The ability to function effectively across national and cultural boundaries is a critical challenge faced by companies in the increasingly global economy. Idean, a Finnish design agency with a strong international presence, offers one example of a pathway to globalizing design services. Growth requires learning along the way, adapting plans and practices.
As a result of digitalization, many businesses today are international in scope. Globalization changes how work is organized across time and space. With a global network of 22 studios and over 700 digital strategists, designers, and developers, Idean has built a multi-cultural team in which diversity is a true asset. The company’s aim is to blend the best of the Scandinavian design ethos and Silicon Valley mindset to deliver business value through human-centered design.
While many existing studies and everyday discussions on internationalization focus on challenges companies face when attempting to adapt culturally, globalization can be also an empowering experience of personal and company growth. For small countries like Finland, it is crucial to find support mechanisms for high-growth entrepreneurship and internationalization and remove obstacles related to it. This does not need extensive bureaucracy, but rather building skills relevant for high-growth entrepreneurship and an encouraging atmosphere. Learning from the experiences of others often provides practical relevance for entrepreneurs who are preparing for internationalization and trying to make sense of what to expect.
FROM FINLAND TO SILICON VALLEY
Legendary innovative startup hubs, such as Silicon Valley, tend to draw entrepreneurs and companies from all over the world. The growth journey of Idean also started from Palo Alto, which is located right in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Building a business in one of the world’s most expensive areas was a challenge. Idean started its internationalization without external funding, and the first Silicon Valley office could be described as a tiny room without windows. Successful networking, good introductions, and local references played a key role in getting really started. As soon as we had some big names from IBM to Amazon as our references, sales work became much easier. We have always believed on our people and the quality we’re proving to our customer, we just needed a great launching pad.
Of course, in the beginning, a lot of effort must be spent learning local laws and business habits. In such a multi-cultural setting, it is important to speak and act right across the boundaries. While a certain level of cultural adaptation is important, a different background can be an essential part of the company’s unique offering. For us, the Scandinavian design tradition has been an asset. Idean’s approach to design is lean and focuses on research, experimentation, user feedback and testing, and iterating together with clients. We were forced to be agile, innovative and fast in Finland when operating under smaller budgets, and this became a competitive advantage for us in the Valley. As Finns, we also tend to get straight to the point. The same goes for how we work. We measure success by the impact we create for our customers, plain and simple.
In Silicon Valley, an ambitious and growth-driven entrepreneurial mindset is more of a rule than an exception. When a company grows, one of the biggest challenges is recruitment. Finding and retaining top talent is demanding in the area, because there are always companies that pay more. We haven’t been able to compete in terms of money, but we have a unique organizational culture, which is lean, flexible and family-like, especially when comparing to local standards. In addition, the appreciation of design craftsmanship has been a huge cultural asset for us.
Silicon Valley is an extremely competitive environment, but at the same time, the positive and supporting atmosphere is an essential part of the Silicon Valley mindset and business community. The biggest customers brands for digital design are located here. Success in the Valley gave us a lot of confidence: if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
The demand for design for global companies is growing. Tens of acquisitions of design agencies have taken place since 2015, with a typical buyer being a large corporation or a management consultancy. Reasons behind the M&A activity include aims to boost company creativity, to introduce advanced digital skills and to build an understanding of how to transform corporate work places by breaking down divisional silos with the help of new tools and practices. In addition to the acquisitions, technology companies, which have digital skills in-house, are keen to hire design talent: for example, Facebook, Google and Amazon have grown their design headcount significantly.
This trend has supported the growth of Idean as well, and led to a one of the biggest changes in the company’s history. In February 2017, Idean was acquired by Capgemini Group. The acquisition allowed us to deepen our strategic impact to our clients and broaden our reach. Today, we continue to work under our own Idean brand, but we also act as the digital design and innovation arm of Capgemini Invent to deliver innovative services and drive digital transformation all over the world.
CHAOTIC AND MESSY
While retrospective stories about growth tend to sound well-planned, it is good to keep in mind that growing a business is often chaotic and somewhat unpredictable. In a fast-changing operating environment, the process of growth doesn’t operate according to a clear plan. Although we can draw linear timelines later on, a more honest picture would probably be a messy tangle of multiple lines. This also applies to Idean. The company’s growth has been filled with unknowable variables, iterative phases, changes in direction, various starts and stops, and learning from failures – in line with design thinking and our core principles and beliefs.
One of the dead ends was our planned expansion in China, many years ago. It was one of our first internationalization efforts and for multiple reasons it didn’t work out quite as planned. Similar types of failures are often unavoidable. In the best case, they turn out to be productive because of all of the lessons learned. In the worst case, they can lead to a bankruptcy. There have been times when we have been close to the latter end result.
In a fast-changing and even chaotic setting, what often makes the difference is your attitude. Success is unusual, if not impossible, without ambition and persistence. Business growth often means growth also in terms of organizational and personal identities.
One of the main strengths of Idean has been our focus on user research, which is where our roots are. We believe that digging deep into user needs requires multi-method research. While some players in the design field may sell end user insight without really studying it, we find it important to truly understand what we are talking about. In the existing business environment, selling qualitative research can be a hard task, but at the end of the day, it will pay off and produce great value in the results.
Of course, the services we provide have also changed over the years. When ten years ago the focus was in UX design of certain products or services, today the emphasis is often very strategic, as our clients aim to transform their organizational cultures and build design-driven organizations. IBM and Cisco are good examples: we have helped them to take a new approach as a company, not only designing certain products, services or features. This also reflects changes in the entire design field – the focus has changed from product design to service design and finally towards strategic, organizational transformation6.
Today, the human-centered process of Idean is well-established, yet adaptable to the varying needs of the international clients and partners of the company. The clients vary from small startups to giant corporations and non-profits. Similarly, the projects are different, each one of them providing a unique design challenge. With approximately 700 design projects per year, we believe we know what it takes to enable our clients to get to market successfully or to change themselves. Not only have we learned from our projects and our clients, but from our own pathway to growth and internationalization.
This blog post is an excerpt from a book chapter written by Jesse Maula, Chief Design Officer and Co-Founder of Idean, in our recently published book ‘Design+ Organizational renewal and innovation through design’. Based on the interviews of over a hundred designers, design managers and design business leaders, the book showcases the key insights from two-year research project on design thinking in leadership, change management, and strategy work.