Nancy Napier: Seeing the story through visual business models

Executive director of Boise State's Centre for Creativity and InnovationApril 9, 2014 

WARNING: Students, don’t try this at home. You’ll try it soon enough when your wacky professor adds it to a class.

Next fall, I hope to bring something different to my classes. Some of my students may never forgive me. Others may shift careers. But I hope all will learn something in a new way.

I’ve been visiting Denmark this semester and have had the chance to meet some fascinating, creative people. Christian Nielsen, professor at Aalborg University, runs a research center that focuses on business-model design. He and his group help firms (and students) learn which business models work or may not, and how to improve them so that their organizations perform better.

In other words, he helps organizational leaders, students, researchers and consultants describe, analyze and (re) shape business models to be most effective for specific organizations. The factors to tweak or change include, for example, key partnerships or resources, the value proposition, channels of distribution, customer segments and relationships, cost and revenues.

OK, all that is something that business people would naturally understand and do, right?

Not always.

Nielsen and his team find that understanding business models sometimes comes more fully when people tell a “story” about their firm’s business model. And that’s where the magic comes into play.

He described an all-day, 12-hour workshop with 25 businesspeople, students, and consultants that helped people learn and use business-model design. The final part of the workshop (the last five hours) involved writing a screenplay to illustrate the business model (the story) and creating a film as a way to show the story.

Talk about using your brain in new ways.

He showed me one film that described a business problem that a potential customer faced and then a firm that helped solve the problem by changing the way it does business in certain ways. Presto! New business model for a new group of customers!

The film was fun, funny, and made the point in story form that really captured how the firm created value through its business model.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of visuals to describe, design, and change organizational culture — which can seem intangible to some employees — and this film approach goes far in that process. By offering a story, which is quite accessible and easily understood, it forces the business leaders to condense, focus, and make something that people throughout an organization can understand, across all levels and jobs. Then, they can figure out their role in making the whole operation work.

So watch out students! I’ll be trying some new ideas out on you. As I said, some of you may run screaming from the classroom late at night. But who knows. Some of you may shift from business to film making or, even better, come away with a deep understanding of what can be a tough concept, even for business experts.

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