High Tech’s Secret Weapon: The Whiteboard; Fast, Big and Easy to Use, These Dry-Erase Boards Are a True Innovation Tool

High Tech’s Secret Weapon: The Whiteboard

Fast, Big and Easy to Use, These Dry-Erase Boards Are a True Innovation Tool

FARHAD MANJOO

Oct. 30, 2013 5:52 p.m. ET

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The headquarters of the popular note-taking app Evernote are typical of many Silicon Valley firms. There’s a cafeteria brimming with free food, vending machines offering up free tech supplies, and conference rooms bearing morale-boosting wacky names. (Evernote’s theme is videogames: You might have a meeting in Ace Combat, Elder Scrolls, or Dig Dug.) And then there are the whiteboards—or, more accurately, the whitewalls. When the company moved last year into the Redwood City, Calif., building, it painted almost every surface with IdeaPaint, a substance that makes walls amenable to dry-erase markers.Now most of the building is a canvas for brainstorming, product design, strategy war-gaming, and, of course, doodles. Whether you’re in an Evernote conference room, a hallway, or one of its large atriums stuffed with coders, you’ll see scribbles wherever you turn.

At first blush this might strike you as incongruent. Evernote Corp.’s products are designed to render everything you think of and see, from grocery lists to websites to business cards, into digital notes that can be stored online forever.

The people who work at Evernote would thus seem to be the world’s most ardent proselytizers of everything digital, and you might guess that the old-fashioned, hopelessly analog dry-erase marker would be out of place among such future folk.

Yet Evernote, like pretty much every tech company I’ve ever visited, is in thrall to the whiteboard. Indeed, as technologically backward as they may seem, whiteboards are to Silicon Valley what legal pads are to lawyers, what Excel is to accountants, or what long sleeves are to magicians. They’re an all-purpose tool of innovation, often the first place a product or company’s vision is dreamed up and designed, and a constant huddling point for future refinement. And though many digital technologies have attempted to unseat the whiteboard, the humble pre-electronic surface can’t be beat.

The whiteboard has three chief virtues: It’s fast. It’s easy to use. And it’s big. “We’re often doing something I call ‘designing in the hallway,’ ” said Jamie Hull, the product manager for Evernote’s iOS apps. “When a new problem or request comes up, the fastest thing you can do is pull two or three people aside, go to the nearest wall, and figure it out.” Unlike a computer or phone, the whiteboard is always on, always fully charged, and it doesn’t require that people download, install, and launch software to begin using it.

Whiteboards also allow for presenting a wide-range of information-writing, sketches, graphs—while requiring no learning curve. If you can handle a pen, you can use a whiteboard. Though there are certainly great whiteboard artists (think UPS’s fantastic series of whiteboard-based advertisements), a whiteboard’s casual, doodly nature lends itself even to people like myself, whose penmanship borders on the pathologically unreadable. This is in marked contrast to digital tools, which might require people to figure out certain buttons or other functions, or even get used to using a stylus or writing with fingers.

The whiteboard’s hugeness is another key feature. The board is big enough to become the center of attention for a large crowd, making it an ideal space for a kind of visceral, physical collaboration, with lots of pointing, erasing and furious crossings out. That sort of thing can’t easily be achieved on small, clinical screens.

The whiteboard’s size also enforces a certain kind of thought. Whiteboards reward bigness: Because you’ve got to draw objects large enough for everyone to see, and because dry-erase markers are too fat to allow you to write too much text, the whiteboard encourages thinking about the highest levels of an idea, and it discourages getting lost in details. In tech terms, whiteboards are low-resolution—and in an era of increasingly high-definition communication systems, they’re one of the few such low-def tools we have.

It’s this bigness that makes the whiteboard the perfect tool for embarking on the sort of grand visions that animate Silicon Valley. It will come as no surprise, then, that some of the tech industry’s most celebrated visionaries are often maestros of the whiteboard. According to Brad Stone’s new book about Jeff Bezos, the Amazon.com Inc.AMZN -0.45% CEO is given to manning the whiteboard to explain to his employees why they’re wrong about everything.

Steve Jobs—who certainly had a keen interest in the smallest of product details—was an artist with the whiteboard. He used it to explain corporate strategy to his employees, he used it to outline his product ideas, and he used it to formulate his grandest ideas for AppleInc. AAPL +1.59% When Mr. Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he famously killed most of the foundering firm’s products and replaced them with a lineup that he outlined on a two-by-two grid on a whiteboard: A notebook and desktop for consumers, and another pair for professionals.

Sure, there are disadvantages to the whiteboard. It’s synchronous and physical, meaning that it can’t be easily shared with people across the country, and can’t be easily worked on by different people at different times. It’s also not easy to back up or search—if you erase something or forget a great idea, you can’t go back and find it.

Well, not until recently. At Evernote, the team usually snaps photos of every whiteboard session, shuffling them all off to the company’s app for long-term backup. Evernote also recognizes whiteboard text, allowing the documents to be searched. So there you go: With a digital tweak, the analog whiteboard is unbeatable.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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