Publishers have been developing new products—particularly new media products—at a furious pace, while trying to control or cut costs through increased efficiency. Often, they view the relationship as an interdependent one. Technology enables them to do more with less and the ability to create and deliver new media products is primarily about getting the technology right. Right?
If an in-house composition group was consistently missing deadlines, would the software be blamed? Would it even think to solve the problem by evaluating new tools? Probably not. Instead, such questions would be asked, like: Are the manuscripts being received on time? Does the staff filled with trained people? What methods are used to track work? Software might be a factor in lateness, but it is unlikely to be the root cause. How people are organized, and the work they do are areas where improvements can be made.
The same lesson holds true for new media product development. Yes, understanding the technology itself is enormously important. But even implementing technology is really more about process and people than about the technology itself. Successful publishers are extremely disciplined about the processes used to define and develop "traditional" print products. They need to apply the same discipline to new media product development and to the software development projects.
The discipline of project management—and more specifically, software project management—has been around for years, but its adoption by publishers has been slow. There are a few good reasons for this, not the least of which is that it's just plain difficult. It is also quite different from editorial and production processes. For example, if composition schedules are running behind, adding more people typically speeds things up. On a software project, adding people, especially at the last minute, can often slow things down and result in much lower quality. Another example is that printed books must be perfect when they go to press. There will be no other opportunity to correct them. Electronic content products and software (including Web sites) can be improved endlessly. In fact, it is often wiser to keep things simple at first and add content and functionality over time in response to feedback, but this is often a difficult lesson learned by many otherwise savvy developmental and managing editors.
For a publisher, the first and potentially most difficult step toward project management is to identify an influential role that spans organizations. Only then can someone coordinate the multitude of activities required for Web development, content management and other technology-intensive projects. Given the right person, this role provides an opportunity to break down inherent cultural differences and spread knowledge throughout that organization.
The initial focus of project management should not be to implement technology, but to guide process redefinition. This entails a sometimes excruciating effort to uncover and negotiate issue resolution among groups that might not be receptive to change, or that might have trouble maintaining a consistent vision of the business objectives that drive the need for change. In the short-term, some process issues may need manual workarounds until long-term answers can be found.
While enticing, the latest technology isn't necessarily a good short-term solution. Instead, publishers should keep the big picture in mind and develop an incremental approach that will get them there. In many cases, it's better to stick with manual processes until experimentation results in something one worth spending money to automate. Process redefinition will always take longer, be more complex and less predictable than expected. In fact, process redefinition itself is best considered a process that will never be finished. To that end, processes should be standardized enough to enable efficiency, but they should also be malleable enough to accommodate business models that are still (and will always be) in flux.
In addition to project management and process redefinition, publishers must address the organizational impacts the Web imposes. Competing and paying attention to the bottom line demand technologies that manage content across an organization and automate content re-use for multiple products. While the technology to do this is complicated, figuring out how to motivate individuals to support the projects and processes is even more so. Most publishers comprise groups that have historically been rewarded for managing the costs and increasing the revenue for a specific set of products; they do not care whether other groups benefit from their efforts. Developing systems to support new products might temporarily or permanently impact the expense and schedules of existing, efficient processes. Publishers must find ways to reward staff for effective content management and cross-departmental cooperation.
Companies outside of publishing have recognized that breaking down the cultural barriers between functional organizations is critical to implementing this kind of process and workflow improvements. GE's "boundary-less" organization philosophy of the mid-1980's led to significant bottom line growth and stability. It's now time for publishers to embrace this philosophy in order to support the evolution of the company to handle both traditional and new media products.
According to an article that appeared in BusinessWeek, one publisher that has reportedly taken bold steps along these lines is Rodale, creator of how-to books and magazines. Their new organization is structured around content collections instead of product lines. Editorial directors are fully responsible for all product delivery—from books to online content—within a specific subject area. With the creation of content groups, Rodale feels that it will be much better positioned to become a major multimedia company.
Most publishers aren't ready—and may not need—to make such drastic changes. But as publishers have recognized for several years, there is no real choice but to invest in new media, and so change is unavoidable. Regardless of whether a publisher chooses a radical or conservative approach, change should include more disciplined and empowered project management, incremental process redefinition and organizational, and therefore, cultural adjustments. But unfortunately, no software product available will make any of this any easier.
-Barry Bealer (Co-Founder of Really Strategies)