How Discovery Inc spots great ideas

There is a common misnomer about how to foster a culture of innovation. While innovation can and does occur in the head office of businesses around the world, Stephen Lee, vice-president of Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) product strategy and innovation at Discovery Inc, says that innovation occurs everywhere.

In his experience, most ideas seem to come from the smaller, quieter parts of the organisation. The big challenge for business is how to crowd-source innovation, create a culture which encourages people to submit ideas, and then have a process to collect and give feedback on these submissions.

The pandemic forced organisations worldwide into remote working. Many adopted collaboration tools to aid communication with teams as a priority. While this may have helped to maintain short-term productivity levels, it risked siloed regional and global offices and stifled innovation and insight from across many businesses.

Discovery Inc is the company behind the Discovery channel and the recently launched Discovery+ video on demand (VOD) service.

“We could not imagine this year without Workplace from Facebook,” says Irene Scardia, EMEA innovation and internal communications senior manager at Discovery Inc.

The company began a power phase of using Workplace from Facebook in 2016. “We wanted to create a sense of belonging. We began with the Facebook-like interface, but when we started using it, other potential uses of Workplace from Facebook came out,” she adds.

The importance of having a collaborative tool for employee communications was essential during the coronavirus lockdows. Being a global company, Lee said the company’s Asian offices closed first.

“Discovery Inc was able to equip people to work from home. Workplace was a huge driver,” says Lee, adding that it provided the business with a discrete collaboration environment, enabling people to stay in touch without having to physically be in an office.

“The whole company is online and we have the ability to make intercompany groups,” he adds. For instance, the Discovery React group on Workplace by Facebook is used to share news and stories about people doing things for a common good.

Driving innovation

To capture ideas, Discovery Inc has integrated a tool called Sideways 6 into Workplace from Facebook. The tool is being used to encourage innovation and ideas from across EMEA, departments and people, bringing it all together in one place.

“It is always a challenge finding needles in hundreds of haystacks,” says Lee. “We can find those gems – and the quietest offices, with the least power, are submitting the most ideas.”

While senior company executives may previously have focused on the priority offices, Lee said Workplace from Facebook with Sideways 6 is surfacing voices of people from different regions.

Sideways 6 effectively provides a chatbot for collecting ideas, and it is the first chabot in Discovery Inc. Discovery’s Spark Innovation programme is the company’s dedicated innovation platform, hosted on Workplace from Facebook. Along with information on how the initiative works, it also hosts articles to inspire innovation, and people are encouraged to submit their ideas via the chatbot.

Scardia says: “When you go on the group to post an idea with a short description, you start a conversation with the chatbot, which is connected to the Sideways ideas management platform.”

The chatbot will typically ask questions such as “Why is your idea great?” and “How many resources do you need?”, then, once it has been collected, the idea is routed to the people making decisions and is scored. The submitter receives an email on the status of their idea status.

Previously people submitted their ideas via email, says Scardia, adding: “The chatbot feels like you are talking to someone. Engagement increased fourfold.”

A culture shift

Discovery Inc has been using Workspace from Facebook for more than five years. Lee says that there has been a definite culture shift across the organisation during this time. “We see a flattening of hierarchy, with people moving across boundaries without any barriers,” he adds.

One example is a content club hosted on Workspace from Facebook, which Lee says acts like a book club but for previews of new shows. “We watch a show in preview and have external interviews. In the documentary about Pope Francis, we had a direct chat with the director,” he says, adding that such events touch the whole workforce. “Anyone in the company can join in.”

One of the ongoing challenges organisations face with collaboration tools is how to measure the return on investment. This will become increasingly important as people start returning back into offices.

For Scardia, while some aspects of a collaboration tool may be intangible, some things can be measured, such as the volume of new ideas being submitted through crowdsourcing, and it can be used to “measure employee satisfaction”.

Changing organisational sculpture certainty does not occur overnight, with Scardia saying it took three years to create a culture of innovation – now, Workplace from Facebook is used as an innovation tool.

Scardia points out that the company launched Discovery+ during the pandemic, launching in the UK in November 2020. By February 2021, Discovery had grown to 12 million subscribers.

“The whole thing was developed remotely. We used Workplace from Facebook every month to have a global town hall meeting with the CEO,” says Scardia, adding that the company has been able to measure the success of breaking down old organisational silos.

With 274 idea submissions (up from 63 in 2019), the ideas from the Spark Innovation programme have demonstrated how crowd-sourcing innovation can make a real impact.

From addressing sustainability concerns with evergreen t-shirts for the company’s annual volunteering day, encouraging employees to think outside of their day-to-day role, and – most importantly – making employees feel a valued part of the company, the Spark Innovation Programme has encouraged community-driven change.