Interview by Matt Goolding
How to improve communications, collaboration, and processes between departments? That’s the question often asked by organisations in all sorts of sectors. Publishing is one of them. In this interview, I asked Ribbonfish’s Managing Director, Marc Defosse, about the role of technology and personality in team collaboration.
Also read: Interview: Marc Defosse on… Middleware

Q: What are the typical challenges to communication and collaboration within large publishing houses?

Between Editorial and Sales & Marketing, there can be a fairly big divide. To some extent the departments often work independently of one another. Sometimes the Marketing department is involved, but there’s a divide where Editorial perceives their only responsibility as being to deliver the book itself, whereas Marketing is only responsible for the marketing and selling of a book, series, or digital product.
I think that there’s something to be said about having both departments understanding the other, and communicating early-on. By doing this, they can adapt products or create products that adapt to market demand, rather than pushing something and hoping that Sales & Marketing can make a success of it.
The way that departments currently operate is by meetings. There’s not a whole load of collaboration around apart from this. Editorial will inform marketing of what they’re producing, and tell them when it’s likely to come to market. Even then, it’s not always certain. There’s often no visibility for Marketing to anticipate when precisely the product will be ready. In general, things are quite reactive within publishers.

Q: So, you think that marketers should be involved earlier?

I think so, and throughout. This ensures that feedback from the market goes back into the creation and update of the book or series. Otherwise, you keep creating the same thing and you’re not sure whether you’ll be able to sell it, and your reps may not be able to sell a later edition. Indeed, reps often really do work in isolation, and most of their feedback from discussions with buyers (for academic publishers, it’s professors), is not put through to the product delivery teams.
Trade is probably simpler. You see the sale immediately to the market. You know whether content works or not. The content in Trade is very different from one book to another. Academic and educational publishers should be able to adapt content based on professor feedback.

Q: How do you think technology could improve the communication and collaboration between different publishing teams?

Well, when there’s a uniformed publishing system that definitely helps. This helps people have visibility for what’s coming, and topics that are being pushed. Everybody can then enrich the information that surrounds a book. Not just the content, but audience insights, targeting data, and more. This will help Marketing and Editorial work more closely.
We’ve seen the improvements in communication and collaboration first-hand at clients, when teams started to collaborate more effectively around a Title Management system. But the process was still reactive. Up to a certain point, Editorial owned the book and thereafter left it to Marketing. Conflicts can arise when departments blame each other for poor data and information quality, whereas the process could be more fluid from the get-go.
From a technological point of view, publishers could also benefit from instant messaging services like Slack and corporate social environments such as Yammer. These tools allow the formation of groups, and can enable cross-departmental idea sharing and collaboration.

Q: Do you think that with those sorts of tools, there’s a danger of “over-collaboration”? If so, how can publishers with large teams combat this problem?

I’d say that instant messaging helps particularly effectively within a department. Rather than organised meetings and phone calls, you can drop someone a quick message; public or private. But does it actually work? Well, Macmillan launched an intranet tool that helped collaboration for sure. There was no instant messaging, but users placed blog articles and project updates on the network, which kept different teams informed about activities, themes, and projects.
Overall, if your user base isn’t pushing information regularly, collaboration software won’t show true results. You need to have a committed and engaged workforce.
I’d say that there are definitely too many tools. There can certainly be too much collaboration, especially in large organisations. Sometimes it’s difficult to see what route to use, but the business must define an official way to communicate and collaborate, using a concise technology infrastructure.

Q: In an ideal world, what would your set of communication tools be?

I think that email should be reduced. It’s not very good, because people send emails that pass a hot potato onto someone else. They expect an answer but forget they’ve ever asked a question. Alternatively, they send an email to too many people and the topic goes off in various directions. Email is the worst, for sure.
For me, it would be instant messaging, phone, and face-to-face. In addition, I’d have a community intranet; something like Jive or Yammer; where people can feature what they’re working on and collaborate around a topic – rather than on a Word document that’s hidden somewhere.

Q: We’ve seen a few mergers and acquisitions in recent years. How should publishers deal with this in regards to communication technology and processes?

In general, during a merger or acquisition you need to be ruthless and have a plan at the start, rather than lingering. There can be a lack of planning in technology and in business. I’d try to avoid any deterioration in productivity and morale by coming in with a solid human resource plan immediately.
From a technology perspective, things also need to happen fast. Duplication needs to be spotted immediately, and there should be a strong hand from above to enforce the technology solutions that work best for the situation at present and in the future. Consolidate systems fast, and get the new team structure working productively.

Q: What are your recommendations for ensuring buy-in to systems for users at large publishing houses?

You could have widespread buy-in by having a system that everybody loves! This is very rare. The other option is to have people at the top 100% convinced about the value of the system in the long-run, whether it annoys people or not. You should talk to key users in the first place, and consult key stakeholders to ensure that the system meets requirements. After that, leaders need to be strong advocates of the software.
Sometimes a barrier can be middle-management. The top people are convinced of the system’s benefit in the long-term but don’t use it on a daily basis. Users often have a reluctance to use a system because it can seemingly go against their individual working style, and the nuances of different teams. It’s really for the management to ensure that the tool is being used. Ensure that reports are done through the system, and other critical tasks, and incentivise this action.
People don’t always like using systems. Publishing is a very creative industry.

Q: With that in mind, is there space for ad-hoc communication or should everything be rigid?

It’s a tough question. I’m not a fan of strict rules, and don’t think that we should confine a creative industry to strict systems. These tools should be flexible, and processes should be somewhat flexible too. I believe that publishers should have a long-term aim for a high-level process that everybody follows. But how they follow this process internally (on a micro level) may be by different means, so long as there are consistent milestones to be met.
So, if I take the creation of a book, there is a set of key milestones. Having a contract, and so on. You can enforce some gates in-between the process, but between those gates teams can work differently. For example, I’d say using a system like SAP wouldn’t work for publishing. It’s too rigid. That’s just a personal opinion, of course. I think you need something flexible but that will enforce key controls at various stages.

Q: What are your key recommendations for improving communications and collaboration?

Communicate face-to-face, and work across a set of defined systems. Ensure that there’s buy-in from middle management and that they have the incentives to convince the team of the system’s value. So, overall:

  1. Talk to each other
  2. Use clearly defined systems with set boundaries
  3. Establish control by middle management for processes to be followed

Ribbonfish provides solutions to publishing and media organisations that wish to improve collaboration and communication. With expertise in Salesforce and Microsoft technologies, Ribbonfish offers expertise on CRM, Title Management, Project Management, and much more
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