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Diana Stepner, VP of Innovation Partnerships & Developer Relations, Pearson

Diana Stepner, VP of Innovation Partnerships & Developer Relations

Diana Stepner is the VP of Innovation Partnerships & Developer Relations at Pearson - a company which has been innovating since the Industrial Revolution. She helps business units accelerate digital innovation, drives global partnerships with startups, builds relationships with developer communities- including incubators and start ups- and runs the Pearson Catalyst for Education accelerator program. Diana's...
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How is your team changing the game within your industry sector?

We help teams across Pearson gain insight into emerging trends - what we call developments “on the fringe.”  For example, over the last few years we have witnessed the consumerization of education. Students, teachers, and learners, for example, have similar expectations and behaviors in the classroom as they do outside.  As a result, they crave rich digital experiences and believe learning can take place anywhere and at any time. 

Acknowledging that technology is helping to drive change in education to deliver on the expectations of learners and teachers. We have been able to quickly identify and connect Pearson teams with startups - particularly through connections with incubators and accelerators (RocketSpace, 1871, 1776, MaRS and LearnLaunch). Then via Catalyst, Pearson’s accelerator, we’re able to build pilots collaboratively with the startups – all the while providing mentoring and insight that will help them grow and scale effectively.  We’re also championing the next wave of creators and makers by being involved with maker spaces where learners of all ages gain hands-on skills, whether it be in electronics, arts, science, or beyond.   


What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your organization or industry sector?

It’s human nature to gravitate towards the familiar - things that have already shown they are effective and work from a business perspective. But education is becoming increasingly consumerized, therefore, we need to deliver experiences that match the ones learners have outside of the classroom. This requires education companies to innovate more quickly, like other technology companies, while also ensuring that all products are delivering the expected outcomes.


How has innovation become engrained in your organization's culture, and how is it being optimized?

Pearson has a history of innovation. The company’s origins were in the construction business during the Industrial Revolution. In fact, the story goes… “Pearson became one of the world's largest building contractors at a time when the industry controlled development of the transportation, trade and communication links that fuelled world economies.” Pearson had a similar forward-thinking approach when deciding to focus on education, especially the shift to digital, recognizing that technology was changing the way people learn. 

We started a Future Technologies team in 2011 to explore emerging technological developments and create prototypes that could be shared across the business.  A network of 150 digital thought leaders, called Champions, was created to help promote the sharing of best practices and increase visibility into new platforms and products across the business.  

We also introduced a developer platform to enable developers both inside and outside Pearson to experiment with our content.  In 2012, the Pearson Catalyst accelerator program was introduced. It is an open innovation program that enables anyone from across the company to submit a real business challenge.  We then make a selection of those challenges and publish them so that startups can apply to be part of the program. The startup most capable to address each challenge is selected and works alongside a Pearson team to build a pilot solution.  Each of these initiatives encourages open innovation. The focus is on collaboration and sharing; breaking down the corporate walls.  

Other innovation activities also include a new product lifecycle program to help the company adopt agile product development methodologies and a corporate-wide efficacy statement.


What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?

I’m actually hoping technology is going to take more of a back seat over the next two years.  I don’t mean that technology will lose importance. It will remain a critical factor. But it will become invisible and serve as an enabler. We’re already seeing the emergence of this trend with the Internet of Things and the rise of data science.

On business models, open and free is always going to be a contender – especially as quality continues to rise. Yet it’s how the information is presented that will be the differentiator. In education, the increasing focus is on personalized and adaptive learning - that means ensuring the right content is presented to you at the right time and being able to quickly filter through the content to find the relevant information you need.  I also don’t think we’re close to the end of the sharing economy.

More on the “fringe,” I am intrigued to see how the bitcoin blockchain is applied in new ways, including in education.

We are seeing the rise of competency-based learning, which introduces more flexibility and a focus on learning practical skills or competencies, especially those that apply in the 21st century.  It’s also important to have a global outlook. Mobile developments in Africa, digital experiences in China, and creative approaches to learning in Australia cannot be overlooked.


Can you share a specific innovation strategy you’ve recently encountered which you find compelling?

I’m a big fan of Rallyteam.  The company launched at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco back in September 2014. The focus is on employee empowerment.  Most companies have valuable side projects that don’t get done simply because of lack of resources, funds, visibility or all three.  With Rallyteam, a marketplace of projects is created.  People in a company can submit a project or indicate they want to work on a specific type of project.  Employees are able to gain and apply new skills all the while completing real, tangible projects for their employer.  It’s a really exciting model - one that can help keep employees engaged and enable learning. 

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