Open Innovation at General Assembly

General Assembly utilizes an open innovation network of employers and students to develop coursework and constantly expand their innovative online curriculum

Open innovation is capable of developing solutions to complex problems that escape the grasp of traditional research and development departments. General Assembly is a private, for-profit education organization that utilizes open innovation to design and curate curricula and course content. Their focus is on online classes ranging from free short courses to 10 to 12 week boot-camps. The skills necessary to succeed in today’s work environment are constantly shifting, and traditional academic institutions can struggle to keep up with the rapid pace of change. General Assembly’s product improvement depends on quickly incorporating feedback their network of current students, alumni and companies that hire graduates from their courses. The Harvard Business Review succinctly lays out the need for General Assembly to embrace open innovation, “Companies operate on traditional incentives—namely, salary and bonuses—and employees are assigned clearly delineated roles and specific responsibilities, which discourages them from seeking challenges outside their purview. But crowds, research shows, are energized by intrinsic motivations—such as the desire to learn—that are more likely to come into play when people decide for themselves what problems to attack.” [1] Without its network, the pace of content creation and product development at General Assembly would require investments in faculty and career development services far exceeding the $70 million of venture capital funding raised in 2015. [2]

Management has utilized open innovation to reduce their costs in the near-term by effectively outsourcing product innovation costs to employers and alumni. In addition to reducing costs, embracing the megatrend of open innovation allows General Assembly to deliver on its value proposition of adapting instantly to market changes, and building a close bridge between employer needs and student skill sets. In the near-term, management is capitalizing on their current momentum by expanding their physical footprint beyond the 20 campuses they currently operate and continuing to broaden the network of employers who drive content creation. In the future, management is looking to engage further with alumni of General Assembly courses. The MIT Sloan Management Review articulates how external networks tend to innovate ideas driven by extrinsic motivations, such as developing talented employees. “Past research has shown that the motivations of outsiders who engage in open innovation can be surprisingly heterogeneous, but the wide range can be classified into two categories: extrinsic and intrinsic. As a simple approximation, competitive markets tend to favor the former, and collaborative communities are more oriented toward the latter” [3]. Adding a focus on increasing alumni engagement will increase the intrinsic motivators of the network, since alumni will be more likely to innovate on behalf of General Assembly purely for fun and enjoyment, or for professional and personal identity.

The challenge in harnessing the power of open innovation over the long term lies in balancing how much innovation is left up to the ever-shifting network, versus how much investment is needed in-house at General Assembly for course development and curation. Harvard Business Review notes that “the management challenges in exploiting spot labor markets are minor compared with those in other forms of crowdsourcing. The biggest concern may be identifying which tasks to farm out and who within your organization should manage them.” [4] In the next five years, General Assembly needs to boost its in-house talent with esteemed professors and experienced curriculum designers to collaborate with the employers, students and alumni in the network. This puts more of the cost of idea generation onto the Generation Assembly P&L, but gives the company more control over content development, instead of relying solely on its network. Internal content development abilities will allow General Assembly to see ahead of the curve, producing content that employers will desire in the future. This predictive ability will deepen General Assembly’s competitive moat. I see the competitive threat to General Assembly from employers and other stakeholders in the network as a key issue facing the company; further developing internal content creation should mitigate this risk.

I am unsure about the competitive risks to General Assembly’s network ecosystem. In the future, could employers insource the talent development courses that General Assembly currently provides? There are also players outside of the General Assembly ecosystem that could pose a risk to the company. Could established universities with significant endowments put a greater focus on open innovation, and compete out General Assembly’s advantage with their financial resources, brand recognition, and esteemed faculty?


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[1] K. Boudreau and K. Lakhani. Using the crowd as an innovation partner. Harvard Business Review 91, no. 4 (April 2013): 61–69.

[2] Douglas MacMillan, “Tech-Boom Bet: Coding School General Assembly Raises $70 Million”, blog, Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2015

[3] K. Boudreau and K. Lakhani. How to manage outside innovation. MIT Sloan Management Review 50, no. 4 (Summer 2009): 68–76.

[4] K. Boudreau and K. Lakhani. Using the crowd as an innovation partner. Harvard Business Review 91, no. 4 (April 2013): 61–69.


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Student comments on Open Innovation at General Assembly

  1. I really enjoyed this article, thank you for sharing! One question I have on this topic is just around content control. It seems that General Assembly is currently outsourcing a majority of idea generation. I worry that without being able to set an agenda or lesson plan, courses will take the shape of whoever is willing to write about a topic in an engaging way rather than by necessity. You also identified this as an issue, and I wonder if you encountered any research around this topic that provides some insight into how they control content?

  2. Ennis —

    I really enjoyed learning about how General Assembly is using open innovation. How GA is constantly adapting to market changes and continuing to improve upon its curriculum are very noteworthy. You posed the question on competition, and I am concerned about this issue as well. I wonder how GA is able to maintain its open innovation platform and the amount of users willing to collaborate, should other players arise. As you mentioned, in-sourcing the content creation may be crucial towards ensuring the continuous development and refining of content; however, universities have many resources through research and studies that could out-compete such in-sourcing. I also wonder whether GA has considered partnering with such research universities to help promote open innovation while establishing additional resources that these universities could offer. Thanks!

  3. Really thought provoking stuff here, Ennis. I wonder what motivation companies would have to bring this into their organizations – if other private organizations are already doing this at scale and delivering high performance learning, it’s probably easier (and cheaper) for companies to invest in their employees cost of attending, rather than doing it in house. As more and more colleges move their courses online, whether through free courses like MIT opencourseware or paid courses like HBX, I wonder if General Assembly’s brand will be strong enough to compete with these academic powerhouses. I think GA will need to find a specific niche that they can occupy, and hope that established universities don’t compete there.

    1. Agree with you here, Jackson…

      Thanks for sharing, Ennis.. really enjoyed this article. Having used sites like Coursera/Edx in the past before, I can’t help but echo Jackson’s concerns re: content development and competition from larger educational brands. It’ll also be interesting to see if any of these groups go “downstream” a bit and try to win in the middle-school / early high-school age ranges. It seems like in many cases the “lowest-level” of content is for AP courses, but the opportunity to disrupt the way younger students learn is one of the more interesting, relatively un-touched parts of the education system/ed-tech out there. Can “open innovation” at companies like General Assembly create a suitable course-load for this age range, or is it better sticking to the secondary/post-secondary/professional development stages of learning?

  4. Great work Ennis — I really enjoyed reading your post on GA! A phrase that I found particularly inspiring is “crowds, research shows, are energized by intrinsic motivations—such as the desire to learn.” I wonder whether there are applications beyond educational platforms where this could be leveraged — either in brainstorming solutions to community health/safety problems, or helping to train machine learning algorithms (e.g., those use in healthcare).

  5. Great read Ennis. Their development process using open innovation seems to be very fast and dynamic. One question that comes to mind is if this were to scale how would they organize and leverage the synergies that might come from many contributors working on similar topics at the same time? This is something that software companies have struggled with and that can lead to incompatible version of the same software.

  6. I’ve taken a couple of GA courses, and had no idea about their use of crowdsourcing in curriculum development. That’s pretty surprising. But I think it’s a fairly healthy model in their space, as I’d imagine that their customers would want the most current and interesting topics for classes; exactly the topics that developers would want to write a course on in their free time. I think that you’re right in the future challenge however, that to continue to expand and update their offerings for more basic and perhaps less interesting topics, crowdsourcing may not provide that solution. so it’ll be interesting to see if they can sustain their model as they start to bring more of this in-house.

    1. I was pleasantly surprised when I read you couldn’t tell GA’s courses were crowd-sourced; the quality and rigor of courses were my biggest worry as more name-brand schools move content into online curricula. My next concern would be overall market size for these specific, but fun/interesting, courses that their contributors help build. Customer base may be limited if the scope of classes remain limited while expanding to more basic and less interesting topics encroaches on territory easily dominated by existing online course providers.

  7. Thanks for your perspective Ennis. Having been a student of a semester-long GA course on iOS app development, I can attest to the importance of bringing outside contributors in to help define the curriculum. My teacher was a current Uber product manager and my TA was a current Rent the Runway app developer, which made the classroom environment incredibly engaging as they were bringing their real world experience into the curriculum. One challenge most employers would have in insourcing this is that the curriculum becomes stale very quickly, particularly in the fields that GA and their competitors are teaching. The great benefit of having a teacher who worked at Uber was that he continuously updated the curriculum, making daily changes and requiring us to upgrade to the latest OS whenever it was launched. This real time evolution of curriculum is incredibly difficult for employers and makes the model fairly sticky.

  8. Very interesting read!
    Some thoughts in response to your questions:
    i) In terms of competitors, I am less worried about employers in-sourcing the talent development courses since I believe they do not have a competitive advantage in education/training and are thus best served by outsourcing (particularly in a rapidly changing environment where course content is quickly adapted). However, I do agree that the current lack of internal content production, makes it possible for competitors to replicate their model and create a similar platform. In this sense, I believe that the strength of their existing relationships with universities/employers will determine their vulnerability to competitors.
    ii) Finally in terms of content creation vs. control, I think there are different stages at which the company can exercise control: what courses/content do you request from your collaborators?, ii) What content do you then select to put on your site etc

  9. Great read! I believe these types of platforms will become increasingly important as technology advances and the workforce needs to learn new skills in a faster way in order to keep up with the market. Some governments are already thinking about this and looking for partners that can generate relevant contento and educate the workforce. I think this is a big opportunity for General Assembly to raise the issue to governments in the world that will generate long-time partnerships and so more room for risk-taking, while also bringing value to society.

  10. Thank you for the article. I found it interesting that as so many established companies are moving toward open innovation, it seems as though a company that started with using only open innovation may need to develop its own expertise in house. The article gave me a different perspective on the topic and made me think that as a manager of a company if you choose to use open innovation, you still need to balance that with your own internal efforts. If you do not, then your product (in this case curriculum) could potentially get completely out of your control.

  11. Great read! I would be curious to think about how GA should balance taking ideas from the market vs. predicting what skills its graduates will need in the future. I think a big competitive advantage for any educational institution is predicting what the world needs from its graduates before the world realizes it. I think at a traditional school both admissions and course development decisions strive to serve the world of tomorrow rather than the world of today. I guess the core idea is just that people aren’t always good predictors of what they are going to want or need tomorrow, and it is GA’s job to figure that out.

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