In this episode, we wanted to know, “How do you scout for new technology that’s the right fit for your business?” To get best practices, Innovation Leader traveled to The New York Times’ headquarters on Eight Avenue. Experts from Kalypso and fomerly of Thomson Reuters also shared their advice. 

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Transcript

[SPONSOR MESSAGE] 

This episode is sponsored by Kalypso, a professional services firm dedicated to helping companies discover, create, make, and sell better products with digital. With deep roots in innovation, Kalypso provides consulting, process, technology, and people-focused services to drive real value from digital transformation. Their team is so excited to work with you.  You can learn more at kalypso.com.  

[MUSIC]

John Woods: It’s really important for companies to continuously scout for these new digital technologies.

Marc Lavallee: We start off with a very broad and shallow portfolio.

Mona Vernon: You can’t really expect to get 100% success.

Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered the podcast for corporate innovators. In each episode, we tackle one of the challenges that makes change hard at large companies. I’m Kaitlin Milliken from Innovation Leader. 

This episode’s big question: How do you scout for new technology that’s the right fit for your business?

So every company knows that responding to technological change is important. You don’t want to miss a major shift and lose your competitive advantage. But tech scouting can be really overwhelming. There’s so much emerging technology for companies to explore — from VR to blockchains artificial intelligence, and that’s barely scraping the surface. In order to effectively explore these trends, teams have to align their tech scouting activities with corporate strategy.

Mona Vernon: So we actually start with business value and customer value first. A lot of our thesis about what emerging technologies are relevant to Thomson Reuters is informed by our technology strategy, which is informed by our business strategy. I think there’s such a broad spectrum of technologies to keep an eye on, but when you narrow it down to the ones that are highly differentiated for Thomson Reuters, and the ones that we need to really focus on, then that’s really informed already by our customer context, and therefore our business context. Bring a grounded business context to the scouting and the experimentation.

Kaitlin Milliken: That was Mona Vernon. Today, Mona is the Head of Fidelity Labs, the innovation group at Fidelity Investments. Before that, she spent eight years at Thomson Reuters. During that time, Mona did her fair share of tech scouting, as head of Thomson Reuters labs and a founding board member of the FinTech Sandbox, a startup accelerator. 

According to Mona, once you identify the needs of your end users, whether they’re employees or customers, then you can start your search. 

Exploration takes many forms. Companies can use their venture arm to invest in startups that have products relevant to their business, or become a pilot customer. They can partner with external suppliers to test ideas within the business units. Innovation teams can also leverage a new technology to create something new that relates directly to a user pain point. 

But, no matter what method you use, victory is not guaranteed.

Mona Vernon: So inherently, when you’re looking at emerging technologies, you’re running experiments to understand the maturity of the technology, and then really sort of keeping an eye on its trajectory, on its maturity curve. In looking at who are the players that are emerging? What vendors are good at a specific application of that technology? What are we learning from the research? And what are we learning from innovators in the startup ecosystem? 

And so naturally, you can’t really expect to get 100 percent success. But really, what’s valuable is the learning. So to the extent that you start running an experiment with a desired business outcome, a clear hypothesis of what you’re trying to learn, then I think you end up with success, because you either get further along in moving towards an implementation, or you get some learning back that says, “Well, you know, this is not really mature. Or, as we learn more from this technology, and we think we should be looking at partnership in order to gain value and capture value from it.”

Kaitlin Milliken: So how do teams set the right expectations and experiment to find their company’s next tech win? To find out, we visited Marc Lavallee at The New York Times’ headquarters on Eighth Avenue. We’ll be back with Marc after this break.

[AD JINGLE]

Kaitlin Milliken: So, I’m here to tell you about Impact 2019. Again. You know the drill. It’s our biggest conference of the year with great speakers from big companies. But, I’m sure you’re tired of hearing it from me. So I brought on Elana, our Events Manager. 

So Elana, what can attendees expect from Impact? 

Elana Wilner: Well, they can expect a lot of things this year. We’ve tried to incorporate a lot of new things coming off of last year. My most favorite is definitely a t-shirt vendor. So this year, people will be able to grab a take-home. They’ll do live, on site, screen printing and some really interesting designs. I think that’s a great giveaway. 

I’m also really excited because we’ve just confirmed our newest keynote, Jodi Benson from General Mills, who will be interviewed by Dan Wheeler from Wahlburgers. They are going to be talking about the future food. So I think that’s going to be a really interesting session, morning of day two. 

Kaitlin Milliken: Elana and I will be there. And you, dear listener, should absolutely join us. Get your ticket today at innovationleader.com/impact2019, and see you in San Francisco.

[MUSIC] 

And we’re back with Marc Lavallee. Marc is the Head of Research and Development at The New York Times. He’s been with the company since 2011. In his role, Marc helps the newspaper navigate the world of emerging technology. 

So to get us started, can you explain what you’re working on and give us some more information about your role at The Times?

Marc Lavalle: R&D at the times really looks at the, you know, of all of the ways that it could work, the applied and of this spectrum. So really trying to understand over the next 18 to 24 months, what we think may happen, and what we think The New York Times needs to do to be ready for those kinds of changes. And that can be from emerging technology, that can be user behavior shifts, really anything.

Kaitlin Milliken: Give us some background. Not everyone who listens to this show is in the news business. What challenges exist in the industry and what’s changing so quickly.

Marc Lavallee: For the 20 years that I’ve been doing this, it’s the most interesting time to be in the industry, because we are sort of surrounded by all kinds of different dimensions of change. There’s obviously a lot going on in the media landscape. With, you know, a lot of these words, you can you can hear the air quotes that I’m putting around them about things like “fake news,” and so on, that we’re very much focused on. But there are also a lot of things that I think resemble the types of digital transformation challenges that companies in basically any industry are trying to work through about the right ways to fold in technologies like AI to augment their work force and things like that. So it’s a real smattering of those different types of things.

Kaitlin Milliken: And do you find that folks are coming to you when they have a pain point, and they’re asking you to solve for something, or are you getting ideas in a different way?

Marc Lavallee: It’s a wonderfully messy, creative process around here. You know, one of the things that’s really important to The Times is that we empower teams all around the organization to be able to solve their own problems. So we don’t look at R&D or the style of work that we do as this centralized function. I think, one of the biggest things that we try to avoid is being the innovation police walking around with the baton and things like that. 

So you know, people come to us when it’s something that they don’t really know how to get worked out in the organization otherwise, and sometimes that’s us. Sometimes we can help connect them with the right people. Those might be other folks inside the organization, or it might be people that we know from the outside.

Kaitlin Milliken: And a lot of the projects that you’re working on, they involve new technology. How do you approach the tech scouting process?

Marc Lavallee: We start with a very broad and shallow portfolio that you could, you know, could put basically every buzzword of what people are talking about today into that. So you know, blockchain, AI, AR, you could go on for days of just acronyms. One of the biggest things we try to do from the outset is match up those areas with a journalistic use case, something that we already understand. Something from the problem side of things. And in matching those together, that helps us avoid, you know, going too far and building solutions that are in search of problems, or some of those those kinds of pitfalls that R&D teams can run into. And so we’re constantly scouting really in both directions for new little bits of areas of emerging technology, as well as trying to maintain that refined understanding of what are the problems and challenges that we’re facing as an organization and the industry.

Kaitlin Milliken: So you do all the searching, and you have the problems, and you’re finding the technology that could potentially work with them. How are you testing it and making sure that it is a potential fit?

Marc Lavallee: From trying to understand what a journalistic use case might be. And I can, I can use some examples. You know, we are doing a lot of exploration around the rollout of 5G, the latest generation of wireless technology, over the next handful of years to understand how that will benefit our reporters, particularly when they’re out in the field. And so we start with some hunches of what that would look like and try to really assess what we think the capabilities might be. And then we start running experiments. We go out in the field. You know, in those cases, a lot of times when we’re working very closely with the newsroom, it’s going out and working with journalists to help them cover things. 

And from those initial starting points, we what we try to do is scale those up in the right way, so that we are ultimately bringing these new capabilities to open wider set of people in the newsroom and also, our readers in the right ways at the right times. Not too soon, but also not too late. The timing is really important to us.

Kaitlin Milliken: Let’s delve into some of those examples. You mentioned one about 5G. Can you give us examples of projects you’re working on that are showing success?

Marc Lavallee: A lot of the work in 2019 is really about making the newsroom 5G ready. That really is two parts. One is looking at the ways that we think journalists can use the technology in the fields. But also, you know, this is probably more of a next year into 2021 kind of thing. As more people go purchase new phones that are 5G enabled, and have 5G coverage plans and things like that, What are the things that they will want to be able to do with their device, once they have that capability?

From looking at prior areas of these kind of like anticipated emerging technologies, where we know we have some sense of inevitability, but it’s not here yet. We end up talking about a lot of these use cases that that are like filler for, you know, the era before it arrives. And so, you know, back before, like location based, like geo targeting on smartphones. People would talk about being able to walk by a Starbucks and get a text message for a coupon. And that was like you heard everybody talking about that. And the future didn’t really arrive that way. 

With 5G, you know, what a lot of people are focused on right now is this idea that with the much faster speeds, you’ll be able to do something like download a movie in two seconds. And I don’t know that anybody really does that. Right? Those aren’t real world needs that people are talking about addressing through the technology, it’s really about trying to describe the capability. And so a lot of the work that we do on the consumer side, is really trying to understand how we can look at real world needs that exists today where the technology isn’t yet there to solve for them, as well as try to, and this gets a little speculative, try to anticipate what’s up those needs will be when the technology is actually in people’s hands. 

And that’s important to us because it takes time to change an organization of any size, let alone a large news organization like The New York Times. And so the more that we can have some sense of the direction, and the timing is always a big hard question, but if we can have some sense of the direction that helps us prepare and be poised in the right ways.

Kaitlin Milliken: So you’re really working on things that are in that mid-range period, not something that happening tomorrow, but also not something that’s happening in 10 years.

Marc Lavallee: We had one era of R&D at The New York Times for about a decade that was focused much more further out on the frontier, you know. Five, 10 years out. And there was a lot of interesting stuff that came out of that that team but one of the challenges was even over a long period of time finding the right ways for that to connect to the organization and in particular, the newsroom. And so a couple years ago, in rebooting it, we decided to flip the model and really focus on what’s just beyond the next product cycle, right? How can we work in the newsroom, physically as kind of an advanced team for the rest of the newsroom, and to a large degree, the rest of the organization as well? 

So the newsroom itself in the company, it’s important that a lot of these teams have the ability to be on the cutting edge and to figure out how to adopt new technologies as they’re becoming viable, because that’s always an important part of our, you know, our ability to tell stories on a daily basis. And so, you know, we’re not doing that for them. We’re trying to look out at just a little bit further ahead. And so that’s usually where the sweet spot for us is. You know, sometimes it’s like, a little bit more of a 12 month end of the spectrum, up to 24, thereabouts, where we have some line of sight on a thing existing. It’s just not necessarily productionalized yet or things like that.

Kaitlin Milliken: I’d love to pick your brains for the do’s and don’ts of tech scouting, what should innovators and r&d experts be doing more of and be wary of?

Marc Lavallee: Spoiler alert, I don’t know if there’s anything truly revolutionary in here. On the do side of the equation, we have a lot of success looking at, not just adjacent industries, for media that would be entertainment, that would be education, things like that, like other industries that are really focused on the flow of information, but finding ways to go beyond that as well. 

And so a very quick example there, for this project we’re working on around the provenance of information, news information, we sort of found a way to think about using blockchain because the work that we’re doing resembles supply chain. And so that ended up leading us down the path of trying to understand a little bit about how supply chain works. I don’t know that that’s necessarily the first thing you would think of when you think of journalism is like ships in the ocean. But here we are.

Kaitlin Milliken: Have there been any, I guess, takeaways is another way to think about it, where there’s been something that hasn’t worked in, it’s like, “Oh, we shouldn’t be doing that.”

Marc Lavallee: My prior role, before R&D, was running the interactive news desk in the newsroom, and that is you’re very much on… That’s a team of about two dozen developer journalists. People that can really flex in either direction. And you’re just on the treadmill of news all the time. And the treadmill, someone’s just been pressing the like, increased speed button and incline button for the past couple of years. 

And, you know, we publish about 150 stories on the average day. And so in some ways, we have 150 opportunities to try something new every single day. And with that, you will find all kinds of things that incrementally improve the way we think about our journalism and make it understandable to the world. And things that don’t work so well. But I think for us, in that context, a lot of it comes down to effort and payoff. 

And so I think they’re generally less these like big binaries like, “oh, we should never do that again,” sort of things. But we’re always always asking, you know, “Is that worth the amount of effort we put in? Do we do? You know, do we find the right audience for that?” And so on. 

And from an R&D perspective, you know, because we’re just a little bit further out, in terms of the time horizon, it’s asking a lot of those same questions. I think, you know, we are sometimes placing bigger bets to really, you know, if we have to go deep and explore something that’s going to take a couple of months to figure it out, and so on. But ultimately, a lot of it is about grafting, what we do back into that kind of newsroom mindset. A lot of that is the effort payoff.

Kaitlin Milliken: When you’re measuring these projects, what metrics are you looking at?

Marc Lavallee: A lot of what we do both in working directly with the newsroom for newsroom needs and also working for, you know, looking at things that would directly benefit our readers. a lot of that is qualitative. You know, it is it does fold back into what, you know, a lot of the judgments that we place on the output of our of our newsroom and our news rapport. And we think it was a good story, you know, do we tell it the right way? And, and those types of things. 

I think it’s an important lesson that we’ve learned over the years is that in the early stages of adopting new technologies and new storytelling techniques, that you really have to start, you have to let it grow in that kind of qualitative space, to make sure that you’re doing the thing you want to be doing, right? And then you can layer in a lot of the quantitative questions, you know, to really understand from a numbers perspective, are you reaching the largest potential audiences? Is this the best way, are our users telling us that this is the best way for them to receive the story? And things like that, as well. And so that’s the shift that we’re trying to get to, after we’ve done this a handful of times, to really get our heads around it. You know, similarly, there are a lot of quantitative questions about the amount of work that it takes to pull one of these things off, and then things like that, as well. So that that becomes a big part of the equation too.

Kaitlin Milliken: So let’s say you found something that’s a good fit for the organization, nice piece of tech that folds into the process. What happens next? How does the scaling part work?

Marc Lavallee: This is one of the reasons why it’s really important that we sit physically in the newsroom is that that is a very involved integrated process. Eventually, what we try to do is get all of these things fully integrated into the newsroom, which is also supported by a large technology and product and design group. So that it’s essentially off our plates. That can’t be just throwing something over the fence, right? I’ve been on the receiving side of that before. And that doesn’t make anybody happy. It doesn’t lead to good outcomes either. 

So from the get go, when we when we start these projects, we are we’re always operating with an eye toward the conditions and those criteria for how we do eventually hand this off in a responsible way. One of the biggest things that we’ve done on that front is make sure that when as much as possible, when we are starting these projects, we fold in enough of the expertise of the types of people who would eventually be owning this. Not just from a buy-in and a stakeholder perspective or things like that, but that those folks are actually embedded on the team. So that they are also, every single time they’re trying something out, they’re thinking about, “okay, how do I make it so 50 people can use this? Fifteen-hundred people can use this?” And so on. Even if those aren’t questions we need the complete answer to immediately. 

Kaitlin Milliken: Great. So in R&D and innovation, not everything can be a home run. What role does failure play here at The Times?

Marc Lavallee: As companies and individuals, find ways to embrace failure and learn from it, has this kind of cultural shift happening within organizations. Not just within innovation spaces or R&D teams, but companies as a whole. I think that that’s given us more of an ability to understand where failure is acceptable and where it’s not acceptable, and how we allow for more acceptable failure without just saying, “Oh, we just failed. Fail Fast, right,” as this blanket statement. It is obviously incredibly important that we do not fail when it comes to the accuracy and delivery of our journalism, or allow things that could cascade down into something that would lead to that kind of failure. But if we’ve learned that there isn’t an audience for the thing, and we thought there was, that we can, we can sunset that thing very quickly, and learn from it and iterate and so on. Right? 

That more sort of traditional product mindset is something that has been more developed here over the past couple of years. To choose a specific example of how we work through this in a single project, last year, we worked on a, on some real time facial recognition around the royal wedding. You know, so this was a set of, you know, a couple of hundred people at a very public event, very well known people. Relatively easy to train an algorithm to know how to pick the Queen out of a crowd. Pick Idris Elba out of a crowd, etc. It’s one thing from a failure perspective to not tag somebody and just have it go un-tagged, right? That’s just an omission. It’s another thing to get the person wrong. That’s a much bigger failure. 

A lot of the effort that we went into in terms of avoiding failure was about making sure that we didn’t miss tag people. One of the folks on my team had to watch hours and hours and hours of the Harry and Kate wedding. That’s sorry, no. The William and Kate wedding to make sure that we got it right for the Harry and Megan wedding. I think he’s still scarred from that. It’s about making sure that we’re managing toward those different types of failure conditions in the right way.

Kaitlin Milliken: In your experience here, thus far, what are big learnings that you’d like to leave with other innovators who are working in tech scouting?

Marc Lavallee: The biggest thing for us is knowing exactly when to have a strong idea of where this nascent idea is going to land in the organization. And who that might benefit and things like that, and knowing when to just try stuff. 

You know, in our experience, you have to build a team that has a cohesive, natural understanding of how that works and get better at it over time. But I think that’s one of the biggest things that we’ve looked at. If you stick to one end of the spectrum or the other, if you either are working too small and too tactical, or you’re too far in the clouds that this stuff never connects back to the organization in a way that is visible and meaningful to other people.

Kaitlin Milliken: So tech scouting teams need to find the right balance between today and technology on the horizon. Marc gave us an inside look at tech scouting for the newsroom. But how are other companies exploring emerging technology? 

To find out, we call John Woods. John is a partner at Kalypso, a professional services firm that specializes in building the structure for digital innovation. Through his 20-year consulting career, John has worked with companies to improve their digital strategy and their approaches to digital transformation. We should also note that Kalypso is a sponsor of this podcast episode. 

So my first question to kick us off, is, why is it important for companies to be scouting for new tech, especially if they’re outside of the technology industry?

John Woods: I think if you put it in terms of supporting what we’re calling this digital revolution, which commonly I think, people think about in terms of industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things. For us, these are digital technologies, such as IoT platforms, augmented reality, additive manufacturing, the digital twin, machine learning, whatever it might be. 

It’s really important for companies to continuously scout for these new digital technologies, because there’s clear value that these technologies can unlock for a company. The new technologies, they can enable the enterprise. They change the way we work, and they’re going to deliver huge efficiencies, in our opinion, for the enterprise.

Kaitlin Milliken: And there’s so many types of technology out there, you mentioned machine learning, Internet of Things, and that’s just a couple. How do teams decide what their focus should be?

John Woods: We take a strategy led approach. We think an organization should consider what is important in terms of their business strategy, and then align your digital portfolio to do that. And we also observed organ is that do that are very, very successful with applying digital. So for example of an organization has determined field service effectiveness as a key to driving growth in future revenue or market share, and identifying those digital technologies that enable the field service organization to deliver excellence and efficiency supports that strategic vision.

Kaitlin Milliken: Here at Innovation Leader, we’ve written a few stories on the subject, and we find that tech scouting can live in different parts of the organization. So my question for you is who should actually be on the tech scouting team, and what capabilities do those people need?

John Woods: A core team with a certain set of capabilities is really, really important, no matter where it sits in the organization. So we think it should be a combination of people from within the business — for example, manufacturing, sales or product development, IT. And then also the company’s closest business partners, this group needs to have a strong understanding, in our opinion, of the company’s strategic priorities coming back to the first point, and more importantly, what’s going to deliver value for the customer, or operational excellence and manufacturing your product development. And so as the digital scouting team sort of builds their knowledge set, the team members, they’re establishing that important perspective of the digital technologies and capabilities that are going to enhance business performance. They grow in their understanding, in any available given space, right. So it could be, as I mentioned, augmented reality, it could be additive manufacturing, AI, whatever it is. 

They also grow in an understanding and the maturity of that technology, which is incredibly important, because they’re going to then, at some point in time, determine how or if they should implement it. Okay. And that understanding of the viability of the technology is incredibly important for real implementation. And then lastly, and most importantly for us, is that they’re able to then link technology to the value that it can deliver in real money or social terms.

Kaitlin Milliken: I’d love to pivot to the different models for tech scouting. What are the common approaches when it comes to looking for emerging tech and eventually scaling it in the business?

John Woods: There’s, I think, a couple of channels, if I could put it that way, for this. First of all, just intensive desk research. You can probably get across 60 percent of the content on any given subject, with just good solid desk space research on the internet. Okay. 

The next thing that that we see our clients do, and that we do ourselves, and we also do with our clients, is attending trade shows conferences, okay. Doing inner company benchmarking and user groups. So for example, we for the retail space and consumer companies, we have a special group within our firm that does benchmarking and has special sessions and internet companies benchmark sessions. So clients can in a very open way, sort of share their experiences and learn from each other. 

Site visits to digital technology providers is always good. And as you could expect, you know, they’re the ones that want to want to sell licenses and the hardware or whatever it is. And there’s a lot that you can learn from that process. And then the last that we think it’s important is, is doing some conference room piloting or demo, actually applying some of the technology into your business, and a very light way, but very focused, so you can determine if your hypothesis around an application are really worth anything or not. 

Kaitlin Milliken: My next question is about advice and what you’re seeing in the field. What are teams typically getting wrong when it comes to tech scouting? And what are they doing really well? 

John Woods: What doesn’t work for companies is if they’re not creating the right amount of space, okay, around researching the digital technology. So back to the channels that I talked about before. This means they don’t allocate focus time and resource to the process. And they’re also not opening their culture up to experimentation, which is incredibly important. We really see that focus time box effort can actually speed the whole process and helps organizations establish that very solid and important perspective on the technologies, values understood early. And things that don’t work, they’re experienced early. You fail fast. And then you can move on.

Kaitlin Milliken: One factor that is really important in this process is adoption. How can teams make sure that new technology will be well received and adopted by the end users at the end of the day?

John Woods: Our experience is that if companies focus on understanding the economic and social value of any technology — and that social value could come in terms of, for example, safety, or in the environment — then that technology can then be translated into what it means for the individual. It has that personal impact. And this greatly increases the likelihood of adoption. 

Quite simply just being able to answer the good old question: What’s in it for me? Is incredibly important for people, and we find if that’s done, you get the technology and the implementations to stick. 

Kaitlin Milliken: Great. And we covered a lot of different topics in this conversation. But to boil it down, what role should tech scouting play when it comes to innovation at large organizations?

John Woods: Digital tech scouting should play a very, very material role in the innovation teams. We believe that we are now fully entering the digital revolution. And therefore, if you believe that, if you recognize that, okay, it’s going to impact the whole value chain — right from product through to customer. And therefore, we believe that needs to sit right at the middle of that agenda.

Kaitlin Milliken: Staying on top of technological trends is essential to remaining on the cutting edge. So keep your eye out and start exploring what’s out there. 

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. I’m your host and producer Kaitlin Milliken. I wrote the script for this episode with our team’s intern, Molli DeRosa. Special thanks to Mona, Marc, and John for sharing their insights. 

We get questions about tech scouting all the time, so we’ll be revisiting this topic again next week. Until then, you can listen to all of our episodes on our website, innovationleader.com/podcast. While you’re there, you can also read our most recent case studies. If you love the show, rate and review us on Apple Podcast. That helps other innovators find our content. As always, thanks for listening and see you next time.

[SPONSOR MESSAGE]

Special thanks to Kalypso for sponsoring this episode. As an innovation leader, you know there’s a lot of hype around digital. It’s hard to navigate all the technologies, and to hone in on the areas that will have the most strategic value for your business. As a professional services firm with deep roots in innovation, Kalypso’s brand of digital is different. Their focus is practical and hands-on with knowledge is based in results. Kalypso uses this approach to help their clients build foundational digital capabilities that fundamentally transform both the way they innovate and the products they bring to market. Their team is looking for looking for digital leaders and innovators who desire real results from digital transformation. Sound like you? Get in touch with their team and learn more at kalypso.com.