Work Practice Specialists Deliver Innovation

Taking invention to higher levels of innovation, Xerox matches workflow processes to ever-changing customer needs


Work Practice Specialists Deliver Innovation
January, 2009
By Heidi White

Since the 1970s, Xerox has worked to recapture its innovative success. Taking its infotech expertise and producing new technologies that are able to read, understand, route and protect documents has tremendously impacted Xerox’s marketplace success. It now dreams and innovates with its customers, which forces it to see “what nobody else has seen before,” according to Sophie Vandebroek, Xerox’s chief technology officer. Xerox strives to create an intrapreneurial role within its organization, making sure the creative piece, or technology, encompasses the entire value chain. Implementing “work practice specialists”—sociologists who observe how people (customers) do things—allows invention to become innovation. New technology is able to match the workflow process to the specific needs of the people who will learn and use the technology. (Fortune, 2007) (Martin, 2008)

When digital presses replaced the conventional offset printing process, it was important that customers learn the new technology in a manner that would not disrupt their workflow process. Work practice specialists went in and observed how customers did things so they could incorporate aspects of the old process into the new. This aided significantly in the workflow transition and ultimately in higher customer satisfaction. (Fortune, 2007)

Likewise, Xerox’s invention of reusable paper can be attributed to work practice specialists who observed that much of the paper printed during the business day went into the trash at night. They felt, from a customer’s standpoint, that Xerox had devised a great invention in reusable paper, which can be printed in the morning so the user has documents for the day. Overnight, the paper becomes blank and ready for reuse. The same happens the next day and the next. This highly creative and environmentally beneficial invention, however, is not yet an innovation because Xerox must determine how best to place the idea within the market. (Martin, 2008) (Fortune, 2007) According to Xerox Chairman and CEO Anne M. Mulcahy, “Leveraging our resources to make our world better improves the quality of life for our people and the economic climate for our customers.” (Report on Global Citizenship, 2006)

Think of ways you might effectively implement work practice specialist within your organization. Perhaps sending your research, marketing, or sales personnel to a customer site for a day of observation would make a greater impact than just treating a customer to an expensive business lunch or dinner. Time spent observing and conversing may be worth more than just a sales call. Consider sending those who work on your assembly line, in the field, or at the plant to a customer warehouse or other site to see what systems exist and how they best utilize products and materials. You may be surprised at the observations and responses generated by knowledgeable employees turned work practice specialists.


2006 Report on Global Citizenship, (Accessed November 11, 2007).

Colvin, Geoff. “Xerox’s Inventor-in-Chief,” Fortune (9 July 2007): 65–72.

Martin, Kirsten E. “Innovation, Ethics, and Business,” Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate EthicsBridge Paper™ (2008) (Accessed November 11, 2007).

Keywords: innovation, infotech, invention, stakeholders, intrapreneurial, work practice specialists, mass customization, sustainability

Organizations: Xerox

People: Anne M. Mulcahy, Xerox Chairman and CEO, Sophie Vandebroek, Xerox Chief Technical Officer