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How we work defines how we compete

Filed under: Tech Forum

Photo of Brian O’Leary.

Brian O’Leary is executive director of the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), a US-based trade association that disseminates information, creates and implements standards, and conducts research to benefit the book publishing supply chain.

Before being named to this role in 2016, O’Leary was principal of Magellan Media Consulting, which helped publishers improve how they create, manage, and distribute content. In that role, O’Leary wrote extensively about issues affecting the publishing industry. With Hugh McGuire, he co-edited Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto (O’Reilly Media, 2012). O’Leary served as senior VP with Hammond Inc. and oversaw production and distribution operations at several Time Inc. magazines. O’Leary joined Time Inc. after earning an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. He also holds an A.B. in chemistry from Harvard College.

Brian O’Leary will join us at Tech Forum 2020 to deliver a talk called Building a better publishing workflow: Recommendations from the BISG.

As content has become fundamentally digital, how we work both defines and potentially limits how we compete. Recognizing that reality, BISG in 2019 created a committee to study publishing workflows in depth. Its first white paper, Fixing the Flux: Challenges and Opportunities in Publishing Workflows, was released last fall.

Sponsored by the US-based Copyright Clearance Center, the white paper defined workflow and its three core components: process, technology or tools, and organizational structure (people). It also offered several best practices to consider when working to update or improve book industry workflows.

The paper was developed in response to several committee-identified workflow challenges:

  • Publishing as a skill set is largely learned on the job. There is no defined best practice.

  • Increasingly, people move between companies and segments. Each environment presents new approaches and challenges.

  • In publishing, there are reference books but no industry-wide manual. Across the supply chain, and often even within companies, there is no consistent or documented workflow.

  • As parts of the industry have consolidated, differences among companies have forced acquiring firms to spend resources and time fixing acquired companies.

  • Standardized or improved workflows offer opportunities to enhance productivity and product quality, generate better reporting and analytics, and automate parts of how we work.

In defining best practices, Fixing the Flux recommended seven steps to better address workflow challenges:

  1. Make workflows visible, using maps, pictures, and data flows. It can help to set some boundaries at the outset: start and end dates, intervals, or activities and deliverables.

  2. Share the maps, pictures, and data flows with colleagues and partners. Good maps help uncover disconnects between functions or trading partners. Even partial maps give you an opportunity to talk about what’s going on.

  3. Talk, to improve understanding across functions and segments. Use visuals to prompt dialogue and understanding.

  4. Ask open-ended questions, to test mutual understanding. We call this “the five whys”, an iterative approach that helps explore the cause-and-effect relationship underlying a particular problem.

  5. Explore options broadly, talking to a range of potential solutions providers. Industry partners shared their experience with potential customers whose research stopped short of a full review. Often enough, this led to partial solutions, or worse.

  6. Promote meaningful use of standards, avoiding variations that alter the norm. Non-standard implementations of a defined standard don’t solve workflow problems; they primarily enshrine an interpretation that is unique to a trading relationship.

  7. Regularly re-evaluate workflows and workflow improvements. Make it continuous, not just a one-time effort without follow-on measurement.

Updating workflows also presents challenges. Addressing multi-party problems requires extended coordination, and fixing only local problems — optimizing your own department, as an example — can actually hurt workflow effectiveness.

Legacy practices, the ones we want to change, can be embedded in processes, tools, or organizational structures. That can make it harder to update a process, if doing so also demands a shift in a technology or roles and structure.

As a long-established industry, publishing often has to navigate a mix of personality and organizational “untouchables.” There are no easy answers here, but making those fixed components clear at the outset can reduce frustration and maintain momentum.

Workflow improvements often “shift the burden,” moving work up or downstream before the benefits can accrue. Temporary staffing, incentive compensation, and regularly reinforcing the context for change can help address these challenges.

In practice, updating workflows is messy, persistent work. In a somewhat sobering reminder, the work never really ends. Champions tire, and leadership needs to be renewed. Any successful change effort has an owner, product manager, or champion (even all three!) Taking care of those leaders must be a priority.

Our research provides the industry with ways to examine both small (departmental or company-specific) and large (cross-segment or pan-industry) workflows. Six overarching recommendations include:

  1. Follow the best practices outlined above.

  2. Expect and plan for the kinds of challenges described here.

  3. Remember the interdependent nature of the components of workflow (process, technology, and structure).

  4. It’s okay to start small, but don’t stay small. The biggest opportunities come when you cross departments, companies, and segments.

  5. Build your change management skills. Things like effective program and project management, good governance, and productive teamwork take time to create and manage.

  6. Begin with the end in mind. Think about what you want to achieve in the mid- and long-term. That will help you keep going once you’ve taken advantage of the “low-hanging fruit.”

The workflow committee is focused on creating a summary of tools and resources specific to workflow improvement. The committee is also working with other BISG committees to develop workflow maps that reflect the current state of the industry. I’ll be talking about these efforts and more during my session at Tech Forum on March 25.

The white paper, which can be downloaded here, is made available to both members and non-members without charge, as long as you have an account with BISG.

Brian O’Leary will be talking more about workflows at Tech Forum on March 25, 2020 in Toronto. You can find more details about the conference here, or sign up for the mailing list to get all of the conference updates.