It begs to be asked, increasingly, who is the customer for professional information publishers. No longer can they think simply about students, teachers, practitioners and librarians. Not when there are KM specialists, procurement managers, IT geeks, consultants and financial managers media buyers and, doubtless, countless others who have a role to play in what is chosen to support the information needs of a firm, corporation or institution.
Nevertheless, decisions need to be made as to what to invent and develop in order to create product and service offerings and, though some will disagree, the focus group, questionnaire and consultancy approaches may not always be appropriate. Sometimes some real knowledge, expertise and intuition have roles to play. Certainly if I were a potential customer, I’d want to believe that the people producing the publications, information services, documents, software and tools were pretty intimate with what professional advisers actually do and need.
One might wish to assume that a development function within an information publishing business would be responsible for all product development, new and existing, working with all the other key functions, notably sales, marketing, editorial, production and finance. Of course, product development experts need not necessarily be drawn from existing functions within the business, such as editorial, marketing or sales, though equally there is no reason to suggest that such skills cannot be applied to the development function. The need is, however, in my view, for a genuine combination of these backgrounds, overlain with a strong element of technical know-how, experience-based judgment, market involvement, commercial, networking and entrepreneurial flair and financial literacy. To leave out or significantly reduce a focus on any one of these is likely to be to the detriment of the success of the process.
Inasmuch as the present focus is on development for publishing activity, defined in its widest form and including all media, the essential skills and tasks remain quite simple. As another Belfast boy, Van Morrison wrote, referring to his particular medium and market, “The only requirement is, to know what is needed; be best at delivering the product on time.” The difficulty is working how to “know” what’s needed and to coordinate all the elements to deliver on time. Yet, regardless of the delivery medium, information publishing still requires knowledgeable and expert people to write, based on their expertise and research, in order to produce appealing product. It is this author output that lets lawyers and others carry out their own functions effectively and profitably. It makes sense that those who stand between authors and customers should understand them both exceptionally well. Doctors know best about medicine; lawyers know best about law.
The functions can be carried out by generalists and those with development experience in unrelated disciplines but it is suggested that, optimally, it should be with those with real experience of target or closely related markets. Those markets in question, financial, tax, accountancy, regulatory, though each is different from the other, have underlying elements such as the fact that they are driven by changing laws of one kind or another and are professional adviser markets in which qualified people trade on the basis of expertise, professionalism, ethics and trust to gain and retain business. Without accurate information at levels to suit their requirements, be they source, compliance, added-value or strategic planning, they struggle to function competitively, so that the better the publisher can understand, measure and meet the need, the more successful everyone will be.
Research, contacts and experience are key. No-one can know everything but they need to know where to find information and opinions. This comes from countless sources; published research and documentation, structured and less structured research activity, monitoring events and plans, contacts in the market, attendance at and participation in market activities such as those of professional and trade institutes, conferences, exhibitions. Skill, experience and judgment, however, need to be applied. Furthermore, an intimate knowledge of and ability constantly to keep abreast or even anticipate competitor activity is critical. Just returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair, on behalf of Dunedin Academic Press, I’m reminded as to just how significant that is.
One sees the increasing presence of the product development specialist with generic and certainly admirable skills in the processes of product development. Hence the techniques, research procedures, supporting documentation, validation and project management disciplines are likely to be exemplary but a question is whether or not these can be applied effectively and easily from any particular discipline to, for example, law. There is little doubt that having experience of different markets and innovation applied within and to them is likely to achieve benefits in the transfer of skills and ideas but the key is in the knowledgeable application of them to the market in focus.
I wonder if the absence of such an approach is to any extent part of the reason behind the progressive decline in the profit fortunes of some of the professional publishers. This might be to the extent that they don’t always appear to recognise the difference between adding value, though content quality and appropriateness – effectively giving practitioners their licence to practice – and supplying back-office tools to reduce operating costs. The ability to deliver the former is more likely to require the input of the sorts of publishers I have in mind.
There exist those legal and professional publishing businesses that spend the appropriate money and invest in suitable training to ensure that their development specialists are lawyers, tax advisers, accountants or whatever, the purpose of which is to ensure quality, intimacy and relevance. I am not alone in my belief that this is sound investment, valued by customers, for whom issues of trust are paramount. The signs are that, with the recent acquisition by Bloomberg of BNA, the new combination understands the importance of having the right sort of expertise in place and it would be surprising if an innovative and most significant force in professional publishing has not been created. Another that can boast most forcefully and justifiably about their use of their professional support team is Practical Law Company, which seems to be achieving success that is envied by many. Perhaps they know something that others ignore.
Add to this, further recent speculation, again, around the perceived good sense of a break-up of Reed-Elsevier and one might envisage a different, maybe even better, publishing world in times to come.
Just as in all commercial and professional sectors, where adding value to achieve the highest standards of quality and service supports strong pricing and encourages customers to make their buying decisions on potential benefits back to themselves, one would hope that this reasoning is not forgotten in professional information publishing.