By @SimonCocking

Interview with Johnny Ryan, the outgoing executive director of the UCD Innovation Academy

What is the UCD Innovation Academy trying to do?

One very simple thing: shape creative minds that can do practical.


How was 2014?

2014 was an important year.

One of the most important tasks for an organisation that relies on student fees is recruitment. We redesigned how we recruit circa 500 students per year. Previously our process was broken. As a result we had to spend a very high sum on acquiring customers. We redesigned the process, and deepened our understanding who to reach and how. We spent time on ethnography with prospective recruits to understand what needs our organisation can fill. Then we tested and refined how we engage with them. We lowered the average cost to acquire a single new student from €350 in mid 2014 to about €5 at the end of 2014, and saved weeks of effort per quarter.

But we didn’t just focus on how we recruit people to what we already do. We also piloted new offerings. In mid 2014 we tested a prototype train-the-trainer programme with forty secondary school teachers and lecturers. The feedback has been remarkable. We are now engaging with a major collaborator to expand on it.

We also tested a prototype professional training boot camp in Design Thinking for decision makers. We learned that there is demand and enthusiasm among C-suite decision makers across the private and public sector for workshop based learning of a type not currently provided by conventional business consultancies. I hope this is something that The Innovation Academy builds on.

At the same time, the public profile and reach of The Innovation Academy has radically grown. This is a wonderful foundation from which to grow the next stage of the Academy.

What would you have done differently?

I think we under invested in design. I wanted to hire a particularly talented in house designer, but we didn’t assign the budget. I think this could have dramatically improved virtually every aspect of what we do, and I do believe that a designer needs to be at the decision making table of any innovative organisation.

You mentioned it wasn’t enough to just look at the syllabus, you needed to identify who your target participants are. How challenging was it to disrupt yourselves? 

First, let me take issue with that word. ‘Disruption’ in the way we use it is a fraught word. It implies a violent, destructive change that in many cases is unnecessary. I have written about this before. It dates back to Joseph Schumpeter’s 1942 description of “creative destruction”, a process whereby new businesses entering a market “incessantly destroy” incumbent companies. These new companies will, inevitably, be disrupted by later entrants to the market. But I think we should be cautious in assuming that this is inherently to the good.

The Schumpeterian view is that that which has been disrupted will be replaced by something better and more efficient. This is not always the case. As I wrote last August in The Irish Times, disruption is the logic of Darwin applied to business. Natural selection, however, was intended to act for population growth rather than revenue accumulation. The winner takes all logic of disruption can be harmful.

For that reason I would much prefer to minimise the hurt of disruption and maximise the spread of iterative improvement by earnest design. We need a change of mind set from winning big to winning sustainably. To do that we need to applaud companies that employ rather than creatively destroy.

With that long proviso offered, what we did well in 2014 was to codify and then iterate our process. That was challenging in so far as mapping the user journey, understanding every customer touch point, and defining where different parts of that can be improved takes time.

People are talking up Ireland as a place that could potentially do better than Silicon Valley, due to less constraints on housing and the available talent over here. What are your thoughts on that?

Silicon Valley became Silicon Valley after decades of government funding for radar and computing research from the middle of the last century. I do not foresee that being surpassed without a structural upset.

This is not to say that Ireland does not have a promising future. We are seeing more firms build up research capacity here, and the language of design is starting to make headway across government and business. There is a strong entrepreneurial and technical community. And the legal structures are largely convivial for would be startups.

There is a challenge. We have not become a business to consumer (b2c) player in the tech space. Plenty of Irish brands beyond tech serve consumers, including Ryanair, Glanbia, etc., but I cant think of any major tech players in the b2c market. So far our successes have been in business to business. It would be nice to see that change.

2015 goals, outrageous goals? What would you like to see happen?

I am leaving UCD, so I will be watching this with fond interest from outside. I do hope that the next 24 months will be focussed on delivering John Henry Newman’s promise of a cross-disciplinary education. Newman, who founded the national university of Ireland, wrote that confining a student to just one subject “has a tendency to contract his mind”. I believe that applies to C-suite decision makers as much as to undergraduate students.

There is a beautiful passage from Newman’s writing on education that rings true now, a century and a half later:
“all branches of knowledge are connected together… The Sciences … have multiplied bearings one on another. … There is no science but tells a different tale, when viewed as a portion of a whole, from what it is likely to suggest when taken by itself, without the safeguard, as I may call it, of others. 

Let me make use of an illustration. In the combination of colours, very different effects are produced by a difference in their selection and juxtaposition; red, green, and white, change their shades, according to the contrast to which they are submitted. And, in like manner, the drift and meaning of a branch of knowledge varies with the company in which it is introduced to the student.” 

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