Hacking Hierarchies: Lessons from Houghton Mifflin

By Julie Donnelly |  May 13, 2014

How do you break down the walls between print and digital at a 180-year old publishing company best known for Curious George, textbooks, and J.R.R. Tolkien?

Mary Cullinane took on the role of Chief Content Officer at the 180-year old publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012, at a time of major shifts in both publishing and education. In the 19th century, Houghton Mifflin published Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne, but in the 21st century, the Boston company had changed hands several times and gone through a pre-packaged bankruptcy filing to shed about $3 billion in debt. Cullinane’s role is to create new K-12 education products across all platforms – both traditional textbooks and digital products for desktop computers, laptops, and tablets. She previously served as the worldwide director of innovation at Microsoft’s education division.

In her first two years at Houghton Mifflin, Cullinane has overhauled a content development process that hadn’t changed much in decades. Cullinane did it by removing boundaries between print and digital products, hacking away at hierarchies, and renewing the company’s focus on the customer.

Start Small

“People had no reason to believe me in the beginning,” Cullinane says. “They didn’t know me, they had no faith in me, they had no reason to. So I made a few small changes at the beginning that were very well-received and that led people to think, ‘OK, she understands the complexity and the tensions we are dealing with.’ We were honest — we said we were going to take time and be thoughtful — but we were going to make significant changes.”

And a major re-org did take place. “About 87 percent of the people I work with either have a different title or a different workflow or a different manager,” she says. And no longer can anyone on Cullinane’s team go to a cocktail party and say they are a “Senior Editor” at Houghton Mifflin. Now, all the editors, no matter what level, are called “Learning Architects.”

‘We All Have an Opportunity to Lead’

“You have to create a culture where you give permission for people to contribute,” Cullinane says. “Leadership is not defined by a position, and we all have an opportunity to lead. It sounds simple, but it’s something you first have to model.”

Culliane says everyone on the team is encouraged to reach up above their own managers to share ideas, even with Cullinane. The floodgates have opened: she now receives about a dozen new ideas in her inbox every week.

She admits that the idea deluge is becoming a bit unmanageable. She said the next step is developing a solution for idea management so that first staff, and eventually customers, can submit ideas to a central clearinghouse.

When choosing among ideas, Cullinane says putting the teacher or student first is always the guiding principle. “We don’t have the time or the resources to innovate for the sake of innovation.”

Identify the Constraints

Cullinane describes the company’s previous content development system as linear, characterized by “a lot of handoffs.” First the print team would develop a new product, then pass it over to the print design team. Once the textbook was completed, it would be handed over to the digital team, which had to then find ways to optimize the product and translate it into digital formats (like adding interactive maps or charts.) It was fragmented and inefficient, Cullinane says.

Four New ‘Studios’

The new model eliminates the print and digital teams. Instead, the content development group (CDG) that creates K-12 education products is divided into four “studios.”

Learning Architecture Studio: Responsible for the content creation and learning architecture behind Houghton Mifflin’s products, across all mediums. No longer are print and digital content created in a linear process; the company now builds quality content for a digital age from the ground up. 

Design Studio: Oversees the creative design architecture of a unified user experience across all products and platforms, regardless of medium. “It’s crucial that as we move forward as a leader in our industry, customers come to know a common HMH experience with unifying characteristics when interacting with our offerings,” Cullinane said. 

Build Studio: Engineers and sets the standard for applications and products. This studio brings the vision of the learning architecture group into reality across all mediums. This team takes the architectural plans for content and builds the products. 

New Markets Studio: This team explores growth opportunities for Houghton Mifflin’s products, including consumer applications, international markets, and partnerships. 

The four studios are supported by what Houghton Mifflin calls “CDG University,” which provides training and skill-building for the content development group employees (see diagram above).

Know When to Build and When to Buy

Cullinane says one good example is the company’s foray into adaptive learning, which tailors educational materials to a student’s learning level and style. Cullinane said the key to a successful adaptive learning product is great content paired with great analytics. Houghton Mifflin didn’t want to build an analytics engine, and instead brought in a partner, New York-based Knewton, to contribute.

Metric for Success: Time to Market

Reinventing the content development process has already had measurable results. Cullinane said the team has reduced the development time for a new math product, GO Math! 2015 (for grades K-6), to seven months from two years. That process was helped along by an array of new internal tools that allow teams at Houghton Mifflin to create content once, and redistribute it in multiple formats. Other products will follow similarly swift timelines.