Labs accelerate Globe and Mail’s innovative engine

For a few years now, The Globe and Mail in Canada has had November earmarked for its move into a new, five-floor building in Toronto. But innovation never sleeps and CEO Phillip Crawley couldn’t wait to launch The Globe’s new Lab351 innovation lab in the dedicated roomy space of the new building; instead “accelerating” its launch with a makeshift lab in its old headquarters. The results are already starting to pay off, he says.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | June 6, 2016

It’s no surprise that Greg Doufas, Vice President of Digital and Data, was put in charge last summer of making the lab happen. Doufas has played an instrumental role in the past few years of implementing The Globe and Mail’s sweeping data infrastructure and strategy, one that Crawley calls his proudest moment of his career.

View Phillip Crawley’s presentation about Lab351 from WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress 2016 (PDF).

“Greg took it on as an extra on top of his present role and rapidly got it going, a bit of an ad-hoc start-up,” Crawley said. “We thought we could find some space in the existing building and get started with the lab. By the time we move into the new building where we have more space, we’ve gained some experience as to what it requires, so it was really worth doing. The benefits to the business are already evident.”

How lab projects work in practice

They chose three initial teams to start in the lab last summer and they have already advanced.

Anybody in the company, across any department, can pitch an idea. But, Crawley said, the idea has to be fleshed out to the extent that the actual work on the project can get done. In other words, he said, you need to know who will work with you on the project. So that means seeking out the right help, whether that is an employee from their own department or another one.

A committee, led by Gord Edall, who serves as head of the lab, oversees the formal application process. “They decide which idea is most likely to succeed, have we got the right people, is it a good idea, are we seriously interested in it, how high are the chances of success.”

If a proposal gets chosen, the project group is taken off its normal day job for 90 days and are given the chance to work on that exclusively for that period. “Nobody is in the lab permanently,” Crawley said. “If we feel at the end that it’s made a good contribution, we may decide to carry on, probably not in the lab but bringing it back to the business. The truth with the lab is that it’s part innovation in terms of bright ideas applied to the business and some of it is effectively an accelerator where we want faster results than we could get by allowing to do it the normal way. So we put together a team from whatever disciplines are required, put them into the lab and say focus on this and nothing else for the next 90 days and come out at the end of it and tell us whether this is going to work or not.”

So far, so good…

Phillip CrawleyPhillip CrawleyCrawley said so far “we’ve been successful in picking winners. We haven’t had a flop, we haven’t had a team that crashed and burned in the course of the 90 days. Everybody’s come out of the process with something to show for it.

“What we haven’t done yet is fully commercialise the ideas. There is one at the moment that may have a good chance. An idea by a journalist on creating an award for employers. A staff survey that goes deeper into people’s lifestyles, how that interacts with their working lifestyles, and gives one a much more in-depth profile of what staff are thinking. And we want to do that in partnership with a well-established company in the HR field and offer the survey as a product to employers. It’s an idea that we’ve turned into what we believe is a commercial proposition. We haven’t yet taken it from lab to successful commercial implementation.”

Projects and products from the lab

Crawley said The Globe and Mail have done a variety of different things over the course of the three teams that have been chosen:

Predictive modeling for election polls: “Last year, we had elections in Canada and one of the interesting things was why don’t the opinion polls ever get the result right? So we put a team from editorial and from the data-science team into the lab to pull together all the polls and work on a predictive modelling basis to see if we can make better sense of when you look at all the polls and all the data, if that gave you a better picture of the results. That resulted in a very direct journalistic product as the team was reporting on its findings.”

The Globe and Mail developed a predictive modelling election poll tool.The Globe and Mail developed a predictive modelling election poll tool.VR in solitary confinement: Another team worked on creating a 14-minute documentary about solitary confinement, using virtual reality. Crawley said the documentary was screened at the Hot Docs festival. “It’s an issue we’re campaigning for in Canada, as to the overuse of solitary confinement. That was exploring the potential of virtual reality technology and using the skills of our video team, but also creating something that our readers can relate to.”

He said they have also “played around with 360 video”, using that for things like car tests. What does it feel like to be sitting in the seat of the new BMW, for example?

The VR documentary from The Globe and Mail innovation lab.The VR documentary from The Globe and Mail innovation lab.Partnering with The Washington Post and the ARC CMS: It was recently announced that The Globe and Mail will work with The Washington Post’s ARC content management system. “We’re going to adopt that here but regarding the partnership, they sent a team of engineers from Washington who worked in our lab for three months while we tested out what it was they were doing and established from a compatibility point of view that this was going to be a solution to delivering digital content in a far better way than we can do at the moment,” Crawley said. “If you want to place your piece of content onto different platforms, be it desktop or mobile, you’ve got to place it on the platform individually each time. It was very helpful to have people from Washington working with our experts.”

The advertising Taste Graph: An example on the ad side is something called the Taste Graph, which Crawley said essentially enables The Globe to describe to an advertiser the different preferences of Globe customers/readers. “When we talk about a campaign we can tell them what a segment of the audience does when it’s reading this particular type of content or responding to advertising. It enables us to send an advertising team out to meet a client and they can then give them a profile of what we think we can deliver to them. The idea came from someone in the data science team and we put it in the lab because we wanted to bring in all of the appropriate voices including, obviously, people from ad sales.”

Sophi, daily data tool on content consumption: The Globe developed Sophi, which from an editorial point of view, gives the newsroom daily data on how people are consuming content,” Crawley said. “We’re going to reorganise our newsroom starting this summer and relying on the fact that we’re going to have a much better CMS thanks to the Post partnership, that will enable us on a daily basis to choose content, choose the right platform based on real-time data. So we can be very accurate at saying we know what happened yesterday in terms of how people responded to this particular story, here’s the outcome of that. We can make a very informed judgment on what we should be doing today in terms of what time to serve it up, where to serve it up, what kind of platform worked best, what kind of social media amplification we should be doing, does this story lend itself to placing on YouTube or video, etc.”

Innovation culture comes from the top – and the bottom

Since taking over The Globe and Mail in 1999, Crawley has been a very hands-on CEO – working closely with staff across departments as well as keeping the paper’s owners, Thomson Reuters, in the fold of constantly pushing innovation and cultivating the right culture.

The lab project is a case in point of this. About two years ago, Crawley said he started to look at what was happening at nearby University of Waterloo, a high-tech university. The university has an innovation lab called Communitech.

“Tom Jenkins is the executive chairman of OpenText, and a bit of a pioneer in the digital space,” Crawley said. “He’s chancellor of the university and a board member of Thomson Reuters. He has been encouraging the university and its innovation lab to broaden its scope, to look for partners, and he effectively put the two of us together. David Thomson, our owner and chairman of Thomson Reuters, came with us. We took a trip down to Waterloo for a day and it sort of encouraged us to believe that we could do something like that at the Globe, and it also led us to look at what other universities in Toronto are doing. The whole executive team was there to get to know what they were doing and what their goals were.”

Where does The Globe stand on the innovation meter?

“We’re very much in the exploratory phase regarding innovation,” Crawley said. “When we launched this we didn’t know what the appetite for this would be among the staff. We had a sense that there were a lot of bright people who wanted an opportunity to do something where they could take their own initiative and turn it into something real. And the really encouraging thing is that this has absolutely been proven correct: we have a line-up of people wanting to get into the lab. It’s tapped into what was a lot of potential that we weren’t really making use of before.

“For me, apart from the actual results from the lab benefitting the business, the biggest win of all is what it’s doing to change the culture of the business. It’s liberating people’s ability to make a difference and have an influence. We’re finding that that’s certainly making a difference in the mindset of the company.”

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