EduLib - Education, Libraries, Publishing & Technology

This is a very occasional blog on education, libraries, publishing and the technologies that support these activities.

The rules that I try to follow when writing this blog are:
1. Try not to waste the time of the reader (hence the long Subject headings).
2. Be informative.
3. If not informative, be provocative & controversial.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Can Digital Directors in Publishing Succeed?


Publishers and Intermediaries have been appointing Digital Directors over the past five years or so, generally asking them to 'take the company digital'. Unfortunately, this has often proved to be an impossible task to complete and a poisonous role to fill. This is essentially because the old-fashioned print business is still the main source of revenues for many publishers and intermediaries (other than the academic journals specialists), and the Digital Director typically struggles to gain influence from the low-revenue, but high-potential side-lines, however important the message may be, and however keenly the company says it wants to hear this message.

The essential problem is that the traditional roles, functions and territories remain in place (not unreasonably, as the company continues to need its Operations Director, Marketing Director, Finance Director and so forth), and this is where the revenues, headcount and networks are, and thus where the power continues to be. Meanwhile the Digital Director is outside this power-structure and lives in the organisation chart on a different plane to everyone else; in a sort of alternate dimension. There are line functions, there are staff functions, and there is the Digital Director.

So Digital Directors operate in this alternate dimension in a variety of interesting ways, some being more successful than others. I have described some of these shadowy characters below.

The Hermit     This is the Digital Director who is highly qualified, lavishly praised and yet rarely consulted and never influential. He or she sits in a lovely corner office preparing reports and slideshows that go down very well, but the key decisions get taken in meetings to which the Hermit has not even been invited. The traditional management team cherry-picks from the Hermit's advice, but mostly just carries on as they have always done in the past.

The Guru     Although Gurus are a bit like Hermits, in that they are treasured experts, typically Gurus have a bit more influence both inside and outside the organisation. The Guru has learned not just to be right, but also how to be somewhat inspiring and maybe even influential. Line managers quote the Guru to justify what they had decided to do anyway, and Gurus get invited to speak at a lot of conferences, reinforcing their delusion that they are at the centre of things.

The Consultant     Also operating from the side-lines, the Consultant likes to give advice, and does not even pretend that he or she is part of the hierarchy. The Consultant tends to say 'you' when really 'we' might be more appropriate for someone actually on the payroll. After a while the consultant starts forgetting to come into the office most days, and grows a beard (men) or buys a very expensive Italian handbag-cum-briefcase (women). After a while, The Consultant goes missing, and it turns out that he or she left two months ago, to work for Follicle, Vendetta & Wapcaplet.

The Neo     As in the film, Neo is in the Matrix, but somehow also not in the Matrix. This Digital Director has an organisation chart on the office wall that shows Neo's influence overlapping all the other functional roles at right-angles. Neo probably even used PowerPoint's transparency feature when he or she drew this chart, to show the overlapping responsibilities. But unfortunately nobody else really takes it seriously. Neo also has a job description that says that the DD shares responsibilities with various functional heads, but somehow the sharing only seems to apply if the news is bad. It's like Andy Murray being dubbed 'British' when he wins and 'Scottish' when he loses.

The Caretaker     This kind of Digital Director is nearly extinct now; in the early days of digital publishing and e-books some publishers would pick somebody 'to handle that weird stuff', and it could be almost anyone. Popular victims were people already handling 'strange' things, like audiobooks or foreign rights. These Caretakers found themselves at the leading edge of the new digital revolution and had to learn fast. Some parlayed this experience in to a Digital Director role (usually at another publisher) some rose up the organisation with the growth of the portfolio (rarely), and most were 'put back in their box' with the arrival of the 'real' Digital Director after a year or two.

The Intrapreneur     Sometimes a traditional company will set up an entrepreneurial unit inside itself to try to embrace a new trend. In the publishing space, this has been tried by publishers, distributors and aggregators. The Intrapreneur Digital Director has the freedom to create a whole new digital organisation unencumbered by the legacy infrastructure, mind-set and business models. A freedom that lasts until the unit gets far enough along to start to look like a success or a failure. If it is 'failing' (usually evidenced by innovation, fun and a prodigious burn-rate), the 'old' organisation is frightened and it is dismantled with the surviving parts being shoved back into the 'core' organisation structure. If it is 'succeeding' (usually evidenced by innovation, fun and a few revenues), then the 'old' organisation is jealous and it is dismantled with the surviving parts being…

The Incubator     The Digital Director who innovates and then hands off the 'new stuff' to the mainstream parts of the organisation is an Incubator. This DD nurtures each new digital 'baby' until it can hold its own with not just the tots in the Reception Class but also with the bigger kids. The challenge is to make sure the new kid survives and doesn't get mugged for its lunch-money. Done right, this can be highly effective, as the Incubator can 'take the company digital' while being no threat to the established order, but the Incubator sometimes doesn’t get the credit for the results.

So what is the best kind of Digital Director for a company to have, and for a person to be? That depends, of course, on the objectives and dynamics of the company, and on the individual's psyche, skills and ambitions. But I would argue that the most important thing, and the point of this blog-post (at last – ED) is that there should be no illusions on either side. A company should not imagine that it can become digital by creating a Hermit, or that a pan-dimensional matrix can really accommodate a Neo if there are lots of 'sentinels' out to protect the status quo. Equally, an incoming Digital Director may need to morph into a new role and migrate to a new position to allow the organisation to be successfully influenced.

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Mark Carden is a business development executive, consultant and recruiter, who has 30 years of experience in project management, software engineering and technology sales.

In the publishing, education and libraries sector he has held international Vice President positions at Publishing Technology, Ingram Digital, Innovative Interfaces, and Dynix.

Mark's career started in software development, project management and consulting; he has worked for several 'blue-chip' companies including Accenture, NatWest Life and Barclays Bank.

He has a BA in Philosophy & Psychology from Oxford University, and has also attended executive education programmes at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University and the Saïd Business School at Oxford University.

Mark's special interests include: Publishing software, library automation systems, e-books, campus & enterprise portals, hand-held computing, business strategy, how time factors affect company & management behaviours, and the transition of owner-managed businesses into professionally-managed companies.