyed our conversation and wanted to follow up with you on a few topics that we discussed at the event. I was really intrigued by your versatile career experience, which includes teaching as well as high-tech development. I imagine the two career paths have determined your current involvement with a technology company delivering compelling solutions for the education industry. Can you share a few highlights from your past career and help me understand how your previous experience relates to your current position at SMART Technologies?
When I first started teaching computers were still in a special room with special teachers and largely used to teach typing. At one of the schools I taught at we liberated them from that room and had all the students use computers to guide and track their learning. All the students had some touch with computers every day. This was usual in the 90s and, though technology has leapt forward, studies show that students' interactions with technology at school continue to be rare today. The world has moved on, education hasn’t. That is one of the reasons I came to SMART Technologies. We need to help have classrooms authentically reflect the world that our kids live in.
Most people think my background is a little odd—music, education, high tech; along the way people gave me the opportunity to learn and grow. Microsoft in the 90s was a place where you were given the authority to drive and build great things across the company and the industry. No one cared about your degrees or your background but the focus was on whether you were creative and could execute. I doubt Tim Moore and I would have had the ability to get done what we got done for Wi-Fi across the industry anywhere else.
Warren, we all agree that technology is evolving at a fast pace today. But many of the IT markets are no longer growing at the same rate as they did a decade ago. I think a lot of technologies are being developed for technology’s sake and are failing to address actual customer pain points. Do you agree with this statement and how do you think IT vendors can ensure that their technologies promptly address real customer needs?
Completely agree. There are whole companies that build technology because it is cool rather than considering what problem it solves or how customers will use it. The rub is that customers rarely know what they need until they see it. If asked, most focus groups would tell you they want your current product cheaper and faster; very little innovation comes from those conversations. I found when we built kapp and other products that you need someone involved in the projects that champions the first principle of the product: why are we building it in the first place, how are customer going to use is, is every single element of it as easy as possible.
For us with kapp it was the pen. It would have been way easier to do what we did with a special pen. I wanted it to be just like dry erase—no special pen, no special surface. It was a first principle and the team did it but it is rarely easy. It is easy to lose sight of this in the middle of sausage making that is building a product. Those champions need intestinal fortitude and connection to customers to be successful in that role. On one of our other products we took the developers and had them not only spend time in classrooms but teach classes as well. The product went from theory to practical very quickly based on those experiences.
Thank you, Warren. I believe that SMART Technologies is one of few companies that are developing technologies that deliver highly differentiated and truly compelling benefits to the customers they serve. At the Awards Gala you mentioned some amazing experiences. You said some customers were literally hugging you and chanting your name in expression of their gratitude and satisfaction with SMART’s solutions. Can you tell the story in greater detail please?
I have to say it is slightly embarrassing to have that sort of love shown to you. Education is a mission. Most teachers are there for the love of the profession and impact they can have on children. When you build products that help them do that, they get excited, very excited. I might have had a bigger impact on numbers of people in my past gigs, but in this one, I see our impact every time I visit a classroom. Having a hand in something where children who could not communicate or read were able to make progress that their teachers and parents had wished for, but did not think would happen, is … well, a wonderful thing to be part of.
Over the last nine months, we have seen large changes in classrooms. They are moving from projector-based technology to interactive panels. The volume of these looks to be increasing by 100% next year. It makes complete sense to me, people want interactivity but the cost and hassle of projectors over time doesn’t add up anymore. We spend all our display R&D on this technology. From the ground up we are building panels that start with the education need. Are the pens kid-friendly, is it too warm to touch, too bright? We look at all the human factors and then make solutions purpose-built for education.
This really sounds amazing. Where is SMART headed from here, Warren? What is the next phase in SMART technology development and why?
We are excited about our new software product SMART amp and its ability to glue the classroom into a learning environment without walls and allow students to collaborate in a way that’s most natural to them. The best learning takes place in groups and this product makes that accessible like never before. SMART kapp, as you mentioned, is a product that takes little explanation and is one of those rare things where, when people first use it, their eyes light up and ask where they can buy it. Those don’t come along often and it is a privilege to be part of that.
Thank you very much, Warren. I truly appreciate your time and insight.
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