28 Apr 2020

Managing Through Crisis: A Q+A with Digital Initiative Director David Homa

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David Homa preparing to go live for the DI Summit 2020.

At a time when digital connection is essential and ubiquitous, we wondered what this experience has been like for the team leading the way for HBS and tech: the Digital Initiative. We sat down with Director David Homa to find out.

As the Digital Initiative, you’re already on the forefront of digital transformation and online tools—what has that meant for your transition to all-remote work?
We’re very serious about basing our operations on the principles we're trying to understand about organizations around the world. That means as a team we are incredibly digitally connected, whether it's communications or content sharing or collaboration platforms. We’re also experimenters—to understand the topic, we live it. A significant part of our role at the school is helping to understand and explore new things.

So for us, the transition to online work has been pretty simple. All of our collaboration, documents, tasks, tracking, and comments are already online. For the past three years we’ve been working with various outside teams, located all over the country, depending on online collaboration tools and Zoom. It’s pretty routine, so the work did not skip a beat. The real transition for us has been missing each other personally.

Your summit was one of the very first events after Harvard went remote. What was your experience restructuring that?
The DI Summit is an annual event that is usually in Klarman with about 500 people. We had already decided to livestream it, but then in the two weeks leading up to the event everything was unfolding and unraveling at the same time. We just kept adapting. First, we were going to have it in Klarman, livestreamed with no audience and only the production team present. We had already set up a live online Q+A system through a cloud service. As the date got closer and more and more restrictions were being announced, we abandoned that plan and knew that the entire thing had to be virtual. Then we all realized that the day of the event was the first day that the school would be running online classes. Which meant that we could not, and should not, rely on any resources other than ourselves. The Dean's office and our faculty directors were supportive of us moving forward with our own resources.

One week out we decided that we'd go for it, and it was amazing to see our small group turn into an online event production team. I stepped in as moderator, which meant that I had one week to prepare, and that someone else had to run the show. Jamie Thomas, community manager, ran the entire event and organized every last detail, Liz Sarley, assistant director of communications, reframed the event messaging and oversaw our social and content strategy, and Tanya Flint, associate director of technology, ran all the technology. At one point in rehearsals we had everyone on the call and Tanya was saying "we're going live in 10...9...8..." through my earpiece and I thought, “Am I on a TV set?”. It was crazy.

We had a few bumps and glitches, but just over 1,300 people joined, which is the most we've ever had. It ran well and we fielded about 120 questions. The virtual Q+A was great because people could upvote questions so that we got to the really good content. But it was stressful. In that first week I lost five pounds because of the stress and working constantly—I didn't have the chance to get up and snack (I miss my friends at Morgan Cart!).

What is your team focused on now?
As soon as the summit was over, we realized that the intensity of that week preparing for the Summit had caused us to lose sight of our website relaunch. We’re caught up now, and should be launching the first week of May. The site has always been very content-focused, and we’re introducing more flexibility that will allow us to more thoroughly promote the work of faculty, students, alums, and practitioners. We see our site, which gets just over one million hits a year, as being a very important way for the School to demonstrate how much research is being generated.

Are there any tools on the site that are particularly useful now that we’re all working remotely?
The DI Platform, which is a student blogging tool used in classes, could be really helpful. On the front end it looks like a pretty standard blog platform where you can read articles posted by students and faculty. But on the backend, faculty can run reports, students' comments on each other’s work can be evaluated, and faculty can analyze the student responses. We think it could be used in more classes now that they’re all online. It’s easy to set up and because it’s a public-facing site, it’s a great way for students to get exposure.

What's next?
On one hand, our work is full speed ahead. What is changing is that we're now focusing on the ways we can leverage our ability to identify and use tools and technologies to benefit the School's highest focus areas. We've been talking to Career and Professional Development about enhancing the MBA Journey Into Tech guide, as the tech sector is hiring steadily right now. The guide is for MBA students interested in careers connected to technology, and takes them through what they should be considering during their two years here. We’re also looking at how we can help doctoral students who are interested in tech by continuing the workshops we sponsor and more. We are also making plans for our fall faculty seminars, with multiple options for how they might take place.

Are you finding new ways of connecting with your team to make up for not seeing them in person?
We sometimes create spontaneous Zoom calls with each other to just talk. No agenda, just chatting like we would at any point in the day at work. One new thing is that Friday afternoons at 3 pm I’ve started hosting an Initiatives talk show, Afternoons with Dave. I was inspired by watching TV hosts conduct their talk shows from home, which seemed pretty “low budget.” I have some experience moderating panels and events, so I have been leveraging that. It's a 30-minute show where I interview someone from one of the Initiatives. We get between 10-12 people watching, and we’ve been learning all these fun new things about the people we work with. One person I interviewed has an amazing Chuck Taylor shoe collection and another played concert harp as a teenager. It’s been really fun.

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