Tell us a bit about your background, and about the issues and organisations you are working on…
I’m a hybrid. I research the media, as Google Digital News Senior Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute, Oxford and at the University of Oslo, but at the same time I work in it. This combination is really valuable as the academic roles allow me to dig deeply and reflect, and the active roles in the industry provide a constant reality check and prevent my research from becoming too abstract. I’m also a hybrid in that I’m British, but divide my time between Switzerland, the UK and Norway.
My career started in publishing. While a publishing director for non-fiction at Random House in London I became fascinated with strategy and via an MBA, ended up doing a PhD studying how culture drives strategy in broadcasting at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland. That took me from publishing deep into broadcasting, specifically at the BBC and CNN. Over the next few years I researched at the intersection of strategy and digital innovation, looking at digitalisation – particularly BBC News Online. I gradually worked my way up to professor level, and then I made a sideways partial jump back into industry.
Above: Lucy speaking at FIPP’s Digital Innovators Summit in Berlin.
I’m currently focusing on best practice digital transformation, and I’m looking closely at legacy organisations that are succeeding with this, as well as analysing how the digital pure plays operate. In all cases, my approach is to try to identify the factors underlying success and distill out key learnings for the wider industry.
You will be talking at the FIPP World Congress on ‘How media companies can develop strategic roadmaps for transformation’. This is obviously a massively important issue right now, given the need for businesses to change their offering, which issues are they struggling with the most and what are the most challenging areas right now?
Being excellent organisationally has never been a high priority in the media – their focus has always been on the content. There can often be an anti-managerial element to the organizational culture. This is understandable but dangerous right now because the organisational transformation piece is probably more critical than the content transformation one. As someone said to me recently, “the content challenge cannot be addressed without the organisational reinvention”. My research indicates that successful digital transformation has four key dimensions…
1. Agility: the pivot is integral to Silicon Valley and startup mindset, and critical in an environment that is shifting as fast as the digital media ecosystem is. The digital pure plays can do this because they are expected to do it, indeed they are set up to do it. They are young and relatively simple organisations, digital born and with fewer inertial factors. Established media companies are complex entities with divided attention spans and stretched resources. They must arbitrage resources and attention between old and new media businesses. Shifting resources is time consuming and often painful for them but vital if they are to take advantage of opportunities and exit fields that aren’t working.
2. Strategic strategy: the velocity and pace of change in recent years has meant that in many companies deep strategic thinking has been usurped by a series of shorter-term innovation projects. These were highly strategic, but not a strategy. In contrast, the new disruptive competitors are playing a long game. They may pivot frequently, but they are looking forward, piecing together a picture of the emerging media ecosystem and seeking a strong position in it. This is especially the case for digital pure plays backed by venture capital. Legacy players need to think more like VCs. Deep reflection on their ideal endgame is critical. This has ramifications for the process of strategy development, and for how they make strategic bets. These are issues I delve deeply into in my current research.
3. Active culture management: there’s an intriguing discrepancy between digital-born and legacy, with respect to corporate culture. Established organisations tend to view culture as a barrier, a problem. Pure plays view culture proactively and much more optimistically. Culture is, first, something that isn’t just ‘there’, but something that needs to be curated, and, second, a key element in superior performance. Best-practice in culture management is one of the most important issues I’m working on right now. Clumsy culture change initiatives mired in management-speak will backfire, yet culture is highly strategic, and organisations need to get smarter and more systematic about shaping their cultures – and be nuanced about the cultural dimensions of key change initiatives.
4. The insertion of technology, digital and data, deep into the organisational DNA: the big, fundamental shift in the media over the past decade has been the ascendancy of technology inside the organisation, and this is playing out most noticeably in a gradual blurring of technology, editorial and commercial activities. This has many dimensions – new C-level roles in product development, the integration of data analytics into content creation, a focus on UX, the development of smart metrics, and changes to organisation structure. Workspaces, team structures, products, formats and tech systems all need to be changed but, more fundamentally, a shift in culture is required, which is in turn a very significant leadership issue. Again, a central issue in the current research.
What other work do you have planned between now and the FIPP World Congress – and what does that tell us about industry trends?
I’ll be focusing on my research. Now that the core issues have crystalised, over the next few months I will work on understanding how these fit together, and hope to ‘deconstruct’ best practice and identify key learnings that can be transferred. The established media industry is extraordinarily open to sharing ideas and there are some very transformational individuals spearheading change. My personal goal is to distill these insights into a roadmap, and hopefully design a diagnostic tool to allow organisations to identify priorities and focus energies. I’m looking forward to working on this with leading players and start-ups in the US and Europe.
FIPP World Congress 2017 | Meet the speaker: Lucy Küng, Reuters Institute, Oxford University
In your book ‘Innovators in Digital News’ (2015), you pinpoint elements underlying the digital success of Vice, BuzzFeed, Quartz, The New York Times and the Guardian. Can you share some of the book’s insights – and are there things these businesses have in common, which make them so successful?
This book analyses these five cases to identify common factors that contribute to their success with digital news. It uncovered a set of inter-linked elements that need to be viewed systemically. Their power lies in their combination, in the virtuous circle that is created when all are present and function together.
At the core of these are three inter-related elements, which are standard practice for high performing organisations – a singularity of purpose about the role of the organisation and the ‘value’ (in management terms) it creates for its users; high-calibre leadership from smart individuals who have developed a viable strategic path forward and have credibility with the culture of the organization; and a clear and unequivocal strategy that sets boundaries, allows prioritisation and avoids distractions. Then come two elements specific to some to the emerging digital news industry and to the nature of competition and consumption within it. The first is a blending of journalistic, technological and commercial competencies, involving a deep integration of tech into editorial processes, the presence of digital editorial thinkers, and content creation processes that are response and data driven.
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Second comes a ‘pro-digital culture’, that views the digital news arena as an opportunity (albeit a highly competitive field), that is not particularly nostalgic about the old legacy days, and which is open minded about using the functionalities of digital technology to reinvent quality news. The final two common elements are not easy to acquire or replicate. The first is an early start. The longer a news organisation has been active in the digital field, the more it has learned about how this functions, and the more attuned it is to the pace of the industry and how innovation is best approached.
The final element involves autonomy – the ability to innovate and respond as directly as possible to opportunities and threats in the digital news market. This is directly influenced by ownership arrangements (and the priorities of those stakeholders) and by the financial resources available, both elements that a digital news organisation has limited opportunity to influence.
Finally – what forthcoming trends and issues on the horizon particularly excite you?
We have reached the end of the digital beginning for the media. The internet is two decades old. ‘New’ media is no longer new, and the contours of the digital media industry are becoming clear. The platforms are here – and they are a classic ‘gravity problem’, that is not really a problem at all, but a fact of life that must be dealt with. The industry knows now more or less what its ‘ur-challenges’ are and can start to optimize itself for this environment.
The ongoing stream of ‘shiny new things’ – digital video, Snapchat, machine learning, notifications, AR, VR, the Amazon Echo etc. will not cease – and each one of these commands significant resources, financially and in terms of attention from key individuals inside the company. Intelligent processes need to be designed to master the decision-making and investments that arise in connection with them.
Maturation is evident everywhere. The gloss is finally coming off Silicon Valley, and I hope it’s time to retire the binary mindset of ‘start up/Silicon Valley/good’ versus ‘legacy/old/bad’. Most media organisations are now integrated bundles of digital and traditional assets and systems and we need to recognise that: the HuffPo belongs to a telecoms giant, Vice’s growth is in classic TV, Facebook is launching video for TV, and CNN is one of the best performers on social media. And finally, I am cheered by signs that resistance to paying for quality content – especially news journalism – is ebbing (a rare positive by-product of the election of President Trump).
Lucy Küng is an advisor, researcher and expert on strategy, innovation and leadership with particular emphasis on managing technology shifts. She is Google Digital News senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute, Oxford University, non-executive board member of SRG (the Swiss public service broadcaster), content advisory board member of the NZZ Media Group, and visiting professor of media innovation at the University of Oslo.
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