Navigating a digital transformation

How the Washington Post, T-Mobile, and the New York Times are making their workplace faster, more collaborative, and just plain better

It's time for a digital transformation
Image Credit: akindo

The flow of information is what keeps business going. What used to look like a pyramid, with information getting passed down from senior leadership to key contributors, now more often resembles an interconnected web. And that’s a good thing, because the hierarchy model is slow and siloed. You could miss valuable context—or, worse, the information altogether—and be forced to spend hours each week searching for it.

Many companies are becoming privy to this idea, and they’re transforming their culture to be more transparent. But it’s a process, and one best undertaken with an open mind and a healthy disregard for the past.

At this year’s Frontiers Conference, we heard from three companies that underwent a digital transformation. And they’ve got advice on how to make your own company more nimble and transparent.

1. Let adoption of tools happen (mostly) organically

After a year of in-house work, the Washington Post’s state-of-the-art video tool was finally complete. There was just one problem.

“It didn’t give us the result we were hoping for,” says Brenna Child, the company’s head of talent management and employer branding.

So the team behind the tool brought it to a focus group featuring employees across all levels and departments across the business. “We don’t want to make things less organic,” Child says. “Let’s talk about what we’re using. Why is it working for you? And how can we make it better?”

The group wondered if they were looking for a result that didn’t exist, or if there was a way to fix the product. Finally, they decided to just kill it.

“It was a year’s worth of work,” Child says, before adding a surprising conclusion. “It was a good experiment. Experiment, fail, keep going.”

2. Make transparent communication safe

“From our CEO down, T-Mobile’s competitive advantage is our speed,” says Jason Reynolds, the company’s senior manager for applications support. Before Slack, Reynolds says, that process came at the expense of sleep. He would receive hundreds of intense late-night calls and messages. “I had seven or eight different group message threads,” he says. “By the time it got up to me and our CIO, the whole world was on fire.

“There was no transparency about what was going on,” he continues. “It was a whole bunch of phone calls. Our messages weren’t very consistent.” In other words, the system was broken.

Reynolds and his team turned for help to Slack, where they’re able to publicly manage incidents through channels. The more transparent the group became, the better able they were to learn from the past. “That transparency is really what’s enabled us to move faster,” says Reynolds.

Part of that transparency is admitting when things didn’t go according to plan. Posting mistakes in a public forum was unprecedented, and Reynolds admits it was a culture shift.

“It’s scary at first,” he says. “We were very siloed. Allowing people to see what we were doing—and where we were messing up—was a big obstacle to overcome.”

But T-Mobile didn’t penalize people who admitted when they made the odd mistake, and that transparency has been a blessing. “Now it empowers people,” Reynolds says. “They’re not afraid to admit, ‘We did mess up—and here’s how we resolved it. Going forward we can do this faster because we can see it in our history.’ ”

3. Continue iterating and experimenting

When the New York Times app sends a push notification, millions of people reach for their phone. The notification needs to be important, urgent, and, most of all, accurate. The Times’s reputation depends on it.

“It’s terrifying,” admits Millie Tran, the company’s global growth editor.

The New York Times created a couple of bots to alleviate some of that stress.

The cleverly named Canary Bot posts in Slack whenever a story is resonating with readers more than the Times expected. When the canary sings, the editors will look at ways to increase the story’s engagement, including posting it on social media or giving it its own push notification.

Whether it’s breaking news or not, push notifications require a lot of internal feedback, and fast.

The company’s old process surfaced this feedback alongside other important information, such as which languages the push notification would be published in. But because people were chiming in with by-the-second edits and opinions, essential information could get buried.

“We were so focused on accuracy that we lost a little speed during the process,” Tran says.

So the Times created Alert Bot, which templatized all the can’t-miss information, including who the editor is, what countries are running the story, and who the audience for the story is. It then posted that info in-channel, where employees could discuss both the alert and the news, without requiring everyone to sift through messages. “This helped us make that process quicker, make it more seamless—and still allow that collaboration,” says Tran.

And at the end of the day, if information is the fuel that keeps business going, what can you hope for besides great work that gets done quicker?

Nic Vargus underwent a digital transformation and, just like Neo, now knows kung fu.

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