I have long believed, certainly before we spoke so much about “communities”, that if a professional publisher is to achieve its best, by all the relevant measures, it has to engage closely, intimately, regularly and consistently with the key member institutes, associations, societies and representative bodies in the market. In its efforts to reach and understand the members, as well as to build trust with them, to circumvent the membership route is unwise and can be a recipe, to some extent at least, for failure. That said, it is not necessarily an easy route for the publisher or the institute and results and levels of frustration on both sides are likely to be variable.
One of the most basic issues to address and accommodate is the fact that, with exceptions, membership bodies and other not-for-profit entities have a quite different – not better or worse – mindset from that of the commercial publisher. Not an exact analogy but from my own experience, my least satisfying and frustrating job was as managing director of National Publishing at the then just privatised Stationery Office (TSO), now part of Deutsche Post DHL. In good faith, I put our intentions into print and, with a focus on the British and Irish law librarians market wrote:
Regular contact with BIALL and its individual members as well as with other organisations and committees will, it is hoped, be a key feature of how business will be done. In this way, needs, wishes and growth initiatives can be discussed in a creative way. There will be a continuous effort to improve customer service – again in consequence of hearing directly what the customers have to say
On working hand-in-hand with publishing partners, primarily government departments, I wrote:
The future is not taken for granted and The Stationery Office is very aware that its long-term survival and success are entirely dependent on performance and customer satisfaction.
(“It’s Spelt with an ‘e‘”, Robert McKay, The Law Librarian, Vol. 28, No. 3, September 1997, pp. 157-158)
My perception, however, with hindsight, was that it became unclear, certainly to me, who was the customer or client and who were suppliers in that particular instance. Motives surrounding a focus on profit and revenue growth can conflict sometimes with those that target membership benefit, highest levels of customer service and representation. If this happens, there can be frustration where it appears that respective parties simply don’t understand the culture and objectives of the other. I am certain, however, that TSO has gone on to build on its particular strengths in admirable ways.
More recently, in my close involvement with others in the setting up and managing a recently ended 10 year partnership between CCH UK and The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), I was greatly impressed with the agreed notion of “Win: Win: Win” that sought to underpin the relationship. The mantra perceived measurable benefits for the publisher, the institute and the members and, without any special reference to that partnership, I do believe that for either party to pay any less attention to or fail to understand any one of the three is unwise.
The characteristics of the Publisher/Institute arrangement are well understood by those in one or both camps. All the experts and insiders to whom I spoke were keen supporters but were not blind to the difficulties.
Typical of those whose expertise lies in publishing and institutional worlds:
There are always areas of mutual interest but a professional body and commercial organisation will always come at these things from different angles. The way to make a relationship work is to understand how your potential partner sees the world. That way you will begin to understand what they want from you and how you might provide it.
(Simon Goldie, Head of External Relations, LexisNexis UK)
Those views are endorsed and amplified by others who also have similar experience:
Ownership & raison d’etre
- It seems obvious but Institutes and trade associations exist for one reason only; to serve their membership. Everything is subordinate to that singular purpose. Large or small, rich or poor they are organisations created by a community to serve that community.
- Membership bodies live and die on the quality of their “content” although they would not necessarily recognise the publishing analogy. Their IP is packaged as lobbying, events, training, CPD or as books, CDs, subscription packages and best practice notes.
- Inevitably institutes develop a need for publishing skills and recruit the necessary talents either on the payroll, in partnership with commercial publishers or (frequently) a combination of the two.
- The initial purpose is seldom if ever revenue generation and that’s when the fun begins.
Profit v. surplus
- Profit is necessary for the survival of any organisation, institute or professional publisher.
- However, many trade associations avoid the “p” word in favour of surplus. This may be accompanied by a disdain for those whose purpose it is to generate profit.
- No matter how commercial or successful many members are in their day jobs this is not what many want or expect from their involvement with their membership body.
- There are inevitable conflicts when a commercial ethos rubs up against “not for profit” attitude of many institutes.
- Even more interesting is when a product, initially done as a service for members, becomes profitable and the institute is offended that their commercial publisher is now making money!
- There is nothing quite like the governance processes in the majority of institutes. They are about as far away from the traditional planning and decision making processes of commercial publishers as it is possible to be.
- Decisions are made by committees. Or boards. Or working parties. All groupings of members and all acting in a voluntary capacity. Don’t expect a fast decision!
IP & copyright
- Even more interesting is when commercial publishers package content which has been generated by committees. There are seldom if ever contracts in place and copyright is grey at best.”
(Anne Godfrey, Chief Executive at GTMC Ltd)
Another experienced publisher and Institutional insider offers advice from an Institute to professional publishers
In an era of an increasing complex and global regulatory environment together with the international mobility of talent, professional bodies today are far more complex and sophisticated organisations than in the past. Take time to build trust and understand the bodies ‘motivations’ and business objectives. Also take time to really understand the culture.
Professional bodies are fundamentally about relationships, in terms of its membership networks, regulatory stakeholders and international networks. Understanding and leveraging these ‘touch points’ – how the organisation interacts with its stakeholders – is key in tapping into its market insight, acquiring IP and realising value.
Increasingly professional bodies are investing in their communication channels – both in hard copy (still relevant) and electronically. Certainly in the accountancy market the major professional bodies have developed highly sophisticated and measurable ways of communicating with their memberships. Of particular note is the rise of e-newsletters and Web 2.0 user generated content /technology. Intelligent use of these channels will maximise the opportunity to engage with its membership.
(Jonathan Levy, Head of Strategy & Development at the ICAEW)
Perhaps the subtle differences of opinion, if they exist at all, emerge when one sees these issues from the experience of one side or another.
To me the key issue for professional publishers is to ensure they understand the market, not just in the content they propose to publish but in terms of knowing what the practitioner, actually needs. In the main this comes through speaking with those end users but to an extent the scope and breadth of understanding can come through developing a close working relationship with those who represent the end user, i.e. their professional and other representative bodies. If the professional body is doing its job well, it will have the ear of its members and should be abler to communicate to the publisher the needs of its members. This benefits not only the publishers but its members also.
(Ken McManus, Head of International Services, Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland)
There’s a curious love-hate relationship that goes on between professional institutes and publishers. Generally, the former have a critical need to communicate their specialism to other stakeholders and generate a broad range of advice and education to their members and students, while making money to support the membership. Many aren’t terribly good at commercial, even not-for-profit, exploitation and the complexities of high-quality publishing, not part of their core capabilities and quite often outside the experience base of their managers and elected Council. They do, however, have two key assets – access to a knowledge base (expertise) and a (mostly) interested membership community, which can be invaluable to a publisher looking to build or consolidate a position in a niche specialist sector. So many institutes could and should benefit from working with commercial publishers, and in some cases, vice versa.
The challenge, however, lies in dealing with the cultural differences in the relationship: on the one side, a democratic, not-for-profit managed process – in some cases even operational decisions on products and pricing get referred to a passing Council member – and a commercial publisher driven by market demands and client needs. A successful relationship, I think, requires an open-minded approach from the institute and a patient, educative approach from the publisher – and a market need that is interesting enough for both parties!
(Maurice Cheng, Strategy & Management Consultant • Chief Executive & Marketing Director)
While from a key senior executive in legal publishing, though alluding more to recognition of the importance of institutes than to working in partnership with them:
For a professional publisher to succeed consistently, they must always have mechanisms in place which help collect customers’ feedback. This feedback is incredibly important as it guides new product development and product refinement.
A complementary source of customer insight often overlooked by information providers is the professional institutions that serve specific customer groups (legal, tax, medicine, etc.)
A customer-oriented publisher sets up operating mechanisms also to garner feedback from those key institutions in order better to inform product development and customer interaction. The institutions are quite often repositories of customer trend information that can be used by publishers to serve clients better. The key is to determine a means to collect the information in a continuous way.
(Mark Schlagater, President – Thomson Reuters UK and Ireland Core Legal)
With the business of generating profit from information content and services to professional advisers becoming ever more difficult and competitive, in an era of justifiable cynicism about the value of membership bodies, both sides would do well to heed the words of these and other experts.