How Freedom Communications reorganized to drive digital innovation
The tablet market was established one year ago with the introduction of the iPad. No publishing company can say they have discovered the right strategy for serving audiences through this channel. The technology is evolving rapidly and new tablet devices are coming on the market every month. To remain relevant, you have to be able to change course faster than ever.
Recently, we launched The Orange County Register iPad app. The app is just one publisher’s experiment among many others to create a relevant news experience for tablets. I am 100% sure we did not hit the bullseye with the OCR app. Our readers have told us so. And that is great. A runaway hit would have been fantastic, but it was never expected. Rather, the idea all along has been to release the app, ask for feedback, then improve the app accordingly. Quickly.
We have created a framework for innovation to help us do two things: 1) Ensure continuous product development, 2) Set us up for the next breakthrough idea. This framework is specific to the tablet space, but it could easily be adapted for any other industry. Below, I am describing our framework in detail.
1. Innovation Pillars
An innovative environment comes from investing in these pillars, adapted from the Newspaper Next Project:
If one of the pillars is missing, the framework will be severely weakened and perhaps even collapse.
We don’t have the luxury of hiring new full-time employees to manage the innovation process. Instead, we are recruiting staff from across the company to volunteer their time. Three groups of people are involved:
The Innovation Steering Team is a cross-functional team put in place to manage the innovation process (there's a cool little tool from BoardOfInnovation.com to help you pick your team members). This team is responsible for evaluation ideas based on research, strategic variables and enablers as described below in the Innovation Framework. They meet monthly and receive input from the Sub-Teams and the Imagination Team.
The Imagination Team is a group of designers and programmers. This group is mandated to spend 10% of their work hours on innovation (we stole that from Google’s 70/20/10 model). Their time can be spend on “blue sky” ideas or can be based on requirements set by the Innovation Steering Team.
The Sub-Teams focus on specific innovation projects. They conduct everything from research to ideation to business planning and product development. The Sub-Teams report to the Innovation Steering Team. In some cases members of the Innovation Steering Team will be leading or be part of the Sub-Teams as well. The Sub-Teams gives us an opportunity to get as many people involved with innovation, thus increasing the creativity and avoiding group-think.
3. Innovation Framework
Here’s the big one. The framework! It is a comprehensive visual but let me try to break it down below.
The research is the fuel that powers innovation. The Innovation Steering Team is tasked with monitoring and analyzing research and feedback. As the chart indicates, there are a variety of sources that needs monitoring. We are currently evaluating a couple of tools that we hope can help us, including:
- UserVoice: Online management of user feedback
- Revelation Global: Specializes in online qualitative research
(By the way, this is not an endorsement of these two companies.)
The strategic variables are based on research conducted over the last year. The channel-specific variables refer to the strategic options we have in the tablet space. Each product idea that surfaces can be categorized according to these variables. For example, should we focus our product development on a new iPad app, or should we put our efforts into creating an HTML-based web app? Which screen(s) do we optimize for? How does this product fit into our product portfolio?
The product-specific variables deal with the actual product itself. Which content should we have in this app? What unmet need does it serve? What form will it have (i.e. design, navigation, interactivity)? How does advertising fit in? And should this be a paid or a free product? If paid, how so?
The enablers are the variables that we need to engage in order to create the product.
Lastly, the Innovation Process, as indicated by the black circle at the bottom, is a series of stages that again is managed by the Innovation Steering Team and conducted by the Sub-Teams. The stages are described below and are adapted from the “Innovation Metrics” white paper by Langdon Morris:
- Research: The Innovation Steering Team and Sub-Teams continuously conduct research on interactive trends, user behavior and needs, competitors and the market.
- Ideation: All three groups work on generating new ideas in workshops. These ideas are then evaluated during monthly steering team meetings.
- Insight: Ideas are turned into actionable insight about innovation opportunities
- Targeting: Innovation ideas are submitted to the executive sponsors for review to ensure we target areas that enhance our product portfolio.
- Innovation development: The Sub-Teams pursue funded ideas and develop all plans related to execution.
- Market development: The Sub-Teams ensure that the ideas are tested and meet customer demands.
It is our belief that innovation is our only true sustainable competitive advantage. Whether we are talking about tablets or any other product, implementing a formal framework for innovation allows us to focus on both incremental innovations and the next breakthrough project.