How to Avoid the Technology Conundrum
In this issue of Publishing Executive, you'll read quite a bit about publishing technology solutions. These solutions offer publishers opportunities to improve how they work and what they are able to do to serve readers or advertisers.
Various solutions also present what I call a "technology conundrum." Inevitably, the tools we put in place to manage workflow also formalize and lock in the assumptions we used to design the tools themselves. Too often, our assumptions look backward, solving the last set of problems, rather than looking forward to an anticipated set of challenges.
In stable industries, the assumptions of the past can serve as reasonable proxies. But publishing functions and formats have grown more complex, and the pace of change shows little sign of slowing.
The persistence of change frames the conundrum: Publishers need better tools to keep up with the marketplace, but they are implementing those tools in ways that solve problems they thought they had at the time of the initial assessment. Two, three, or five years down the road, this approach winds up enshrining the past.
A 2013 Tow Center report, "Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present," revealed how much this problem affected the newspaper industry. Authors C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky recommended three ways to break free of the past:
- Fully rethink workflow to support digital uses. Ideally, this thinking takes place before technology options are evaluated.
- Provide options that let users -- content creators and distributors -- override the rules embedded in any content management solution. Designing a system with some degree of local control gives staff the ability to adapt without fully redesigning an existing approach.
- Share best practices, effectively competing on content, not workflow. Making this happen will require greater transparency among publishers and more engagement on the part of associations like IDEAlliance.
In "rethinking workflow to support digital uses," publishers need to recognize that the primary in-house functions -- authoring and managing content -- should be organized to deliver content that is distribution-ready. Competition now takes place at the level of use.
Even with redesigned workflows, publishers will find that a given technology solution is likely to support only a subset of functions and formats. These solutions typically favor one or perhaps two core functions -- creating content, for example, or distributing it to the web.
Most tools are optimized to do a good job delivering a subset of formats. The ones that do well with print are not nearly as effective in supporting the web, apps, and mobile uses. Digital-first publishers face comparable challenges when they need to render print formats.
The overlap among technologies, formats, and functions is always partial. To find the right workflow solution, publishers need to prioritize the capabilities that matter most. To make that happen, CMS analyst firm J. Boye recommends publishers:
- Create a cross-divisional team staffed by people who know the business, its readers, and publishing systems.
- Gather data to better understand reader behavior.
- Make a business case built on documented goals and strategies.
- Plan how to reap the benefits of technology investments by actively considering governance, including decisions about things like local control.
Marketplace complexity and demand for a widening range of formats already challenge publishers. For many, finding and implementing better technologies is a pressing concern.
These external pressures make it difficult to dedicate still more time to understanding the market, setting priorities, and ensuring adaptable solutions. But these are exactly the kinds of investments of time and staff consideration that can help publishers avoid their own technology conundrums. With much at stake, taking time to plan is the right next step.
Brian O'Leary is founder and principal of Magellan Media Partners.
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