Within DPG Media, there’s a constant desire to improve, to do better, to experiment. When an idea sounds promising, it’s all hands on deck and full steam ahead. A new way of working in product management is a perfect example of this. Hop on board and enjoy the ride.
DPG Media is implementing a Product Management Organization model. The big idea in a small sentence: product development starts with customer data and insights. Sounds relatively simple right? But it’s quite a challenge to organize a uniform way of working across all business teams while also involving tech colleagues. DPG Media’s vision is to align business and tech and make them equal partners rather than function in a client-supplier relationship. Business is the driving force for this particular initiative, but change doesn’t happen overnight – applying the product management philosophy is a true change management trajectory.
Passionate about organizational ecosystems
In late 2020, Director B2C, CEO of Mobile Vikings, and Platform Lead Freemium Bart de Groote was asked to lead the trajectory. You’d think he had enough on his plate already, but he was keen to accept as he is an enthusiastic protagonist of fluid organizational ecosystems. Beg your pardon? That needs some explaining Bart.
“I firmly believe that classical organizational models with departments, divisions, and the like, will be replaced by fluid structures. Expert knowledge is at the heart of such structures. I see organizations as ecosystems of experts, wherein expertise is flexibly allocated to projects and organization units as needed to execute the company strategy. The Product Management Organization is a prelude to this fluid ecosystem. It’s both intriguing and thrilling to take the first steps and see how it all plays out.” So yes, Bart wanted in on the project.
Head of Product Selectives Katelijne Molenaar and Head of Journalism Philippe Remarque had already laid the groundwork for the Product Management Organization under the radar – it was time to surface. In 2021, the trio set out to further sharpen the concept with key stakeholders and gain support.
This data is systematic
Let’s first zoom in a bit on the product management model itself; what is it? Director Product Management Bart warns: “It’s all still work in progress. But, in essence, product development and all related decisions should start with qualitative and quantitative consumer data. Systematic consumer insights are the root of the model. Not just annual market research or periodic tests, but near-real-time facts and figures that help the business make the best decisions for our digital platforms every day.”
The second aspect of the model is making trade-offs between different revenue streams constantly. Take a digital news brand like AD or HLN; advertisers want to show their advertisements while an ad overkill makes paying readers leave. “It’s up to us to systematically objectify revenue sources and business value as much as possible so that we base our decisions on facts and figures instead of individual preferences, opinions, and targets – which, of course, we all have.” A noble endeavor, for sure.
The product management model is not a new model next to the current organizational structure nor a replacement; it’s more like an extra layer on top of what exists already. Many initiatives that fit right into the product management philosophy are already in place within the business organization. This project aims to build on that and have the existing teams operate and collaborate uniformly.
Make way for the experts
While a Product Management Organization is more than a model – it’s also a philosophy – it does, of course, have a structure consisting of three concrete building blocks. First, there is a digital steering committee led by Kris Vervaet. The committee is responsible for the strategic framework for the digital products developed between business and IT. Second, multidisciplinary product teams, led by a Head of Product, are accountable for the product development and decision-making of their product or platform (used by multiple products). The third and new layer is the expert communities. They have a very specific, often technical specialization and operate overarchingly.
People in the expert communities have a basecamp in one of the product teams, but they can be allocated flexibly to other teams when necessary. Someone could be a UX Designer for HLN, for example, and contribute to a strategic project in the magazines team. Maybe full time for a month, or one day a week for several months, but always returning to their basecamp. Having that basecamp is important, says Bart. “It creates a feeling of dedication and intimacy with a specific product or platform.”
“By exchanging experiences and knowledge within the expert community, we can elevate the joint learning curves even further.”
Snatching people from leading companies
At the moment, there are three expert communities: Product Analytics, Product Design, and Technical SEO. They are led by experienced experts in their field who are now building their teams and actively recruiting. “We try to snatch people from leading companies,” says Bart. These expert communities’ leads are also responsible for stakeholder management, resource allocation, and constructing practices for knowledge sharing and adapting tools.
Bart believes the expert communities will deliver a lot of business value and value for the experts too. “It’s difficult to attract and retain people with in-depth technical expertise. With these communities, we actively connect them to learn and collaborate with the best of the best. Also, working on a project for a different product or platform is extremely motivating and results in a steep learning curve. By exchanging experiences and knowledge within the expert community, we can elevate the joint learning curves even further.”
“Change management is never a copy-paste exercise”
It all sounds very logical and promising – on paper. “It’s change management pur sang,” says Bart. Change management is always complicated and almost intangible, but the virtual context due to COVID-19 adds a whole new level of complexity. Bart remembers the days of sweating and toiling in conference rooms, intense talks at the coffee machine, and murmurs in the hallway. “Making connections in this virtual COVID-19 context has become very difficult while that is such an essential aspect of guiding change in an organization. I experience the limitations of working remotely. I truly hope we can soon have real-life connections again to accelerate the process.”
So, when is this whole thing a success? “The goal is to change everyone’s way of thinking and working; there is no step-by-step recipe to make that happen. Even though we, DPG Media, my colleagues, and I have lots of experience with change management, it’s never a copy-paste exercise. It’s an iterative process where you adapt as you go forward.”
But of course, Bart does have his hopes for 2021. He dreams of shared methods in product teams, fully-staffed expert communities, structured meetings, knowledge sharing tools in use, just to name a few. And, hopefully, some exemplary cases to show the model works. “If by the end of the year, you ask the people involved if they think the new way of working has added value, and the answer is yes, I’m a happy man.”