Merriam-Webster CDO on Getting the Digital Skeptics Onboard

By Lilly Milman |  December 22, 2020

Lisa Schneider‘s pet peeve when it comes to digital transformation in large companies is the assumption that it simply means adding technology to a company’s operations.  

Lisa Schneider, Merriam-Webster

“People think [digital transformation] means ‘I’m going to plug in some technology, and then I’m transformed,'” she says. “But you really have to transform mindsets, and strategy, and approach, and really get everybody aligned in this new way.”

Schneider is the Chief Digital Officer at Merriam-Webster, a subsidiary of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. She oversees teams that work in product development, technology, editorial marketing, among other aspects of the company’s digital strategy. This arrangement — where she has her hands in a number of departments — is intentional, she says. 

“That was set up deliberately, in order to have a unified [digital] strategy,” she says. “Everybody is following the same North Star, which has been great. That type of set up is an important part of digital transformation.”

In a recent interview with InnoLead, Schneider shared insights on avoiding remote work fatigue, the importance of forging new partnerships, and getting a traditional company on board with a large-scale digital transformation. 

Getting the Digital Skeptics Onboard

When approaching a large-scale digital transformation — especially in a nearly two-century old company with a product as traditional as the dictionary — it’s not surprising that the new can at times butt heads with the old. Schneider manages that by deploying her favorite word: why.

“‘Why’ solves problems,” she says. “You ask people: ‘What are you trying to accomplish? And why do you need it? Why does it have to be that way?’ You ask those questions, not as a challenge, but [with] a learning mindset.”

At Merriam-Webster, there are lexicographers who have spent 40 or more years of their career in the editorial department of the company. So, when Schneider came on as CDO in 2014, she explains that she had to be thoughtful when it came to pushing change: “You cannot come in and tell people who have been doing something for 40 years, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do this new thing.'” 

Instead, she says it’s important to meet people where they are. For example, Schneider made a list of all of her challenges and pain points, which included things like issues with search engine optimization and user experience. Then, she encouraged other employees, like lexicographers, to do the same. Afterwards, they compared notes and looked for any overlaps. By giving less digitally-inclined team members the opportunity to address their own pain points from a “purely lexicographical point of view,” she was able to begin building relationships and trust. 

You cannot come in and tell people who have been doing something for 40 years, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do this new thing.’

Schneider also crafted a mission statement to give purpose to the digital transformation and to set goals. This was a less collaborative process; she says she wrote it by herself based on her understanding of the company. The mission is two-fold: One, “to propagate our irrational love of the English language”; and two, “to help people understand and use language better, so they can better understand and communicate with the world around them.”

Writing this statement helped drive efforts like digital marketing, which led to Merriam-Webster’s popular social media presence on platforms like Twitter — an account that is approaching one million followers. Because the mission statement emphasized the goal of making language accessible, the company’s social media team began shifting its brand voice to be funnier and less formal online. 

Spending time changing internal processes, communication, and mindsets was also incredibly helpful this past March, when Merriam-Webster was able to provide a “special release” of over 20 COVID-related terms like “social distancing” and “coronavirus” in only 33 days. Previously, the fastest entry of a word in the dictionary (the word “AIDS”) took two years.

“[The release] was unprecedented. Nothing like that has ever happened before. But again, [it was possible] because we had changed the mindsets of [lexicographers] away from ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it,'” Schneider says. “We were watching to see the questions that people have right now, and how do we answer those questions. We wrote a lot of content in a very short amount of time that was really geared to the questions people were asking…” 

Staying Connected with Colleagues

Merriam-Webster has been investing in its digital transformation for more than five years. The company — which is based in Springfield, Mass. — also has offices in New York City and Chicago, so transitioning to fully remote work didn’t feel like a “huge lift,” Schneider adds. The team was constantly using Zoom, Slack, and Jira to stay connected long before the pandemic. 

For that reason, rather than worrying about keeping productivity high, Schneider and her team have been more focused on battling the emotional toll of being isolated from colleagues, and the onset of fatigue from so many virtual interactions.

One solution is being very diligent about setting goals for meetings, and intentional with meeting formats. If a quick email or phone call can suffice, then a Zoom meeting is not necessary, she says. Being able to dial into a call while going on a walk around her neighborhood has been vital to her own productivity, Schneider says. 

Developing a Bigger Presence Through Partnerships

The company does not necessarily need to worry about being supplanted by a startup; building up a large team of lexicographers and writing definitions for thousands of words is no easy task. However, the team is seeking to answer an important question:  “What does it mean to be a dictionary in the 21st century?” For Schneider, the answer lies in new products and features — like a fast-loading, fully responsive web page launched in 2018 — partnerships, and licensing.

One of the ways Merriam-Webster stays relevant is by licensing its dictionary data — all of its words, definitions, example sentences, etc. — to game companies, education companies that require language information, and even emerging technology companies. 

If you are not afraid of disruption, you have your head in the sand and you are doing it wrong. 

Recently, the company began a partnership with Embodied, Inc., a robotics and AI-company that creates a companion robot called Moxie that is focused on social-emotional learning. Moxie is designed to teach children with weekly at-home lessons. When a child asks the robot what a word means,  that’s Merriam-Webster’s API in action. 

Another partnership is the company’s new word-themed podcast “Word Matters,” developed in collaboration with New England Public Media. 

While there may not be many dictionary startups challenging Merriam-Webster’s dominance in the market, partnerships like those help to expand Merriam-Webster’s mindshare and keep the brand and its products relevant. “If you are not afraid of disruption,” Schneider says, “you have your head in the sand and you are doing it wrong.”