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Continuum creates new division especially to focus on, um, more complicated stuff

Posted by Scott Kirsner  November 15, 2010 07:46 AM

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continuumfolder.jpgHere is a lesson in why consultants should not be allowed to give themselves advice.

Continuum, headquartered in West Newton, is one of the world's biggest "design and innovation" consultancies, with more than 180 full-time employees spread across the world. The firm helped Procter & Gamble create the Swiffer, has collaborated with Samsung on flat-screen TVs, and worked with Bedford-based Insulet Corp. to launch a wearable insulin pump for diabetics. They pride themselves on their ability to think through tough design challenges — whether building a lunchbox-sized, battery-powered testing lab that doctors can use with AIDS patients in developing countries, or figuring out how General Dynamics can better integrate communications systems into a Humvee. Continuum, once known as Design Continuum, was founded back in 1983.

Early last month, I started getting a series of e-mails from Continuum about "important news" that was on the way. A meeting was scheduled, then rescheduled.

I finally got a chance last week to hear the news directly from Continuum CEO Harry West. I was not allowed to divulge it until this morning.

Continuum is creating a new division at the company. They "prototyped it" last year. It is called Continuum Advanced Systems. It will be run by its very own general manager, Tom Merle, a Continuum employee.who has been at the firm a dozen years. It may even have its own office space someday — right next door to the rest of Continuum. What is actually different about Continuum Advanced Services? It will concentrate on "developing complex systems and technologies that are based on a fundamental understanding of people," according to a release going out today. In my one-hour meeting at the company last week, it was not really clear how CAS will be different from plain old Continuum — aside from mostly taking care of the medical and technology projects. There's no change in ownership; the firm is still privately held by Gianfranco Zaccai, one of the original Design Continuum founders, and eight members of the management team, including West and Merle.

I was handed some press information in two separate, very different gray folders: one for Continuum, and one for Continuum Advanced Services. (Pictured above.) You can obviously tell which folder contained the information for each, right?

When I followed up with West by e-mail to ask what exactly the new division would handle, he wrote, "If the client wears a tie; uses Microsoft Project; or asks about our
experience with optics, wireless protocols, regulatory requirements, or C#,
then he or she is a CAS client." Funny.

Also, I was told that while Continuum had considered changing its name, the firm decided to continue being called Continuum. They will, however, now have a new URL: continuuminnovation.com, instead of the old dcontinuum.com, a relic of the Design Continuum days.

I had to wonder how many meetings, and how much strategizing, were required to arrive at these momentous decisions.

The only actual news at our meeting last week? Last year, Continuum opened up an office in Shanghai that has since grown to about 16 people, and the firm may soon set up a branch in South America (most likely in Brazil). (Continuum already had a presence in cities like Milan and Seoul.) "About 25 percent of our business these days touches on China and South America," West said.

West says that Continuum is among the largest design and innovation consultancies on the East Coast; the compete with the larger firm IDEO, which has an office in Cambridge but is headquartered in California.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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