When ‘the fringe redefines the centre’, part three

Fourth Semantico Online Publishing Symposium: 'When the fringe redefines the centre'
Report from the Fourth Semantico Online Publishing Symposium

The 12 months since the last Semantico Symposium have seen a lot of change in scholarly publishing. Open Access came of age, and other developments such as article-level metrics, post-publication peer review and wider publication of data alongside journal publication, are surely not that far off the pace in achieving business-as-usual status. What next might slink in from the margins to the mainstream?

An invited audience of publishing industry leaders debated the issues around this question under Chatham House rules. Delegates came from organisations including the Royal College of Nursing, CABI, Delta Think, IEEE, TBI Communications, Digital Science, SWETS, Bioscientifica, and CHORUS.

The discussion was in three parts, covering the following topics:

  1. Customers
  2. Products and technologies
  3. Organisations

Delegates were posed the following two questions with regard to organisations:

  • What are your businesses doing organisationally to follow the fringe to the centre?
  • Could/should they be doing more?

Part 3. Organisations

Our delegates were frank about the problems facing old, long-established publishing houses, particularly, in fostering the right kind of culture for innovation in the digital realm.

Given their history and where they have come from, it was asked, are they best positioned to address the challenges that face them as publishers? If it was a roomful of bankers (dare we say it) that Semantico had gathered to address these problems – rather than publishers – would they be addressing them in the same way? Probably not.

Society publishers tend to have a lot of scared cows in their organisations, we heard, and particular ways of behaving rooted in their history. Long established family-owned firms, conversely, can often be better places to innovate than publically quoted companies, since – where there is the vision at the top to sponsor innovation – they can think on longer time scales

Publishers in trouble need to turn the problem entirely on its head, it was suggested, if they are to get out of the fix that they’re in – and perhaps need to think about things in an entirely different way.

Models for innovation

Three different ways of sponsoring innovation were discussed in this final part of the symposium.

1. Incubation. A large publishing house forms a body to incubate and invest in a variety of innovative start-up portfolio companies.

2. Sandboxing. A large publishing house sponsors ‘sandbox’ initiatives within the company.

3. Offshoot. A smaller, but perhaps long-established publishing house starts an offshoot company to explore innovative new directions.

So, what sort of culture, mindset and people do you need to grow innovation, and what are the blockers to this in existing publishing organisations?

Changing the mindset

To start with mindset. According to one delegate, every day in a publishing house should start with saying: ‘who the hell needs publishers?’ Other advice was more pragmatic in tone.

If you are going to try new things, said one, you have to accept that some of them aren’t going to work. In other words you need to accept, and even expect, a bit of failure. Not everything you try will fail (hopefully), but not everything will succeed.

One delegate, describing the incubation model, could put some numbers around this. Of nine portfolio companies one particular organization sponsored, six or seven are still running and two have closed down – not a bad survival rate. Bear in mind that you might only need one success, if it wins big enough, to justify the whole initiative. The ones that don’t work tend to be folded into the other businesses, and it was pointed out that the one that succeeds (if it is only one) will no doubt have been benefited from ‘a rich gravy of ideas’ generated by the other eight.

You also have to accept that the best ideas aren’t going to come from within the organisation’s four walls. So you have to be prepared to work with other people, whether that is investing in startups or creating new joint ventures – or getting ideas from other places and countries (the West coast of the USA being a popular place to look to and visit for inspiration).

It’s also about creating ambition and nurturing the idea that you can be a free-thinker – you don’t have to do what the organisation’s always had to do.

Kent Anderson, CEO/Publisher at The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, was given as an example of someone who bears this last point out with the offshoot, SocialCite he started, an entirely different style of company from the august society publishing house he also runs. Having spotted a market gap, he and his team decided they had particular skills that could be extended to fill the need, and that this was perhaps where their future lay.

This is an example of a small publisher setting up on offshoot but many initiatives within larger companies often start small too.

One delegate recalled the beginnings of what is now a large, industry-leading digital department within a major STM house: ‘it was practically just this one guy who uploaded the content, but he was supersmart and could do the job we paid him to do in a day or half a day a week, so the rest of the time we were working on new things; experimenting with new applications and approaches’.

If you get the right people, he said, you can start from very low-cost, humble beginnings and inject a degree of experimental mindset and entrepreneurialism and just … try things. This is even more the case nowadays, as things can be done extremely inexpensively, using open source and SaaS offerings like Amazon Web Services, for instance. It’s not necessarily capital you need so much as the right kind of intellectual capital.

Whether the organisation is large or small, it can come down to having to a few individuals who’ve got the foresight, the lack of fear, or whatever it takes to think outside the normal way of doing things – and some good ideas.

Cometh the hour …

So what sort of people do you need to innovate in digital?

They might not be in the model of your existing staff. An industry where there hasn’ t been much disruption for several hundred years perhaps has tended to attract the kind of person that is comfortable with the status quo and doesn’t particularly want to rock the boat. What you really need are the entrepreneurial types who are optimistic about the future and about their own ability to change things and do something different – and who are probably unrealistically optimistic: it takes a degree of irrational optimism to innovate and really see your ideas through.

What you really want are the people who can’t help but work on a particular subject: if they don’t have time or leave to work on it during the working week, they will work on it at weekends.

Removing the blocks

A different type of person calls for a different style of management. So how do you reward and incentivize innovation?

Organisations with a strong sense of mission and interesting problems to solve can be very motivational places to work. A delegate from an earth sciences company that works a lot in the developing world spoke about the motivational effect of sending their people out to, for instance, Kenya, where they can see at first hand the effect of the work they are doing. So getting staff really close to the users can be motivational, although in general, doing this can prove ‘curiously tough’ for publishers.

Publishing has become enabling. In the digital age it is not just about curation of the text (if it ever was) but about taking the content and making something else out of it; about solving problems people hadn’t realized they had. And that’s very different.

In many ways the secret to motivating innovation is to recognize that you can’t actually don’t motivate people: people motivate themselves. But what employers can do – which is often more necessary than organisations realize, is to take roadblocks out of their way.

One delegate described how some early attempts to get digital products going at a world-renowned STM publisher were hampered by rigid financial model based around print books. Working with the content to get it ready for digital would increase the cost of that content, meaning that the title would never make money because that book had to bear the whole cost of the project and the entire financial structure of the company could not be changed to allow that to happen.

A fundamental difficulty with incentivising the sort of behaviours that you want to see occurring, for management, is that it you have to be willing to give up some control over what people are going to do. That’s really hard to do. And the more senior the person is with the responsibility for that initiative, the harder it is to relinquish that degree of control, because you’re taking a very big risk.

Perhaps this is why sandbox innovation often begins as a ‘weekend projects’. One delegate recalled his failures at trying to get people to innovate when there was so much pressure on projects that they actually had no time to do it. In this situation, one of their most successful projects was just such a weekend project – started voluntarily and spontaneously by one of the employees who was working on something entirely different from the direction our delegate wanted to pursue. This turned into a spin-off company and the employee is now a company founder and full-time entrepreneur – something that is no doubt motivational for other employees.

Time for a blood transfusion?

Organisations often feel they need to bring new people to help generate a change of culture, but this can create difficulties. Delegates discussed what was the right mix and approach to bringing in new people who often have completely different skill-sets which just aren’t part of the company’s DNA.

Some companies recruit from different business sectors to get a fresh perspective. Such recruits can often see things that people who have been working in the same place for many years miss. But there can be reluctance to do this. There is a comfort factor when a new recruit already knows the industry and doesn’t have that learning curve.

There is also the difficulty of recruiting from younger, sexier sectors, given that publishing as an industry has something of an image problem. One delegate described how he gets round this in the way he positions the role to new hires.

The forward-thinking, highly intelligent and slightly quirky geeks he is looking for, have an enormous amount of interest in science, and academe generally, he finds. These are very intellectual and intellectually curious people – so if you were to say ‘we’re running a 200 year-old family-run publishing business, do you want to work here?’ They are likely to say no. However, if you say instead, ‘we work to support researchers who are making the discoveries that build the modern world and create the world around us – and it’s incredibly important work socially, economically intellectually, as well as being incredibly interesting,’ then you’ve got  them. They love the fact that they’re not just building another iphone gadget, or another payroll system, but doing something to make the world a better and more interesting place.

One common mistake that organisations make is to hire one or two new people, parachute them into the organisation without the proper support – and expect magic to occur. The entire organisation is set up to reject them. There needs to be a certain amount of preparation, buy-in and support; there needs to be something around these people to help them learn from the environment they’re in and for the environment to learn from them. Otherwise they can feel that they are germs entering the body, and the other employees are just so many antibodies attacking them.

A blended team is important: you don’t necessarily want a 60-strong organisation full of entrepreneurs all trying to create reputations for themselves and come up with the next big thing. You also need people who will be the negotiators, the testers. The mix works best when you bring different perspectives together.

With mutual respect and a blended team, a new influx of talent can do amazing things, but communication is really important, and an appreciation of just how differently new and existing employees might see things.

Many publishing organisations are full of people who were trained to be primarily operational; to do a job, to do it well, and to increase the efficiency of that job. Then, as one delegate described, you get these new people coming in, doing their ‘little sandbox things’ and building stuff that nobody can scale. The people in operations are likely to throw their hands up in horror at what they now have to work with, while the people doing the building are saying, ‘Oh these dinosaurs! I built this great thing: why can’t they just take it and run with it?’

There is a need here for some top-down communication, some explicit process around innovation, that would make it clear to everyone how such initiatives progressed through the organization, and made the transition from their early, sandbox phase into operations.

This might happen differently in every organisation perhaps, but one common ground, it was felt, is some understandable, communicated process that isn’t overbearing but also isn’t undertooled. The organisation needs to say: ‘this is what we fund, when we fund it this is what it needs to do, and if we think it has promise, this is what is going to happen to it’.

In some organisations this is referred to as the ‘strategic initiative lifecycle’. At the beginning of a new idea’s lifecycle you might have a proof of concept. Not very many resources will be allocated to the project at this point, and not a lot of backing. It doesn’t have many deliverables. But when it hits more of an operational stride, it has to go through some hoops – and if it does so successfully, then it has the full backing of the company in carrying through.

This is a leap that small companies can not always make, and often marks the point where the idea has to be sold, or external funding has to be sought.

Politics were felt to be invidious to this process: in an organisation where there is a lot of office politics, with everybody fiercely protecting their turf, it can be hard to foster the right culture for innovation, which requires people to be broad-minded.

Top-down and bottom-up

With the right culture in place and the right process, well-communicated, ideas can bubble up from the bottom. And it’s important that they do, since the ideas themselves rarely come from the top.

‘I’ve very rarely seen success where we’ve taken an idea that have come from me or anyone more senior than me,’ confessed one of our delegates. In his opinion what you can do from the top is create the right environment. But what you can’t get from the top is the specific ideas. Those have to bubble up from the bottom, or permeate from the outside.

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