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Bill Brewster talks ideation

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After the close of NRF’s gargantuan “Big Show”, our Editor caught up with Bill Brewster, Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing for Gerber Technology, to find out how he feels his company’s more intimate “ideation” event differs from this and other more traditional conventions.

Ben Hanson: 2012 was the fourth year that Gerber operated the “ideation” format in place of the more traditional software conferences you’d run up to that point, and it’s a very different proposition to something like NRF.  Can you tell me a little about why you decided to change tack?

Bill Brewster: For us, an annual event represents a great opportunity to spend a couple of days together with our customers, but for delegates the benefits are even wider: they’re able to learn about the latest software developments and enjoy hands-on demonstrations from the Yunique Solutions team, but also to network with and learn from their peers.  In fact, we know that for most customers ideation is as much about networking as it is education and best practices.

Before we came up with the “ideation” branding, the “Annual User Conference” – as it was known at that time – was a different format.  We would use it to present our latest developments over the course of a day and a half, and customers would try to get to know one another in short breakout sessions, but in truth it was more of a one-directional format, without anything near the opportunities for discussion, education and the pollination of ideas that we’ve tried (and I hope succeeded) to create with ideation.

So while we do try to make the event fun, and to keep it engaging, the ideation name really stems from the fact that it’s all about the creation of new ideas.  And we recognise that many of those new ideas come from the user community – particularly when we facilitate discussions for them.

Ben: It did seem, from my experience, as though this has rubbed off on delegates: during the event last October I witnessed several occasions where customers would answer one another’s questions during Q&A sessions – supplementing the answer given by the actual presenter.  Do you specifically try to encourage this kind of discussion over and above the sort of one-directional keynote presentations we see at events like NRF?

Bill: Absolutely.  We believe emphatically that our customers are as large a driving force in innovation as our developers, sales teams, consultants and executives.  So what we did in 2012 – based on feedback we received from ideation 2011 – was to create even longer breakout and networking sessions to get people talking.  We had previously had these, but they were limited to fifteen minutes, and so when our customers told us they’d love to spend even more time together, we added longer networking breaks and peer-to-peer sessions where we provide the room and a facilitator, but the choice of topic is left entirely up to the customers.

Ben: But networking isn’t the whole story.  As readers will have seen from our full report on ideation 2012, you also used those two days in October as a platform to announce new developments to your customers and, through media outlets like WhichPLM, the industry at large.  Was it a conscious choice to align your user event with your development calendar?  Do you find it creates any confusion about the purpose of ideation?

Bill: I don’t think it creates any confusion – quite the opposite in fact, since the Ideation name really captures everything that the event is about, from announcements to networking.

A few years ago I noticed that we didn’t have any hard and fast dates in the calendar where announcements were concerned, and it seemed logical to say that, while we and all our customers were gathered in one place, and at a date and time that’s become a fixture on a lot of their calendars, why not unveil our newest developments at the same time?  So now the development teams have a well-established deadline to work towards, and our customers know that ideation will always be the place to come to see the latest releases in a friendly and approachable environment.  We may not always release the products or enhancements at the conference, but generally they’ll be released within a month or so, to capitalise on the interest we’re able to create at the event.

Ben: It’s interesting, because I went to Ideation expecting to see educational sessions, panel discussions and the like, but there was a lot of significant software on display that I’d never seen before.  In a lot of ways it felt quite understated – Yunique 360, for example, was available for all to see and use, despite the fact that this was its first official showing, ahead of its display here at NRF.

Bill: That’s an interesting example.  We actually showed the first prototype of Yunique 360 at ideation 2011 to try and gain some insight into how it was going to be received.  People liked it, and so we turned it into a full product, which was demonstrated at ideation 2012 alongside Yunique Markup (which is built into version 5.0) for the first time.  While we’re absolutely proud of our innovations, we’re even prouder when users are able to shape their development and then see the progress a year later.  In a lot of ways, this is a perfect example of the entire ideation process!

Ben: Outside of Yunique 360, there were some other significant developments that you announced as premiering with YuniquePLM version 5.0 – particularly the Yunique App Store, and the open APIs and SDK.  Are we likely to see these developed in line with feedback from October’s event?

Bill: Part of the reason we unveil developments on the scale of the ones you’ve mentioned is so that we can gauge customer response and factor that feedback into ongoing development.  The Yunique App Store in particular represents an entirely different approach to the enterprise software space, really, and so it’s vital that we understand how it might work in practice for our users.  Generally speaking, people are used to buying software as this big, monolithic thing to heft into place and configure and the leave alone, because that’s the way most systems work.  With YuniquePLM version 5.0, though customers are going to be able to develop their own applications and enhancements to the solution – meaning they don’t need to wait for the next ideation to add enhancements.

Ben: Applications or enhancements that they can distribute or sell, in theory?

Bill: That actually came up in one of our sessions in October, in fact!  A customer queried whether, if another delegate developed with an app or a module, he could add it to his installation too.  In theory this could be a big app – something like Yunique 360 or a whole sourcing component – or it could just be a costing page that somebody likes the configuration of.  And while I don’t necessarily think many fashion companies are going to want to get into the business of developing and selling apps, there’s definitely an opportunity for the sharing of knowledge and potentially revenue.  In a lot of ways, the App Store embodies the ethos of the ideation event, but we recognise that this is unprecedented stuff, and so we’re treating this announcement and the discussion it’s prompted as a real learning experience.

Ben: Another key aspect of ideation (and of any event of this size and scope, not to mention something as big as NRF) was the roster of presenters.  Do you find that your case study teams and keynote speakers typically embrace the ideation concept?

Bill: I’m incredibly proud of the calibre of speakers we were able to attract last year.  Delegates saw Marshall Cohen from NDP, who just has tonnes of energy and experience; and John Deane, CIO of Abercrombie & Fitch, who actually suggested to me that rather than give a rote case study he come and talk about his company’s culture, their approach, their campus and so on. I love it that our customers not only understand the Ideation concept and will come and present, but also that they feel confident enough to do it on their own terms.  In fact, Abercrombie & Fitch delivered a case study in 2011, when they’d not long since chosen YuniquePLM.  And rather than pretend that they were further along with the implementation than they were, we wanted them to speak candidly about how they approached their PLM selection and have people learn from them.  The room was packed – people really wanted to hear them speak – and now, in 2012, Abercrombie & Fitch came back with an entirely different perspective: they’ve implemented and they’re confident speaking about that, as well as about the broader aspects of their corporate culture.

Ben: Finally, beyond the opportunity to network and the chance to go hands-on with the latest Yunique Solutions developments, what do you hope that your customers get from ideation that they perhaps aren’t able to get at more traditional or larger conferences?

Bill: When they were still “Annual User Conferences” our events used to be in Dallas every year, for no other reason than because that’s where the development team was based.  It was convenient for Gerber, certainly, but it just wasn’t customer-centric in the way that I think October’s event and the three before it have been.  We want people to feel special, because we recognise that the people are the show, and that’s core to my thinking about everything we do with ideation.  We try to give people an inclusive experience, and this really does inform everything we do for the event.

Work begins in earnest each summer, and everybody within Yunique Solutions contributes – from the sales teams to consultants and developers. Our consultants work closely with their customers to help them get ready for presentations, and whether those customers are prospective or existing – in the audience or on-stage, it’s important to us that they’re comfortable and open.  So, in essence, we work extremely hard to provide an annual opportunity for people to learn and feel comfortable to raise the issues that matter to them.  In doing so, we try to create memorable experiences that we hope they’ll take away with them – professionally and personally.

You can read our full, exclusive report on ideation 2012 right now, and a follow-up conversation with Bill Brewster will form part of our extended series of exclusive NRF interviews over the coming weeks.

Ben Hanson Ben Hanson is one of WhichPLM’s top contributors. Ben has worked for magazines, newspapers, local government agencies, multi-million pound conservation projects, museums and creative publications before his eventual migration to the Retail, Footwear and Apparel industry.Having previously served as WhichPLM’s Editor, Ben knows the WhichPLM style, and has been responsible for many of our on-the-ground reports and interviews over the last few years. With a background in literature, marketing and communications, Ben has more than a decade’s worth of experience, and is now viewed as one of the industry’s best-known writers.

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