Innovating and disrupting, all in a day’s work

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking at the HighEdWeb New England regional conference. What a great bunch of people! I really enjoyed the energy and positivity of the sessions and the side conversations. This is a group undaunted by the challenge of bring order, quality, and new ideas to the fairly conservative yet chaotic medium of college and university websites.

Bringing order to chaos has been my main focus for the last five or so years as a web strategist, first at Dartmouth College and more recently at Harvard University. I spoke about my work on the Harvard Web Publishing Initiative at HighEdWebNE, and it was a great opportunity for me to get my head around some of the more innovative aspects of the project, and some of the challenges.

I started on HWPI in June of last year, as Web Strategy Project Lead. Personally, I love a challenge, and I can’t think of many things more challenging than setting up a centralized governance model, suite of services, and software platform for web publishing in an environment as large and decentralized as Harvard University. The project is ambitious and forward-looking, with strong backing from institutional leadership.

Our approach to HWPI has been enterprising on many fronts:

  • Learning by doing. Rather than engage in an extended discovery phase to learn the requirements for the project, we started with a pilot phase. We redesigned the websites of 10 academic and administrative departments, identifying the requirements for the platform and best practices for service delivery, and setting standards for user experience and design.
  • Guided by strategy. To avoid “lift and drop” redesigns we started each project with a project charter, asking departments to step back and define goals, target audience, and success metrics. We also identified and assigned ongoing departmental resources, particularly for content.
  • Focus on user experience. A consistent user interface improves user experience because visitors can learn the interface once, and then apply what they know to other Harvard sites. We designed common navigation and wayfinding systems for academic and administrative departments.
  • Commitment to quality. HWPI is about quality, and not just on the surface. We hired a digital content strategist to help departments craft their content to best accomplish their goals.
  • Software for higher ed. HWPI is using OpenScholar, a Harvard built Drupal-based open source software platform designed to help faculty communicate about scholarly endeavors. With origins in higher education and developers on the HWPI team, OpenScholar is expanding to include functionality needed for university communications.
  • Responsive and accessible. Early on we realized that a great visual design that works well in different contexts and devices would be an enticement to use the platform. We partnered with Happy Cog to develop accessible and responsive templates for the platform.

By the end of March we were through the pilot phase, successfully launching the 10 pilot sites. But it wasn’t always an easy process, for the team or the clients.

One of my lessons learned about our approach inspired the topic for my HighEdWebNE presentation: that innovative ideas need an innovation process.

An accidental innovator

When I started work on HWPI I thought it was interesting and challenging, but innovative? Not really. I had been working many years at Dartmouth on a similar service and platform. I expected this project to be much the same, only bigger!

As time passed I realized the project was not only innovative but also disruptive because it asks people to change their values. Rather than valuing customization it asks customers to value other factors, like a shared platform with central support, a common look-and-feel, structured content, and opportunities for content aggregation and sharing. I wish I had recognized the disruptive nature of the project earlier because I would have sought ways to adapt our process.

In my HighEdWebNE presentation I shared several books that are important for people involved in innovation projects: The Innovator’s Dilemma, to help recognize a disruptive innovation project, Diffusion of Innovations, to learn how to get innovations adopted, and Change by Design, for a “design thinking” methodology to support innovation projects.

Innovation and disruption may seem all in a day’s work for people working in technology. We don’t generally wake up in the morning and think, “Well, off to innovate!” But the customers we rely on—to adopt and enjoy the fruits of our labors—have a very different perspective. To them, we are asking a lot. We are asking them to change their values.

If you find yourself working on a product that your customers think of as new, first of all, recognize the project as a disruptive innovation. Then, form a small team to work exclusively on the project, surround the team with customers who want and value the features and capabilities of the product, and use an iterative approach of brainstorming, designing, and prototyping to produce a successful outcome.

Presentations slides from Slideshare

Slides from Innovative Ideas Need An Innovation Process, posted by highedwebne on Slideshare:

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