Slow by Design

The “change” that (trade) publishing as an industry needs is coming along more slowly than many observers and commentators thought. As policy, platforms and technology continue to zip through iteration after iteration with mesmerizing speed, the cultural issues with parts of the industry seem to keep dragging, with the odd exception. The deeper structural problems, too, drag, masked by (admittedly) a healthy and intelligence response to the latest in publishing infotech.

As I read it, it is a fairly low situation. A multi, multi million pound industry with barely any competing trade publications: a distinct aversion to scrutiny beyond investor relations and news of employee moves. As you radiate outwards away from cultural gatekeeping, some normality resumes or returns. When scandal breaks, the same lines are drawn, time and time again. There are the usual monomodal line ups and articles on non-controversial concerns, with the occasional foray into actual news and commentary. The big players in the industry seemed to motor through the pandemic but have not really rewarded their staff beyond hybrid work patterns, choosing rather, in the short term, to nudge up exec pay and dividends. The work from home conversations have been badly handled by some big players and the “big rebalancing” is thwarted where presentee-ism is still so ingrained. A disturbing trend of apparently policing social media has emerged from central HR departments, one that has been a decade in the making.

When much of an industry can’t take on board a pandemic to consider the bigger picture, and in fact lurches further towards consolidation to help balance sheets, can’t take an inflexion point or start a learning and change curve, then bigger questions veer into view: what if there is no incentive to fix BAU, when BAU is essentially robust and profitable (albeit with caveats, and even then mostly around a continuing M & A model as the engine of growth), and what if the only real change will come, slowly and surely, from start ups, co-operatives and those on the margins – who want a different economic model than a pyramid? Was it always going to be that way? Will those start ups also be eventually consumed by five or six big spinning wheels, thus resetting the dial? Will there be further consolidation as we navigate the choppy waters of a rocky economy yet to grapple with some serious structural problems? I know of much smarter commentators than myself who track these things and if anything it is harder and harder to pick out a clear direction. Eventually, we’ll know.

“It Couldn’t Last Without The Hurt”

A new Manics album, then, and the metronomic tick of time. It brings with it not so much an album as a set of memories and touchstones, a gallery of images, slogan-daubed jeans and beery gigs, of making it my own way, finding out what that way was, who was part of it. I haven’t reached the point where those decisions are without regret but a line that whips back and forth on the opening track keeps coming to mind, and as much as I hold anything close, it’s the way we muddled through and who the titans were who held it all together. They’re the ones that we should hold up.

Incremental Update

I haven’t really kept up this blog, and I write this from the vantage point of a holiday being just back from holiday. It does seem to me that changing location as much as anything else stirs the will to write. I continue to journal, but very infrequently. Any kind of creative output is fairly limited. I do ask myself why this is: an increasing roster of responsibilities, maybe? That isn’t entirely the reason, though. Is it less to say? Or to to learn to say less and listen more? Is it learning to try to be (closer to) the still point / of the turning world? Or just being closer to being inarticulate in the face of what is unfurling?

Of Course Freud Had a Word For It

I came across this article today in the Guardian, entitled Brain fog: how trauma, uncertainty and isolation have affected our minds and memory and aside from the newspaper’s annoying house style that eschews capitalization seemingly at random, it offered a lightbulb moment. I urge people to read it, especially if they are wondering what has changed this year, beyond the obvious exhortations of ‘everything!’ and ‘nothing!’. It remains to be seen whether this pandemic, which is ongoing, will be a teaching moment, or a learning ‘pivot point’ as the influencers would have it. But the brain fog that so many are experiencing is poignantly and accurately described in the article.

For Cohen, the phenomenon of brain fog is an experience of one of the most disturbing aspects of the unconscious. He talks of Freud’s theory of drives – the idea that we have one force inside us that propels us towards life; another that pulls us towards death. The life drive, Cohen explains, impels us to create, make connections with others, seek “the expansion of life”. The death drive, by contrast, urges “a kind of contraction. It’s a move away from life and into a kind of stasis or entropy”. Lockdown – which, paradoxically, has done so much to preserve life – is like the death drive made lifestyle. With brain fog, he says, we are seeing “an atrophy of liveliness. People are finding themselves to be more sluggish, that their physical and mental weight is somehow heavier, it’s hard to carry around – to drag.” Freud has a word for this: trägheit – translated as a “sluggishness”, but which Cohen says literally translates as “draggyness”. We could understand brain fog as an encounter with our death drive – with the part of us which, in Cohen’s words, is “going in the opposite direction of awareness and sparkiness, and in the direction of inanimacy and shutting down”.

Moya Sarner, The Guardian, 14/4/21

Lockdown has affected different people in different ways but this confrontation (in many ways) with the death drive offers a way to conceptualize feelings that many of us have had and are continuing to wrestle with. Sarner goes on to talk about the work of Wilfred Bion and his states of ‘K’ and ‘-K’ and how it offers us a way to understand people’s reactions, too.

The uncertainty, the deaths, the trauma, the precarity; perhaps we have unconsciously chosen to live in the misty, murky brain fog of –K rather than to face, to suffer, the true pain and horror of our situation. Perhaps we are having problems with our thinking because the truth of the experience, for many of us, is simply unthinkable.

ibid.

How is it possible to conceptualize what’s happened? Or rationalize it? In change situations, it is naturally to turn away from that change, or to pretend it isn’t happening if it is uncomfortable or if it is threatening to the emotional and intellectual statutes of an individual or organization. This reality we are living through is the biggest of all change situations, and exploring your reaction to it in an honest and intellectually rigorous way is absolutely key to engendering an appropriate ongoing response. I myself speak as someone who clearly has work to do in this respect. Do read the article.

Five CPD Courses That Are Hot Right Now

The world of work is changing, rapidly. Publishing is no different and one of the ways to keep on top of that change is continuing professional development, or CPD. It is a well-established part of sustainable and holistic career development, and the number of courses you are able to take from your own screen at home are endless. As online learning has taken off, and MOOCs have captured the headlines (and then fallen out of them), much of this course content is made available for free, too. Accredited courses — those that are signed off and approved by regulatory bodies — often charge a fee for the certification itself, or an ongoing fee to be a Certified Practitioner. The options are many, and I have whittled the list down to five areas that are hot right now for the publishing professional looking to develop their skills, or embrace knowledge that will support their career.

Prove that you are ‘not a cat’: embrace online CPD

XML

XML, or eXtensible Markup Language, might still sound futuristic in 2021, but it has actually been around since the 1990s. It dates back as far as 1996, and was first published on February 10, 1998. XML is a hugely important format for the sharing of structured information: between programs, between people and between computers and people. It is a mark-up language that is human- and machine-readable, which makes it very flexible, and it is a free and open standard. W3C Schools contains a decent, clear and simple step-by-step tutorial in the basics of XML.

Management Theory

It is well-known that publishing often has no formal management training and that people anre expected to “learn on the job”. Why not spend some time reading over the fundamentals and classic thinker profiles over at the Chartered Management Institute, and then started to work towards accredited status? Membership of the CMI is reasonable given the huge amount of archive content, learning tools and access to an EBSCO-hosted collection of business and management books.

Diversity and Inclusion

This is the hot button topic of the moment, and rightly so. If you’re unsure about how to go about adding to your knowledge, or how to apply the principles in practice, how about you seek out some official training? The TQUK Level 2 Certificate in Equality and Diversity is available at Strive Training. Strive offer a range of courses and some are fully-funded for those not currently in employment or from a certain age bracket. It is very much worth your time looking through the list.

Blockchain

Blockchain is suddenly everywhere. The poster child of Blockchain is of course Bitcoin, which inspires huge debate. Is it the future of decentralised economies, free of state supervision and open to all? Or is it an unregulated nightmare full of risk? We’ve had stories of people losing hard drives and entire fortunes, with no recourse to the law. We’ve had stories of people making fortunes. There’s the huge environmental impact. (Mining bitcoin uses more electricity that entire countries, basically, which is catastrophic until you realise the environment impact of minting coins and printing paper money – a complex debate!). So, blockchain – inspiring people even to build whole towns founded around blockchain. FutureLearn do a great course on this, and it is fascinating area of study.

Environmental Issues

What more needs to be said here, to stress the importance of this as a subject that demands a full and proper understanding? We are clearly and urgently in the midst of a climate emergency and any full and proper continuing professional development programme should incorporate this. Whilst not a CPD course, it is worth spending some time on the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) site. Essential take aways: climate change is real, and the activity of human beings is the central cause. Many prominent voices are warning that it may already be too late to reverse it and that mitigation is now the only realistic outcome. Just like open access, it is rather surprising that there are actually not many free courses around this topic. Perhaps this will change.

CMI/APMG Change Management

A small update to celebrate a milestone that I actually reached in January. I am now certified to Practitioner level in Change Management. I sat the CMI/APMG exam in January, a two and a half hour exam which is a real step change from the Foundation. The syllabus goes over the same ground but in a much deeper fashion, inviting you to move up the learning taxonomy and apply to knowledge to real and simulated situations.

So, that ends the Public Service Announcement. Apart from that, lockdown continues here in the UK, and we continue to try to find ways to occupy ourselves and recharge around the usual chores and admin. I am mulling some posts that go over concepts of ‘building back better’, and change as this pandemic rolls into its next phase, and how we might also consider that some of the most important and lasting change can be free.

For now, a small update on some poetry that I had featured on The Knight’s Library First Pub Issue and also Saccharine Poetry, Volume 2 (Autumn 2020). Please do go and have a look.

Changing approaches to change

If you log into an “About Us” page on an organization and the people all look and sound very similar, then this is the mark of an organization that is not embracing diversity. Those kinds of pages are a feature of the system, not a bug. It is not heteregenous, it is homogenous. It is extremely easy to find organizations like this, and this post is not the time and place to name and shame, but we will know a few that display this trait.

Diversity is often misunderstood, or used in a very niche way. People hear it mentioned and assume it means “how many different ethnicities are there in your workforce?” but that is just one (important, but limited) application. Diversity is about strength in variety, as much a concept taken from nature as anything else – an expansive, vigorous gene pool full of heteregeneity, a heirloom tomato that is rich and tasty because of its origins away from controlled farming. Diversity in evidence at the place where you work can enhance your life through offering you a greater and deeper range of experiences and interactions. It can help you to consider your own values and priorities and get them into perspective, as well as helping you be more kind and considerate to others. It is a gift of compassion.

Companies that do not have diversity might insist that ‘we have hired the people that are best placed to do the job’: these are the people that have scored the highest, performed the best and that will deliver the best results, but of course, the next question is : by whose standards, and who decided those metrics, and can we set these metrics out into the public sphere? Often this is answered with a simple ‘no’: the measures of selection are opaque. They do the job as you think it should be done, and in order to please you, the hiring managers, but is that really and truly the best way to achieve the company goals? Is that going to lead to record revenue, or just more of the same?

The crux of this is that this kind of change – a change in mindset – is easy to implement, and it is free. There is no infrastructure to purchase, or IT system to put in place, and it can be rolled out and rolled back at will. The cost, in as much as one exists, is going to be the cosy uniformity and sense of security that exists in the aforementioned companies and organizations, and that is the real battle. There will be fierce resistance and it will sometimes come in a bewilderingly subtle ways. There will be many ‘gentle reminders’ along the way that the work that you are doing is unwelcome and unwarranted. Ignore these obstacles but acknowledge the cost they pose to your wellbeing and mental burden. Those networks and structures have been built up over decades, if not centuries, and there is so much work to do to move the dial.

Emotional Intelligence in Change

Is EI a cooling fin for the processor of the mind?

Inevitably in change management we come around to the somewhat controversial topic of emotional intelligence.

It’s a concept that isn’t universally accepted but the components and toolkit offer us much to consider. Change is a constant but the rate of change is not, and around us right now the world is changing at an incredible rate. This supercharged change is something that is hard to process and asks a lot from people living through it. What are the skills needed to deal with it?

Last night I sat up until the early hours, first watching Match of the Day, disinterestedly, and then reading. It was late enough that I could watch the speeches of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris from Wilminton, Delaware as they accepted the mantles of President and Vice-President Elect of the United States of America. Whilst various battles rage on, there was for a moment a tremendous change in tone, and an exhibition of an emotional intelligence that had been lacking for the four years of a certain incumbent. It’s a long way from the high profile world stage to the biscuit-strewn offices across the UK but the same skills and abilities can light up the work day.

What is emotional intelligence? First proposed by Peter Salovey and John D Mayer as a corollary to the widely-known intelligence quotient (IQ) scale, in 1990, it is now most closely associated with the author Daniel Goleman, who popularised it in the late 90s. He proposed five components of emotional intelligence in the working environment, and to look through these is really eye-opening. How many people have you in your own experience dealt with who lack one or more of these five basic struts of EI? And how many have had all five?

One immediate and fair criticism of this is how difficult some of these are to accurately define. One person’s ‘high’ level of social ability is not necessary the same as another person’s. The label ‘proficiency in managing relationships and building networks’ really is a very broad and vague definition. We might buy Goleman’s book to find out more but its not a spoiler to note there’s no way that such a term will ever be satisfactorily defined in precise and scientific terms. It is qualitative and contextual.

Ultimately, the ECMH (Essential Change Manager’s Handbook) gives a circular definition, too: “to a large extent emotional intelligence is exhibited in interaction with other people and thus needs input from them, perhaps from processes such as 360-degree feedback.”. Whilst the circular feedback process can shed a lot of light on how a team feels about each other and their line manager, it is almost entirely subjective until made SMART, and even then, it is contextual and temporally-bound. In an industry as tribal as publishing, 360-degree feedback is not always conducted in good faith and with due dilligence — and ends up as a punitive stick rather than nutritious carrot.

Emotional intelligence is, from my viewpoint, an essential part of the make up of a change manager and a well-run change management initiative but the definition of that emotional intelligence needs to be handled carefully and acknowledged as contextual. It might be wise to refer to Morgan’s work on Organizational Metaphors and think hard about what kind of institution the change initiative is taking place in. Another way of parsing this is to borrow from Senge, who wrote, “to understand why sustaining significant change is so elusive, we need to think less like managers and more like biologists.” Understanding the self-reinforcing growth processes and the limiting factors is its own kind of special emotional intelligence.

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.

Photo by Brianna Martinez on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.