07/29/2015 04:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Recipe for a Media Innovator

Take one great team player, blend in the conceptual tools to see both the big picture and the relationship of the key elements of a business, add a dash of persuasive communications and negotiation skills, and allow to rise in a warm environment of research, rewards and risk-taking.

That's what the first Park School Communications Innovation Study found to be the recipe for a successful innovator. In spring 2015, a team of us at the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College surveyed 148 executives in a variety of communications -- related fields including marketing communications, television, corporate/organizational communications, sports media, publishing and public relations to find out their opinions on successful cultures and leaders that promote the necessary innovation that allows their firms to thrive. The top five skills identified were:

  1. Demonstrate effective teamwork
  2. Ability to see "big picture" and manage the relationships among elements of the business
  3. Make persuasive presentations
  4. Manage conflict and negotiations
  5. Identify and use a wide variety of sources and research on emerging trends

Innovate or Die
Everyone -- especially in communications -- agrees that innovation is critical; 82% said that innovation plays a significant role in driving their business forward -- and only one person said it didn't have an impact. Among their comments:

We have to be perceived as industry leaders and we need to be new and fresh to achieve that perception

20 percent of current revenue comes from products and services that did not exist 5 years ago. The business of our business is innovation

The pace of technological change continues to accelerate. Technological change could fundamentally and permanently alter our business model.

High tech is all about staying ahead of the pack yet close enough to the customer needs such that you always have customers and the competitors are playing catch-up

Losing our ability to innovate would mean we go out of business or are relegated to a mediocre position within our industry. This happens for a number of reasons: 1) If we lose the ability to innovate we don't capture the highest value from our customers because it goes to the competition; 2) We will be unable to hire the best talent, further eroding our competitive position. Companies in this position can quickly enter into a spiral of mediocrity that is difficult to reverse

We are at risk of losing 60% of our revenue within 10-12 years if we don't find a different way to approach the business due to mature market, rising costs, and being the highest priced provider when our services is becoming less and less important to buyers.

And what traits do they perceive that effective innovators possess?


Sleepless Nights

Our study found that communications execs were worried about finding and keeping the talent that is necessary to innovate. Among their responses to the question about what keeps them up at night were:

- Employee Relations
- Finding great employees to represent us!
- Making the right decisions on who to select as managers.
- The company's ability to retain talent and work with competent leadership.
- Keeping everyone up to date and current.

The respondents, although all successful senior execs in large companies, expressed concerns about their own futures and their abilities to keep up: 74 percent were 45 or older and almost half had a master's degree or higher. Among the fears they cited are:

- Technological changes I can't keep up with.
- What's next? How can I improve? How can I help my team improve?
- Age bias in the workplace.
-That I haven't mapped out my next move after my current job; that I might want to try something new but have no idea what it might be.
- Losing my job and not being marketable because of my age and the amount of time spent in the same industry.
- Keeping ahead of the curve to be effective in my job to keep up with 3D pattern software and training for large team.

What execs want to move forward.

When we asked these media leaders what they felt were their own biggest opportunities for growth, not surprisingly the majority had one of these general plans:

  • to advance within their own companies through a promotion
  • to expand into new lines of business or international markets
  • to leave their current company and look for an employer who offers better opportunities
  • to start their own enterprise

Most of them cited a desire to continue learning. Among the topics they wanted to learn more about include:

  • leadership
  • social media
  • analytics
  • ability to run international teams
  • how to develop their own personal PR by speaking and media opportunities

The need to differentiate not only your company and product, but also to differentiate yourself is clear. One respondent put it succinctly: "Developing expertise no one else has."

How do we prepare the next generation of media innovators?

As a school of communications that's ranked among the top 20 in both the journalism and entertainment media industries, it's obvious that we need to do more than train camera operators and copy editors. It's been reassuring to see that the results of this survey closely model our curriculum for our online master's degree in communications innovation. We intentionally recruit a small cohort of learners from diverse backgrounds in communications and media who have at least five years of experience under their belts and who have recommendations from their supervisors as being high potential leaders of innovation. They begin with an intense orientation onsite to build a strong team, and their very first course in on systems design and collaboration for innovation. That aligns perfectly with the top two skills -- teamwork and the ability to see the big picture and related elements -- identified in this study.

But how do you teach people expertise that nobody else has? The answer is that it's not about content. It's about the process. In the two year flow of experiencing short online courses in consumer behavior, ethics, transmedia storytelling, global leadership and product development, and research methods, the cohort learns to think and express themselves in new ways. In week one of the first online course I taught last summer, I asked how it felt to for me to push them to read scholarly theories as well as current professional articles -- and to relate it to their current work. Here's a snippet of our online conversation:

Student (director of multimedia content at major cable network) For me, it does feel a bit unnatural to be relating my work experience to a theory or model and I will admit the dense style of the literature took some time to get used to. I do like that I am learning new terminology to apply to everyday situations though. In fact, I have a catch up with my boss tomorrow and I'm toying with the idea of sharing the Collaborative Maturity Model Matrix as a means for discussing some of the issues.

Me: Let us know how the conversation goes with your boss! Sometimes execs can be put off by academic-sounding jargon, but sometimes they appreciate something with 'research' around it to help them establish a decision

Student: It actually went really well. He asked to keep the copy of the model and we talked through what changes need to take place in order to move to 'de-conflicted.' I feel like it has helped me provide a new approach and understanding to a difficult situation.

Last year, around this time, I wrote a blog about how it's possible for higher education to engineer confidence in their total college experience -- both in the curriculum and in related co-curricular and internship opportunities. We've found that this is a key to success -- especially for the 18-21 year old typical undergraduate students. It's slightly different when we're trying to help successful young professionals go to the next level of innovation leadership.

What not to teach If we want to remain relevant to the media profession, schools of communication need to focus on building communities and habits of mind - rather than on delivering content. Those of us in higher education leadership to be careful not to inadvertently teach some bad lessons - such as:
  • avoid risk
  • learn everything yourself
  • focus on short-term rewards
  • value research and past practice over common sense and intuition
  • listen to what your mentors think is important rather than what you are interested in
Our communication executives said that they felt important skills that were not generally in a degree curriculum include:
  • Successfully incorporate work experience and common sense. This art seems lost in many graduates of the highest educational institutions.
  • Stay true to what you believe
  • positive thinking and forward thinking...not staying focused on what has always work will continue to work.
  • Be able to discern the skills you need and the skills that you can delegate to be done by others or to be analyzed by others.Recognize that you cannot do everything yourself, but you can oversee everything when you have surrounded yourself with real talent.

As one of our survey respondents put it:

We need to be innovative in order to evolve in the changing landscape of our industry. Evolution and innovation will be essential in order to survive.