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Inside Design Shops | Within the Viant Experiment


Inside Design Shops | Within the Viant Experiment (Web Techniques, Apr 2000)

The recently integrated Innovation Center is a testament to the company's philosophy, tying cultural interactions with its desire to be on the edge of innovation. The idea was to create a unified internal think-tank (or "do-tank," as creative lead David Tames says), that would fuse the ideas of a select group of designers, strategists, and technologists. The group would be isolated enough to develop and incubate new ideas, but accessible enough to communicate those ideas to the rest of the company, inspiring employees and spawning radically different products.

The Viant Formula

To understand the reasons behind the Innovation Center, it's important to understand the roots of the company as a whole and how it came to be a new media front runner. Bob Gett is Viant's president and CEO, though he prefers to be called "chief cultural officer." Gett began to consider experimental business practices because he had grown dissatisfied with the operating principles of traditional consulting firms. Having pursued a consulting career for more than 20 years, he wanted to create a company that was more "organically human," and able to adapt quickly. He imagined a learning organization focused on finding and retaining talented employees, and based on a core set of values: growth, knowledge-sharing, flexibility, interaction, and innovation. In 1996, Gett was recruited to run Viant, Inc.—then a Web design company—where he was able to implement his vision. Viant, along with several other new media firms, like Razorfish, Organic, and Scient, suddenly took hold of a very lucrative market space and became the next generation of online strategy consultants.

But as most of these companies deal with growing pains, Viant's ease in shifting its internal organization remains consistent. Instead of focusing on growth, Gett chose to focus on the company's culture and defined Viant as the black sheep of consulting firms. The company would implement roles, such as Tames' creative lead role, instead of formal job titles; no offices would rise above four stories or house more than 120 employees; project roles would be malleable and frequently shifted; the physical space would be devoid of offices or walls; employees would act as advocates for each other, guiding and giving advice on career paths; and the entire structure could fluctuate at any moment. Within this framework, the company integrated three disparate groups, previously known as Innovation Engines, and created the 10-person Innovation Center.

Innovation Engines to Innovation Center

The Innovation Engines were based on the idea that service firms should look ahead to provide future opportunities for their clients. They were created to support each of Viant's disciplines. The Design Studio handled creative aspects, including branding, marketing, and design. The Technology Center served daily project needs. The Strategy Institute researched current trends and helped its clients implement them.

The engines divided innovation into three distinct phases, a process that has been carried over in the transition to the Innovation Center. The first phase, researching and prototyping, determines how the market is shifting and what other people have done. This phase helps employees channel an idea into a prototype. The second phase, called piloting, rolls out an idea or prototype to smaller groups and consultants. The whole company sees the idea, and both a high-profile advisory board and a group called the strategy leadership team decide on it. If these groups decide the idea is worthy of further consideration, it's given to a consulting team for heavy testing and evaluation. In the third phase, commercialization, the idea is put out to the market. Viant decision-makers don't always commercialize an option because it's costly to build awareness in the marketplace. Often, Viant adopts an idea or skill set internally and trains all employees. Then, the company might choose to communicate such ideas to the public through publications, conference talks, and as part of sales and marketing materials. Each engine published white papers on group developments that enrich Viant's knowledge base and expand its services. (Readers can view these white papers on Viant's Web site. See the " Online Resources" box.) Toward the end of 1998, Innovation Engine managers felt the company should fuse these three camps of thought. In March 1999, the Viant Design Studio published a white paper on experience architecture, which challenged the hierarchical nature of Web design. The paper claimed that information architecture is a homogeneous, impersonal approach to the user's experience. Viant trademarked a more dynamic method that helped personalize users' visits by considering the complexities of human behavior online and the reasons people visit Web sites. Though the paper was ultimately released by the Design Studio, it was enhanced with input from each Innovation Engine. For the designers to innovate ways that people use technology, they had to understand a lot about technology and strategy.

Integrating the Innovation Center was one of three realignments completed in December of 1999. The group was removed from everyday project support to focus on generating new ideas for the company and external markets. Daily project-team concerns were handed over to a separate group called Catalyst, and the Learning and Development group took over personal growth issues, such as project roles and career goals.

The integration made sense according to David Tames, "Bringing together strategists, technologists, and creatives as one group lets us deal with new ideas faster, and put out quality work, quickly." The integration expanded on the theme of cultural interaction by reflecting the way Viant project teams were already orchestrated, with several different employees from diverse backgrounds working together. "Markets are created from conversations," adds Tames. Part of the Viant experiment is to create an environment that allows for random encounters, or "knowledge accidents." Viant's open office space facilitates chance encounters and encourages conversations that can lead to project breakthroughs.

Cultivating Innovation

A few select Viant employees focus on creating an environment that nurtures innovation. Among them is David Rose, Innovation Center manager and former director of the Design Studio. Rose wrote a memo entitled "Cultivating Innovation" that detailed various methods of creating a flexible learning organization. The points in this document act as guidelines for Viant's culture, motivating current employees and orienting new ones. A portion of the memo's introduction reads, "To engender innovation, you have to create an environment in which innovation can flourish. It's not enough that the marketplace has created fertile ground; the firm must become a garden."

Later in the memo, Rose outlines specific ways in which employees can realize that goal: "Many would-be innovators guard their ideas from predators. True innovators share their ideas, testing them on others." Acknowledging a sense of time urgency, encouraging tension and diverse thinking, and accepting failure are among other views that Rose discusses. He also notes that employees may need isolation to incubate an idea, but warns against cutting off external feedback and knowledge sharing.

Although the Innovation Center has no real headquarters, most of the group is in Boston. Innovation captains feed ideas from each local office to the Innovation Center. The Boston office has a small corner area sheltered by a glass wall for soundproofing. The partial isolation lets the group allot time and resources to think, while still connecting them to the rest of the company. In addition to informal brown bag lunch discussions, the Innovation Center will also generate an online and print newsletter and speak at Home Office Days, which are Viant events for networking and knowledge sharing. Employees are encouraged to submit new ideas and vote on current Innovation Center projects to increase the two-way flow of ideas.

Current Work

The integrated Innovation Center was only two months old when this article was written. The staff was just beginning to collaborate, having had only two face-to-face meetings, and was busy evaluating projects for next year.

Among this year's Innovation Center projects is what Viant calls "active messaging." The prototype filters various channels of communication including pagers, fax machines, mobile phones, email, and voicemail. It then coordinates the communications with a person's schedule availability, immediate "interruptibility," and location.

The Innovation Center is also investigating developments with Wireless Application Protocols (WAPs) as well as issues of privacy and personalization.

Results

Though still in its infancy, the experiment has worked thus far. The company hires approximately 30 to 40 new employees per month and boasts a mere nine percent turnover rate. Employees are encouraged to solve problems and brainstorm new ideas together, thus quenching desires for interaction and personal growth. At the core of Viant's success is a seamless methodology that weds technology to human experience, allowing employees to innovate and personalize the experience of the client and their own customers.


Lucas is an associate editor for DesignShops.com.


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