Change In Publishing : Systems Thinking

The Publishing Change Manager is on holiday! We’re visiting in-laws in Canada, near the Niagara fruit belt. It’s where some of the icewine that you see in the shops come from – vines that are left to ripen on the plant, and then harvested after the frost. It’s sweet and delicious. It has been a revelation to eat some of the season produce here : corn on the cob, peaches, tomatoes and now, in September, the first of the apples. We will likely leave before the pears ripen.

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I picked up a book whilst here by Christian Masotti (who was taught by my father-in-law whilst at high school). It’s called Social Competence for Manufacturing Supervisors: Three Phones and a Radio and covers people management in manufacturing, which isn’t exactly my go-to genre, but I thought I’d take a look. It offers a take on people management where people don’t necessarily remember what you made them do, or what you said, but do remember how you made them feel. Its linked to a body of work taught by Civility Experts and adapted to the rough and tumble world of manufacturing plants.

In this book, one of the four cornerstones of developing this skill, as offered by Masotti, is systems thinking, which comes up widely in the APMG change management course I am taking. Peter Senge is widely known as a pioneer of systems thinking for management and change initiatives within the corporate organization. He published his book The Fifth Discipline in 1990, and founded the Society for Organization Learning. Part of the theory involves viewing the organization as an organism, and predicting responses to stimuli to be similar to that exhibited by an organism. If you give the organization/organism the correct nutrients and the appropriate environment to grow, it will do so in a healthy manner. If you deprive of the same, it will atrophy, grow in unexpected ways, or simply die.

I am sure you can think of examples of publishing houses where this is true. There are companies where the growth has been steady and predictable and based on good manangement and acquisition principles, and others where haphazard new lists have been slapped on at random and forcible ingested into the whole. A company I know well did this and it forces, to name just one side-effect, the staff to accomodate the new practices, metadata and force these to fit into their existing workflows. It’s painful and damages the bottom line immensely. A bestseller at a house used to slow and steady can destabilize the best laid plans – a sudden influx of cash and outside interest meaning rapid but unplanned growth.

Other companies, when engaged in M&A activity, will look ahead and look to see what data they need, and in what format this data should be to minimize the shock of ingestion. They will form coalitions of change and project management teams to ensure the process is smoothly managed. They will identify and talk to stakeholders from the top to the bottom of the company and get their views on what should and shouldn’t happen. They will gather requirements. In this scenario, the company flourishes and both old and new can live together in a state of excitement for the future. And it isn’t hard – and does not involve that much extra expense. The amount it saves down the line is incredible. A mantra we repeated at Bloomsbury was “Metadata Is Everyone’s Responsibility.” Do you have examples that you’d like to share? Any useful mantras for the modern office? Please do get in touch.

Change Management : Organizational Metaphors

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The workplace is full of metaphor. How could it not be when the concept of work itself is presented as a metaphor for life and a vehicle for many people’s purpose and reason for being? The workplace attracts metaphors with a gravitational pull all of its own. For instance, we find ourselves trying to climb the career ladder, or making our way along a winding career path; we might be told to go to out and bat for our team or play this one avoiding the rough. We still punch in and out despite the physical time card for the most part being consigned to history.

The metaphors that find currency in an organization speak volumes and tell us more than the company would themselves like to admit. They tell us a huge amount about the workplace culture, its structure an its ability (or lack of) to effect change. As change managers and advocates of change, we learn a lot from playing close attention to these metaphors, and working out what type of organization we are dealing with. Are we told about the employees working hard at the coal face? Are ideas often lost ‘in the weeds’ or in the ‘fog of war’? Is a difficult marketplace a set of choppy waters or a field ripe for harvest? Or are the combat metaphors rolled out, with bad sales figures a body blow? Is risk portrayed as an opportunity, or a threat?

Gareth Morgan wrote Images of Organization in 1986 and it has since found international acclaim. Updated in 2006, Morgan describes in his new ‘Preface’ how he retained the simplicity of the central premise:

“The central message is presented in two short chapters …. they show, very simply, (a) how different metaphors give rise to different theories of organization and management, (b) how an understanding of the process can help us master the strengths and limitations of different viewpoints an (c) how we can use this knowledge to become more effective leaders and managers” [Morgan, 2006; xi]

Thus we are to understand how companies resemble certain types of organizations but that beyond the simple naming of things, we want to use this to help us understand and effect change. The ideas were powerful ways to get at the core elements and drivers of a company, beyond even we look at and analyse the Company Handbooks and mission statements. (Although don’t discount this – almost nothing will tell you what a company really values more than its Annual Report and its internal staff handbook.)

Whilst important and insightful, Morgan’s work did not come out of nowhere. Linguistics has long been concerned with cognition and models of comprehension. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote Metaphors We Live By in 1980, suggesting that metaphor is a tool that enables people to use what they know about their primary physical and social experiences in order to understand more abstract notions like work or time. It tells us metaphor is not just a handy figure of speech or literary device but a mechanism of meaning in the mind.

Morgan’s carefully applied research builds on this body of linguistic theory stretching back to the mid-20th century. Lakoff in 1987 developed this work into a semantic mode of cognition, in his book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Morgan’s work went on to have an influential and lasting effect on management theory. He posited eight types of organization, and I thought it might be instructive (and amusing) to pick four of these out – and then apply them to companies in the publishing world.

The Organization as Machines metaphor is appropriate when the company sees its processes as highly designed, and controlled. Planning and management is achievable – easy, even. People are units of production and can be trained and used like tools The publishing companies that most readily fall into this category would be RELX, or, for our purposes here, Elsevier. RELX itself is now an information and systems company as its listing on the stock market tell us and it has designed itself, machinic and precise, out of the world of publishing altogether.

Organization as Brains seems companies that are intelligence-led, with the organization resembling a library or a memory bank. Change is viewed and implemented as a learning process, and double-loop positive feedback learning is used widely. Many University Presses might see themselves as part of this group – in my experience this is not true, and they are more likely to be organizations as culture. Despite their proximity to knowledge, they maintain a striking amount of ignorance, and the AUP statement following the Black Lives Matter protests is important and necessary. An example here might be Pearson, which has done some very hard thinking to retool its business models given the collapse of reliable and profitable print textbook sales.

Organizations as Political systems sees companies resemble small governments, managing the common an often conflicting needs. Decisions are made according to lines of power and the route taken is not always one that is the most thought-out, but rather the one that satisfies the most powerful stakeholders. Factions develop and energy is spent electioneering and maintaining a powerbase. Many publishing companies are like this (see also ‘Organizations as Cultural Systems’, which is devastatingly accurate in describing many publishers and their homogenous workplaces.) I’d nominate Bloomsbury as a good example here, although many other publishing companies fit the bill.

What form might a forward thinking and modern publishing company take? Organizations as Flux and Transformation is one where the company is an ever-changing system, which responds to and learns from its environment. It doesn’t always work – if the external chaos is too prevalent, or if the processes involved are so simple that a machine approach would be better suited – but it means that the companies involved are able to transcend cultural hegemony and homeogeneity. Where publishing is concerned, given the parlous state of affairs described by the Lee and Low Survey from the US, and damning reports from various UK initiatives, this might be no bad thing at all. For a fairly damning indictment, look up Organizations as Psychic Prisons and you’ll find a fair amount to nod your head to. Food for thought? Do get in touch or leave a comment.

Change Management : Publishing

I recently completed the Foundation level APMG Change Management course. It’s been an interesting course of study, with some insightful ways of seeing the world of work. Naturally, some of my thoughts as I worked through the training, exercises, revision and then the exam, turned to publishing as an industry, a profession and a set of theories. I’ve been looking too at mass communication and media and comms theory – helped along by Paddy Scannell’s book (which I worked on, at SAGE). Media and Communication offers a broad overview of much of twentieth century research and theory pertaining to ‘the media’, a term which in its current usage emerges from the thinking of Marshall McLuhan and other contemporaries.

Some of the most fascinating sections cover Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding framework and having this in mind as I think about what needs to change in publishing is especially useful. There’s a tonne of tacit assumptions made by those in power in publishing that need to change and managing this change so that it is structural, thorough and long-lasting is the challenge. Surface diversity initiatives won’t cut it and neither will attempts that do not start from the top. The guiding coalition that puts these changes into effect needs to be making them from a position of knowledge, activism and deep commitment. How much of that is in evidence? Have you come across examples of good change management in the industry that you want to share?

Change Management: Measuring It Up

In his weekly note with the Riverford Veg box, farmer and activist Guy Singh-Watson notes that management loves the phrase ‘if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed’. In a wistful mood of late, his weekly missives have searched through the toolbox of how to approach building a successful firm.

He follows up with “though true and useful up to a point, this oversimplification can too easily morph into “if you can’t measure it, it isn’t worth having,” or even “it doesn’t exist.” The dogma has caused a huge amount of suffering and societal damage over its 40-year rule.”

Management theory has definitely been kicking around for longer than 40 years, and this mantra doesn’t always and hasn’t always ruled, but his point is well-made about non-measurables falling by the way side when we become too obsessed by metrics. Metrics reassure us. There is much that lies in between the data. To swing too far to the other side of course, is a lesson in How Experts Don’t Matter which is playing out in an all-to-evident climactic cliff edge. All of this swirls through our daily lives.

Change Management tries to tie measurement into manager’s goals in order to lever change into the beast, the mechanism, to try to best the inertia and (obviously important) main attraction of business as usual (BAU). It’s necessary to some extent as this is how you engage the management tier – this is how you achieve buy-in.

But the soft side of this discipline, and the ‘feelings’ side of stakeholder engagement is as crucial. And to misread and misremember and miscalculate (the irony!) of how it makes people feel is a category kill kind of an error, a kind of comedy where the people who are needed in order to make it happen will just say no. We must remember how people feel when we try to assign statistics to human problems.

Peameal Ham

A short update. Not entirely enthused by the lockdown sourdough mania, I have however made a successful Peameal ham. This went down very at lunch, served as a sandwich in Polish farmhouse bread with some Dijon mustard, raw Picarella pepper and Isle of Wight tomatoes. L heartily approved but did tell me off for using the chef’s knife on the cherry tomatoes. Len Deighton also warns against it, in his Action Cookbook, advising that whilst he didn’t know how or why, the tomato skins immediately blunted a sharp knife. He advises, much like L, the use of a serrated kitchen knife.

Included below are some pictures of the Peameal ham, cooked first in water with clove, cardamon and pickling brine (small dash), covered in polenta and maple syrup, and then hot baked at Gas 7, and slow cooked at Gas 1 for the amount of time it takes to drink two Stellas and one Guinness Foreign Extra.

Next time, I’ll continue to post about Change Management and publishing strategy.

Change Management: 2

To me, one of the obvious temptations of the change management course is to make it too much about yourself. That revelation in itself is part of the learning curve – for me. Clearly, much of the work in the course involves questions, reflection and further thinking, and those mental actions will need candidates to look back over their professional career. When reading through and thinking about aspects of the course such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the MBTI neurotypes, the natural tendancy for some is to reach into personal anecdotal history and past experiences. Is this healthy? It seems to be an unavoidable part of it (a feature, rather than an error) but should we strive to be as objective as possible? When the reflection turns into soul-searching and becomes subjective to the point it clouds the benefits, I would caution against proceeding and at that point mandate a step back. I’m not sure right now how you take that step back – read anew, after a walk, or breathe and reframe?

In the mode of a private journal, the work can veer easily into confessional, self-flagellation and opprobrium. ‘Mistakes were made’, as the saying goes, but there are likely many victories too. The section that looks at change and individual might not quite as useful to the candidate if the only individual you consider during the course is you. It is better, healthier and more productive to absent yourself as you learn, at least in the emotional investiture you put in. When you learn something and realise something that you might not like to hear, it can then be taken on board in a much less hurtful way.

Change Management: 1

I’m currently undertaking the Change Management Institute Foundation level course and formalizing the experience from the many projects and initiatives I’ve been involved with in my time in publishing. I started working in publishing in 2004, and it is fair to say that publishing has changed in that time – quite a lot. I personally have been part of project teams and trainer teams that helped the organizations I worked for move from point A to point B. Listening, learning and talking were always a key tripos in that process.

As I work through the course and the Effect Change Manager’s Handbook, I’ll write up some words that will hopefully be of use. The book starts out by noting how ‘interdisciplinary’ the field is and its fitting that my most recent post, as Publisher at Rowman and Littlefield International, involved heading up the editorial department at a interdisciplinary publisher – and striving to work out what that means, and how best to implement it in a concrete publishing programme. We sold, still, into silos – academic disciplines, third party wholesalers and distributors and the invariably tricky world of BIC and BISAC. So how might we improve? I’ll try to set out some ways we achieved that and some of the lessons I learned.


Ultimately, the days of the single function distributor are over, unless there is a pressing physicality or specificity around the type of item being sent out. If you send out fragile embossed glass or giant lead lining panels, maybe you need specialist gear. B and Q need their own warehouse. But to build a new, automated and robot assisted warehouse at great cost and to only ship out … books … is misguided at best and unprofitable at the bottom line. Amazon will ship books and high value electronics as the same ‘thing’ so the big box warehouses like MDL and Ingram are now competing with a company that will ship a book, a pair of headphones and a new watch, all for free, and all from the same warehouse tech. Add to this that Amazon has metadata and reporting that allows its self-published authors to see Unit by unit real time sales and be paid royalties by the book if necessary, and the publishing big box warehouses have … old systems that spit out CSV files.

Corona Diary: 1

So, the world changes, irrevocably.

I keep refreshing the news and Twitter until I feel slightly nauseous, my own sense of unease and powerlessness building.  Leah Finnegan’s writing at The Outline seems to be to unusual perceptive and her piece, “The internet is making me sick” was a great read that I recommend you make time for.  There was, quite obviously, something very unusual before this global pandemic about our relationship with the internet, with ‘new’ media, with the social networks.  Much has been written, amongst the chattering classes and by theorists trying to work out what exactly the substance of these changes is.  But now that state of unusual behaviour and its pathology in mental and physical illnesses is in overdrive, with every second a chancee to lever in an update, a hot take, a command or perform some moral piety via a tweet.  The idea that two ideas could exist in the same space is steamrollered by a binary brinkmanship.  The American Id, Donald Trump, rides the wave.

I bought a box of beer online, being as all the pubs are now shut.  I have been working my way through them and trying to review them, and I’ll try to update here.  I checking in to ‘Untappd’ of course, but somehow that isn’t enough.  I need to laboriously detail the drinks in overwritten prose.  I need space to talk about the resinous tastes and bitter hops, the sweet and sour ‘mariage parfait’ of the lambic sour.  I’ll post artful pictures alongside them in the hope that my social cachet and intellectual standing will increase – which of course, it won’t.

I started with an IPA – it was called something or other, I forget.  It tasted fine and wasn’t worth what I paid for it. I can’t really do this can I, in the face of such a huge moment in human history?  Write a beer blog or update people on my DIY projects?  Should I write purple prose, or carve out a novel that tries to synthesize the ‘lessons’ that I am learning?  Is it okay to accept that this is perhaps beyond comprehension, and that the ordinary response is a sort of half-numbness, a slowness and heaviness in thought and action as the genuinely epoch-making actions of lockdown and quarantine bend an entire generation out of shape – perhaps permanently?  I am sure that Frantzen and McEwan are hard at work writing the Great Q-Tine Novel, and there will be an explosion of literature out of this.  But I am not sure I … care?  I feel like we’re getting closer to the truth when I can be honest with myself about this.  But the more truths that are uncovered, the more work that is done here, the harder it will be to row back.