This speech was conducted several weeks ago for a group of Pace University students in the publishing business program. It is a long speech but traces some of my business experience and history.
“Technology: It’s Personal” is the general theme of this commentary. Though long anticipated, this transition has been a slow burn in publishing. I remind people all the time that, while at PriceWaterhouse in the mid-1990s, I participated in several high-profile pitches to large publishing companies which focused on “format-neutral publishing,” which meant delivering content in whatever form the user wanted. I could dust off some of those presentations even now because many publishing companies still face some of the same challenges.I even go back to my bookstore days.
Good evening. I am honored to have been asked to address this group this evening as part of the Eliot Schein lecture series. I’ve been looking forward to imparting some of what I’ve learned since I started my career, as many of you are about to do. My topic this evening covers how I interpret the influence of technology on publishing and what we as publishing professionals should try to do to think strategically about how technology impacts our businesses.
Watching and participating in the transformation of the publishing business, as technology has become embedded in everything we do, has been not so much a choice as a job requirement. When I think of technology in its broadest possible definition over time, it seems to me that technology has always represented an impersonal rather than a personal experience. In publishing technology has always been a tool rather than something with which we interact from the invention of the first printing presses to the Mac computer. Each radical new technology delivered incredible benefits, but there was always a separation between its use as a tool and the final published product.
It is only recently that this separation has become compacted so that the tool has now become part of the product. Increasingly, we are beginning to see technology embedded in the personal relationship we have with publishing products. These products are now delivered uniquely, manipulated for a unit of one and offer many other benefits, such as the ability to mix and remix content. In concert, there is virtually no difference between the capabilities the user has access to in their job and at home. The consumer can be sitting at home creating his own photo book or working in a hospital emergency room referencing medical information at the point of care. Technology both enables this and has become part of the experience: Technology is now synonymous with our relationship with content.
“Technology: It’s Personal” is the general theme of this commentary. Though long anticipated, this transition has been a slow burn in publishing. I remind people all the time that, while at PriceWaterhouse in the mid-1990s, I participated in several high-profile pitches to large publishing companies which focused on “format-neutral publishing,” which meant delivering content in whatever form the user wanted. I could dust off some of those presentations even now because many publishing companies still face some of the same challenges.
To be clear, I am not a technologist. I have a ‘manager’s’ knowledge and understanding of technology and I am always most concerned with the utility of the technology and how it serves to achieve business objectives.
I often underestimate how interested people are in my background, so let me give you an overview of where I came from as a context for my comments.
My parents met each other… Oh wait-different speech.
In my final semester at Boston University, I had amassed enough credits to graduate but BU had a three-semester residency requirement for graduation so I took a light course load and an almost full-time job at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After graduation, I became the book buyer for the store making $12,400 per year. As you can imagine, basic survival – shelter and food - was only possible by working 20 extra hours of overtime each week.
I learned more in that job than I think I appreciate: How to deal with staff, merchandising, customers and customer relations and working with vendors, for example. I dealt directly with many publishers’ ordering and customer service departments and, as a result, became eternally grateful for the Ingram Book Company. We did everything on paper. I counted inventory on index cards – by literally walking around the store to count titles and I ordered stock on order forms in triplicate.
My boss got a computer and on it was the spreadsheet software LOTUS 1-2-3. Unbelievable -you could do your numbers on a machine! But no one was allowed on it except the boss. I snuck on when I was working late but never really got the utility of the thing. Nevertheless, I was inquisitive and, at one point, I tried to reprogram our store point-of-sale consolidator. As a result, for about a week our cash reports and receipts were puzzlingly out of balance. I learned that being correct in theory isn’t any good for accounting and we put things back the way they were.
I enrolled in the MBA program at Georgetown because, I can say without any embarrassment, I wanted to make more money. After graduation, I ended up on the corporate staff at Macmillan, Inc. and, interestingly, my book retail experience played an important role in getting this job. Now, you may think you know Macmillan; in fact, this company in the late 1980s was not the company that now works out of the Flatiron building. Macmillan was a $2billion publishing holding company that operated virtually every type of publishing going: adult trade, trade reference, database and professional, language learning, education and even bookclubs. If there was ever a great introduction to publishing, it was working at this company at the corporate level where my colleagues and I had a front-row seat on how publishing companies operate. Macmillan was broken up by the mid-1990s after the media empire of Robert Maxwell collapsed.
From Macmillan corporate I transferred to Berlitz International – an operating unit – and over three years I got to travel a lot and manage a business. I applied to a classified ad in the New York Times and, amazingly, ended up working at PriceWaterhouse Coopers as a consultant in their Media and Entertainment consulting practice. At PWC, I worked on many different engagements - not just in publishing but also in the advertising industry - which was tremendous fun. To this day, my best project was an intensive, four-month project for an international advertising agency that defined the gaps between the agencys’ existing technology and their ability to match their clients’ technical sophistication.
After PriceWaterhouse, I joined RR Bowker and ran that company as President. Since 2006, I’ve been consulting on my own, although I much prefer business operations to consulting. Most of the recent engagements I’ve consulted on are oriented around the marriage between technology and business strategy. I really have no idea how this focus developed but the direction of my career does reflect the way the publishing business has been transformed over the past 20 years so I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise.
As I thought about this lecture, I thought I would first reflect on some ‘lessons learned’ relevant to the use of technology in publishing and then illustrate how I interpret the personalization of technology within the publishing context.
Lesson 1: Perspective and relevance are very closely related partners in planning.
As I noted earlier, I believe that each successive new technological advance is eroding the distinction between “the thing” and the technology that enables it. Publishing is increasingly illustrating this trend. For the average consumer, technology is becoming more and more personal. Traditional publishing long ago lost any lead position as a technologically innovative industry and is left to adopt and adapt the technologies others have developed.
The danger in this for all of us is in maintaining some perspective in this rapidly evolving world: This is so important as we try to define the products and services we want to offer our customers. Technology is so embedded in consumer behavior and moving so quickly that we really don’t have time to appreciate or reflect on our past experience so that we might anticipate its future direction.
When I joined Macmillan in the corporate planning department we had no computers. Any presentation material, charts or graphs – numbers or not – went into “typing”. Anyone watch MadMen? All those desks lined up in the middle of the floor – that’s ‘typing’. Our department at Macmillan wasn’t as extreme since we only had one typist.
Shortly after starting, I was tasked with putting together the initial proposal for four new IBM personal computers. When these arrived, one of them went on the desk of the boss and the other three went on these little carts. So the five analysts in the department shared the three computers on carts for about 18mths. We were perpetually wheeling them around from office to office. What’s interesting about that experience – while funny in retrospect – is that our perspective was so narrow. These machines, while not even convenient, represented such a huge advance in our capabilities that we lost our perspective. None of us at Macmillan spent anytime really thinking what a computer could or would mean to our customers and, more importantly, we didn’t think about how computing might evolve.
That might not have been that important had not the members of the department represented the future management of the company. And it strikes me that we can often get so wrapped up in the newness of something – like an iPad – we miss the implications of the new technology we have at hand. I didn’t see the future iPad as a derivation of my IBM desktop experience just like some of you might not in see the connection between the iPad and the chip imbedded in your eye socket in 20 or 30 years – or whatever. Sure, I agree it is impossible to be fully predictive, but if you want to be a leader in this business you should show a willingness and desire to challenge your current perspective and extrapolate. That’s where true insight comes from and that’s what will make you valuable to your employer.
Alvin Toffler might find predicting easy; for the rest of us, it’s quite difficult. The important thing to realize is that thinking about the future isn’t really about being ‘right’ but about extrapolating beyond your current circumstances. One fun workshop I have conducted tries to accomplish this by proposing as many as ten future scenarios to a group who then vote independently on the likelihood of these scenarios occurring. As a group, we then pull each scenario apart and discuss them separately. Each scenario needs to be relevant, thought out in advance and managed correctly to get the participants really thinking about the implications of what might happen in their market and, in turn, what the impact might be on their company. Activities like these, and work that you do can on your own, will help to balance your perspective and make what you are discovering relevant to your business.
Which leads to my second lesson related to strategic planning:
Lesson #2: As technology moves faster and faster, planning – methodical and accountable - should be a counter weight.
I’ve noticed that traditional methods of planning and accountability to get short shrift as technology and rapid prototyping push us to operate faster and faster. In this environment – which is becoming the norm - it is important to be more accountable to time, money, resources and, most importantly, business objectives.
The rigid requisition process at Macmillan - by which every purchase had to be justified - was also mirrored in the annual strategic planning process. One of the functions of my old department was to put together the annual planning meetings for each business unit. In doing so, we had to gain a deep understanding of each business in a short period of time and, as I reviewed prior business reports and plans, I began to notice that, each year, many business units had simply recycled their strategies. Often word-for-word. So, in the agendas for my meetings, the first item was always something like ‘Describe how successful last year’s objectives and strategies were: Which ones worked and which ones were abandoned or failed to execute?’ My boss at the time rejected this item before any were sent out to the operating units and I still laugh at her reasoning: That it would be an unfair question because they hadn’t been told the year before that we would ask them in the following year to reflect on how they did.
Even as a wet-behind-the-ears recent grad I knew this was crazy thinking and, thankfully, publishing has now moved on from the attitude that accountability is “nice to have”. Defining return on investment and being accountable for the business strategies you support and promote is critical to a manager’s success and questions should and will be asked. I find, however, that few managers really grasp the fundamental concepts behind the idea that an investment has to return something to the business. You don’t have to be an accountant to understand this but, if you do, you will have an edge over your colleagues – (and, let’s face it, even some managers senior to you).
Thinking about the planning process, Macmillan’s strategic planning cycle (typical of many companies) was yearly and in today’s world that just doesn’t work. Business simply moves too quickly for a rigid annual planning program. In my recent experience, we’ve developed three-year strategy plans that we revisit in detail, at minimum every six months, and adjust and change as required. We also include frequent discussion of strategic objectives in monthly reports.
Translating strategy into tactics leads to another lesson.
Lesson #3: Your customers will be both intensely frustrating and also your most effective resource for executing your strategy.
I think of this in two parts: Firstly, you will overestimate how much your customer knows about your product (which is the frustrating part) and, secondly, only products that make the customer’s life easier or more productive are likely to be successful.
At Bowker, as our sales and marketing strategy matured, we began to reduce the number of sales reps in the market and replaced some of them with in-the-field product trainers. Trainers were responsible for educating our customers about the product after they had already purchased the database. Our trainers organized sessions at libraries and colleges across the US and I happened to attend a couple. In my very first one, the trainer was describing a basic component of the product – the inclusion of over 1million full-text book reviews – which, on the basis of sheer quantity alone are hard to miss – to a room of over 30 library staff who had had access to the product for over six months. Most attendees had no idea the reviews were in the product! My trainers frequently told me that type of response was typical of their sessions but that education and training always helped. If left unchecked, this type of disconnect can be devastating especially if you are dependent on recurring subscription revenues. Never take for granted that your customers will immediately appreciate or utilize any features of your products.
This leads to the second related lesson which is that we will only be successful if we solve problems for consumers and make their lives easier or more efficient. Many of you will have heard the catchall ‘workflow solutions’ to describe products intended to replace static databases or information products that have been converted from print to electronic. In many industries there is a ‘land-grab’ here because a publisher wants to be the platform deliverer of many database and information products and lock in the customer to a single-source arrangement. In professional segments such as legal, tax, medical, risk, etc., the competition is fierce and each vendor has built solutions that meaningfully improve the working life of their customers.
Simply launching some new application or feature is not a strategy for success. Technology is adopted only if it helps users do what they need to do in a better, easier, more efficient way. Our trainers became our most important asset in renewing customer accounts because they educated the customer about product capabilities and, as a direct result, we increased usage and integrated the database into their daily workflow. We also gained insight into the customer’s working environments which informed product management by providing key details about how customers were using, and could be using, our products.
Gaining active insight into the customer experience is important, and deploying in-market trainers is just one of many examples of ways to achieve it. Focus groups, interviews and “day-in-the-life” reviews are a few more.
Equally important is doing everything you can to expand your personal knowledge, understanding and experience so my next lesson is simple:
Lesson 3: You can be the expert.
If technology is personal, then your experience as a consumer is just as important as your experience as an employee. Expose yourself to as much new technology and as many new applications as possible. Actively managing your own career and recognizing where you need to improve upon your experience or expertise shouldn’t relate to age and my comments aren’t only applicable to those under 30. If you care about your career, constant self-evaluation and improvement is important.
When I left Bowker, I saw in that break an opportunity to educate myself about all the new things I didn’t have time for when working full time. Most of what I did was oriented around technology: I started a blog, put a bookstore up on Amazon, built a website and some other stuff. Each month, I also try to attend the meeting of the NY Tech Group, which brings together over 800 technologists, investors and hangers-on like me. At these meetings, about 10 new companies get to present their big new idea. I find the meetings fascinating. What I’ve been after is the development of my own personal experience with this technology that has suddenly become so accessible and potentially powerful. It is hard to maintain credibility in our media world now – at any management level – if you don’t have some specific experience with the types of technology your customers, employees, competitors, etc. are routinely using.
On a current consulting engagement, I am responsible for a production department in a large educational publishing company. I stole an idea from a friend of mine and gave my direct reports some homework: For the last fifteen minutes of our weekly status meeting, they report on whatever newfangled and interesting stuff they’ve discovered in the intersection between technology and publishing. Why would I do this? Because it helps lower the barriers and the intimidation factor – maybe even alleviate some embarrassment – for a staff that has been focused on technology that is now rapidly changing (to the point where some publishing staff don’t even consider printing to be a “technology”). As this company makes the transition from print on paper to electronic publishing, this production department will undergo incredible change and, unless they’re comfortable with new technology, they may not be able to adapt. And I should point out that I learn stuff from the staff during these discussions as well.
As a team, as we become more comfortable in exchanging information and educating each other, I think my next assignment will be to ask the group to do more interpretation – to take experiences from other industries (or even other segments of the publishing business) and think about how they might apply those experiences to what we do in educational publishing.
When I ordered those computers at Macmillan, they were called ‘personal computers’ but that’s not really what they were. Based on our collective experience with all of Apple’s products, only now are we experiencing technology that is truly personal. We carry it around, we choose our own products and applications, we upload and create our own content, and communicate and manage concentric circles of acquaintances and professional relationships. Arguably, technology has helped bridge the gulf between the personal and private worlds to such an extent that, to many, there is no distinction between the two. And publishers and content producers are following this lead by producing flexible and reusable content that consumers can integrate into their daily lives and activities.
As I wrap up my comments, let’s look at two examples where I see true personal technology: the app and medical publishing.
Firstly, the app world or environment is a true phenomenon that was virtually non-existent only three years ago. Some see the book app eventually replacing the traditional book experience – and remember that the eBook version is really a transferred experience from paper to electronic. The thinking is such that the book app will truly engage the reader in a multi-faceted experience far more expansive than the current book eReading experience. It will be a completely different experience and one significant by-product of this development will be that the publisher will be able to develop a variety of one-to-one relationships between themselves, their authors and contributors and readers. Whereas publishers formerly made assumptions and decisions on behalf of their consumers, the multi-faceted experience I mention will now place far more choice in the hands of the consumer – which will make their experience with the book app intensely personal. In an extreme case, a consumer will be able to turn a travel guide or civil war history book into their own scrapbook and invite others to engage with them around this content. In another, a quizzing app for medical students can serve up a unique set of questions and then adapt those questions based on your performance in answering the questions. And just think about all the fan fiction that could be collected around one vampire app series.
Lastly, to finish, many professional publishers have long proposed work-flow solutions for their customers and, in the provision of these, the relationship with the consumer has become closer and closer. Publishing in these segments used to be about mailing large printed directories; now, their content is embedded in a product or platform that is much more powerful and comprehensive. Using the ReedElsevier platform, a practicing attorney can manage his or her entire legal practice using practice development, research, legal submissions, accounting and more. Content is still important but is now only a small part of a much deeper relationship. The other aspect of this model is that the embedded nature of this relationship makes it harder for attorneys to end their subscriptions to the Lexus product.
And in all these cases, both the creator and the user are able to access and engage in the content via multiple platforms and, increasingly, that platform is some mobile device that further encourages the user to view the technology merged with content as a personal experience. While app development is significant today, we are really only just starting to see the full potential and opportunity in the development of personal technology especially as that transformation impacts our publishing business.
To conclude, I have suggested that publishers long ago gave up being the masters of their domain with respect to technology advances. We have certainly seen that recently with the iPad where trade publishers have scrambled to catch-up. I had been pessimistic about publishers’ prospects in readdressing this imbalance but I now think that view was premature. It wasn’t that long ago that publishing companies like Thomson and Reed Elsevier were dependent on technical advances made by their vendors and partners. Today, information and professional publishers provide the best examples of how content companies can re-write their future from a technology standpoint. These companies lead in the integration of content, technology and workflow tools and are not dependent on new products developed by Apple or Google. It is likely that education and trade publishers will eventually master their opportunities in a similar fashion. I believe we are already starting to see that unfold and it will only accelerate in the coming years.