How Xerox Evolved From Copier Company To Creative Powerhouse

When everyone thinks you're "just a copier company," you have to work extra hard to redefine your mission and brand. A lesson from Xerox’s Innovation Group in granting permission to dream.

Call it the curse of the eponym.

May it be a problem your company is so fortunate to have: such wild, early success that your brand name becomes a word applying to the category you’ve created or owned. And so we “Google” things when we want to search for them online; we pass the “Kleenex” when the tissue might be generic; and of course we “Xerox” pages when in fact we’re using an HP photocopier. The brand name becomes an “eponym,” in linguistic parlance--something that makes a stamp on the English language itself.

Sophie Vandebroek

Sophie Vandebroek, the CTO of Xerox, has had plenty of time to mull the double-edged effects of being an eponym. Because today, Xerox does far more than make copiers. It’s an enterprise giant whose revenues come nearly as much from services (analytics, consulting, and the like) as from actual technology. But when Vandebroek went to an MIT career fair a few years ago, she was surprised to see long lines at the booths for IBM and Google, but hardly a trickle to her Xerox booth. She asked one of the students why. “Oh, you just make copiers,” said the student. “They had no clue about all the other businesses,” muses Vandebroek.

The next year, Vandebroek put up a sign: “We no longer make copiers.” (It was essentially true; the company had stopped doing significant research into plain copiers, shifting its focus to smart multifunction devices.) It made all the difference. “We had a long line of people at the booth saying, ‘So what do you guys do?’”

What Vandebroek does, specifically, is head up Xerox’s Innovation Group, a post she’s held since 2006. And for the average person peering over Vandebroek’s shoulder during the course of a day at Xerox, you might be surprised to see the kind of creativity-fostering that we more commonly associate with small startups or “sexier” tech companies like Google.

Take, for instance, one of Xerox’s recent educational products: something called Ignite. Put simply, Ignite is a system combining hardware and software that helps teachers bring personalized education to their students. A teacher can hand out a quiz on fractions to an entire class, say, and then scan the completed quizzes into Ignite. Ignite then crunches the numbers to help the teacher go beyond the fact that Johnny got a C while Sally got a B; it can specifically direct the teacher to note that Johnny lags on multiplication while Sally lags on division, and to store all this information in a dashboard for easy, ongoing reference. “Teachers using the system say for the first time they can see--at a glance--what a student needs,” Xerox scientist Eric Hamby said upon the product’s release. The system is poised to expand into Latin American countries soon.

A Xerox researcher works together with an educator.

How exactly does Xerox get creative about imagining new education products and services? There are a few crucial steps and ingredients, says Vandebroek. First, Xerox employs ethnographic researchers to go into the “field”--in this case, a classroom--to directly observe how teachers work and how they might work more efficiently.

Second, Xerox engages in what Vandebroek calls “dreaming sessions” with its clients. These are unstructured, blue-sky rap sessions designed to get Xerox and its clients to think more creatively about problems and solutions. A generation ago, a meeting with a client in the educational sector might result in a simple request: Give us faster, cheaper printers. “But they didn’t talk about a printer which could automatically extract the data from a task, then give teachers insight into the specific problems the children have. A teacher would never just tell you that.” To get there, you need to “dream together,” as Vandebroek puts it--to do deep-dive interviews, to really explore a customer’s pain points, and to think creatively and collaboratively about solutions.

There’s one other thing that’s crucial to getting the best, most innovative work out of Xerox employees. “Having fun is one of the principles I always talk with new hires about,” says Vandebroek. “Unless you have fun, you can’t truly bring your intellect, your skills, and your deep knowledge to push the boundaries of the unknown, to invent and create.”

She goes on: “Being innovative to me is being both creative and entrepreneurial. And you can’t be creative and entrepreneurial unless you truly bring your heart to work, and have fun at work. Having fun is really essential. You need to have fun every day.”

[Ink: ADA Photo via Shutterstock]

Add New Comment

6 Comments

  • Prashant Khaitan

    This is very interesting and I can tell that the innovation came from a passion to "really" add value vs just launching a product. Hope the team is equally passionate to take the products to the market. Xerox is a classic example of secretly becoming a part of the day to day life of people without one even thinking what they have got used to. I was surprised to see the range of products and industries Xerox is offering and catering but I feel the awareness in public is still lacking.

    Prashant Khaitan - Atlanta, GA

  • Lauren Schneck

    I too am surprised they didn't mention Xerox Parc. After watching the lost Steve Jobs interviews, it sounds like most of the most ground breaking innovations in computing came out of Xerox and were unrecognized by the Xerox itself. They were pioneering everything from GUI, to object oriented programming and networked computers using email. Xerox too saw themselves as just a copier company. Hopefully they've finally decided to present themselves differently.

  • Andrew Cramer

    I know its not a history piece, but I'm surprised you didn't mention Xerox Parc, great article, just thought that historic context would have been worth noting.