Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Data challenges for publishers – teams, tools and changes in the law

We are delighted to be able to share this blog from Warren Clark at Research Information who attended our popular, recent seminar How to Build a Data- Driven Publishing Organization chaired by Freddie Quek.

Dealing with data is nothing new to scholarly publishers – but it was clear from a recent ALPSP event that it’s an ever-changing battlefield, reports Warren Clark

How to Build a Data Driven Publishing Organization, held on 20 April at the Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and hosted by ALPSP, proved there is much for many still to learn in how to approach the masses of data points generated by companies throughout the publishing cycle.

As John Morton, board chair of Zapaygo, said in his keynote: ‘Most publishers are using less than five per cent of the data they own.’

The event featured many examples of areas in which data could be collected, analysed and presented in a form that would improve profitability for publishers, and provide users with a more personalised experience.

Ove Kähler, director, program management and global distribution at Brill, together with his colleague Lauren Danahy, team leader, applications and data, explored the challenges they faced in developing an in-house data team. Their most significant innovation was to arrange their primary data groups according to where they occurred in the workflow: content validation; product creation; content and data enrichment; content and data distribution; product promotion; and product sales.

The pair explained how they created a team – from existing staff within the company – giving each specific responsibility for one of those data groups, and how that led to improved quality and output of data at each step.

Indeed, the notion that publishers shouldn’t assume that dealing with data means employing new staff was echoed throughout the day, with both David Smith, head of product solutions at IET, and Elisabeth Ling, SVP of analytics at Elsevier, suggesting in the panel discussion that people ‘look at your own team first’, since it was likely that the skills required would already be present.


Choosing tools

As well as who and why, many speakers talked about how they capture, store, analyse and visualise the data they collect. The most extensive of these was IET’s David Smith, who overhauled the IT department’s software tools to evolve a more accurate suite of visualisations that product teams could use independently and without the need to continuous IT support. Smith explained that those looking for a ‘single solution’ from a software package that solved all data challenges for publishers would be disappointed, before reeling off half a dozen or more software tools that his team had integrated to develop a solution that suited their needs.

In a session that brought a perspective from outside the publishing industry, Matt Hutchison, director of business intelligence and analytics at Collinson Group, a company that runs global loyalty programmes on behalf of major brands, supported this notion by showing how they had outsourced some of their function to Amazon Web Services (AWS). Matt Pitchford, solutions architect at AWS, demonstrated that the cloud computing set-up they developed for Collinson Group involved more than 20 different pieces of software.


What data can bring

Another theme was quality of data – as Graeme Doswell, head of global circulation at Sage Publishing put it: ‘You need your data capture processes to be as granular as you want your output to be.’ He showed examples of how Sage was using its data to show librarians their levels of usage, making it easier for the sales teams when it came to renewals. David Leeming, publishing consultant at 67 Bricks, gave a further example, specifically in the area of content enrichment.

For Iain Craig, director strategic market analysis at Wiley, data was used to help business decisions on new journal launches. He explained a major project that involved them collecting internal and external data points such as subject matter, number of submissions, journal usage, funding patterns, and many more. The outcomes have helped improve existing journals, and suggest where future resources should be deployed for emerging markets.

Similarly, Blair Granville, insights analyst at Portland Press, demonstrated how his team tracked submissions, subscriptions, open access, citations, usage, commissions and click-through rates in order to to feed intelligence back to the editorial teams about where their focus should be.


Data and the law

The most enlightening paper of the day came from Sarah Day, data marketing professional and associate consultant at DQM-GRC, who spoke about data regulation and governance. She warned against complacency and ignorance when it comes to data, particularly with regard to the upcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Already law, but due to become enforceable in May 2018 (allowing time for institutions to ensure compliance), this is an EU-wide revision of privacy laws designed to give individuals more control over their personal data.

‘In spite of Brexit, the UK – and indeed any country outside the EU that offers goods and services to people in the EU – will have to comply,’ said Day. The impact of the new regulations are far and wide as far as publishers are concerned, and among the most important things they can do is ‘be transparent about what you are doing with an individual’s data’.

Although Day successfully rose to the challenge of explaining GDPR in one minute, it served to demonstrate that managing data in a safe, secure, and legal manner is a complex issue that every publisher will have to address head on.

With more than 50 attendees at the event, drawn from publishers large and small, it’s clear that understanding data – and all the issues that come with it – is an issue that will only become more important in the years to come, as the amount of data generated grows exponentially.

For more blogs and publishing news from Warren Clark and the excellent team at Research Information please visit:

Thursday, 30 March 2017

'Just do it': highlights from the ALPSP Open Access seminar

photo Martyn Lawrence

Martyn Lawrence attended last month's ALPSP seminar How to build a Successful Open Access Books Programme which was chaired by Frances Pinter.

He offers his thoughts on the day.

This one day seminar on Open Access monographs brought together a mixed – and refreshingly perky – group of publishers, librarians, funders and authors.

On the heels of the R2R conference, held on the preceding days, chair Frances Pinter set the scene in a room full of industry heavyweights, traditional presses, societies and start-ups. She had briefed the wide range of speakers to talk about challenges overcome and how their offer could be scaled up, not just to showcase their companies.

Here, rather than a blow-by-blow account of each presentation, I’m offering the top ten takeaways from a thoroughly enjoyable day.

1. Monographs are important

The tone was set from the outset. There’s an intangible thing with books: even though you can read on a device, there’s something about a printed book that provokes different emotions from a printed journal. Yes, chapters in edited collections are akin to journal articles (scholarly ‘stuff’ to use the language preferred by Toby Green and Tom Clark) but monographs, by and large, arouse different responses. That’s partly because of their dominance in the humanities and social sciences: because HSS research is so often about the idea, rather than the data, the venue for that idea is venerated – as is the means of expressing it. As the Crossick Report stated: ‘The writing of the long-form publication IS the research process’.

2. Books are under pressure

The problems are hardly new: low sales, declining library budgets, tough distribution, pressure to make publicly-funded work freely available and a changing environment in a platform-led world.

For some disciplines, it’s a relevancy issue in the fake-news, barriers-first world of Trump and Brexit. If STM creates new drugs and builds planes, HSS needs to explain what it offers. Indeed, as Rupert Gatty so eloquently said in favour of Open Book Publishers, it’s time to re-evaluate the entire publishing model. If access to your title results to a 300:1 success in favour of the open version (based on data from his presentation), it takes a lot of effort to justify prioritising the single digit. We should be able to communicate in more ways, not fewer.

3. HEFCE monograph policy

Funder attention and OA policies have hitherto focused on journals publishing, because of the desire to kick-start innovation and drive new business models. It’s also been driven by academic priorities in the big-money STM areas.

Ben Johnson (HEFCE) explained why HEFCE is interested in OA for all published outputs:

  • it leads to greater efficiency when university finances are stretched
  • it improves quality of research
  • it leads to impact and reach outside big institutions

A diverse system means that people can choose how they communicate. In STM, 98% of REF returns were journal articles. In HSS, by contrast, the monograph dominated.

The REF after next will require OA monographs, and pilots are being put into place for that. In ten years, there will be a significant percentage of OA books. The equivalent REF value isn’t yet given to e-monographs but that will change.

4. We’re going to play nice

The journey to OA for journals was heated and not always constructive. HEFCE hopes to avoid a repeat for monographs (which, given the expected length of the journey, is a blessing), and it’s worth emphasising that the atmosphere in the room was considerably different from the ALPSP OA event in June 2016 which focused predominantly on journals. There was precious little mention here of ‘drive your APCs’ or ‘milk the P&L’. HEFCE set the tone and subsequent speakers reinforced it: all parties should respect that the pace of change will be up for debate.

5. University presses may be the future melting pot for OA

Perhaps the most interesting news was that initiative for change is less likely to come from the legacy publishers, nor yet the start-ups, but from the growing cohort of university presses. Often housed within university libraries (and therefore with a strong mandate to champion OA), they are often far less reactive than the legacy publishers. Two careful presentations from CUP and Taylor & Francis bore this out: progress is cautious in the global publishing houses, partly because agitation from the author community is not high, and partly because of varying geographical and disciplinary opinions about open research.

In the UPs, by contrast, commissioning can be driven by ‘what’s the story?’ not ‘where’s the money?’. The rationale for editorial excellence is as strong as ever, but removing the pressure of profit margins means OA books can be more eclectic, more interesting, more exciting than ever before. ‘The value to the university is in profile and reputation, not in income’, said Sue White of University of Huddersfield Press. No one is going half-measures on this, either. As Lara Speicher (UCL Press) noted, authors are watching closely and they’ll quiz publishers over their sales and marketing plans for a title. Having said all of that, the (small) list of OA books published by CUP was notable for its breadth and quality: there’s no indication that OA diminishes the value proposition for readers.

6. Systems really stink

Publishers don’t build systems to give away books for free. OK, so there’s a wisecrack hiding there, but try as you might, it’s really difficult to convince a legacy e-commerce system to offer an article or an entire book with a zero price tag. They simply weren’t built with OA in mind, and rescaffolding sites is one of these things that everyone assumes is easy until they try it. Time and again, this issue emerged as a remarkable stumbling block.

7. Discoverability ain’t great either

Three kinds of metadata are needed to make an OA monograph fully discoverable, and they are non-negotiable, functional essentials:

  • content (eg keywords and BIC codes)
  • digital (eg DOIs, ORCiDs, ISBNs)
  • OA-specific (eg specific CC license for both articles and images, embargo period, funders, location of Version of Record)

Without this, scalability of OA programmes will prove tricky. It doesn’t help if third-party vendors don’t make it clear that a print book is digitally OA, or if elements of the metadata drop out on the book’s journey through the post-publication environment. (I was reminded at this point of a recent Scholarly Kitchen piece by Jill O’Neill, in which she described the convoluted process of tracking down what she called ‘an OA monograph in the wild’.)

Simon Bains, Head of Research Services at the University of Manchester reinforced this point. Unless metadata is strong, Manchester doesn’t give OA books the same priority. In Bains’ view, JSTOR discoverability is good; OAPEN and DOAB are poor; Hathi Trust and Internet Archive are non-existent. They also prioritise reading list books.

As Euan Adie said, ‘metadata is a love-letter to the future’. Without it, OA founders.

8. OA encourages audience-first publishing

Some of the most fascinating presentations came from researchers. Vanesa Castán Broto, Senior Lecturer at UCL, made the forceful point that if academics are not inspired to produce something, they will drag their heels. Broto was adamant that she didn’t want to produce something held only by an elite group in the English-speaking global north. Her OA research on Mozambique, published by UCL Press in English and Portuguese, has seen downloads in 152 countries: ‘it’s a massive incentive for me to publish open and in a language other than English’, she said. This motivation, she said, trumped any accusations about OA vanity publishing.

Broto’s conviction raised an important issue. The bigger publishers are ploughing time and money into an OA monograph programme as a business need: they’re packaging it as part of a wider author services offer. By contrast, the authors are taking risks because they are in the business of communicating their research discoveries to the widest possible audience. In one sense, these factors are symbiotic: authors need publications to be widely available, and publishers are in the business of making that happen. But it’s intriguing to see how these two different rationales will converge, given the issues of scalability and sustainability. For the most part, publishing ‘closed’ in the right journals is still more important than publishing ‘open’ in smaller journals.

9. OA enables innovation

Book launches kill budgets, but authors love them. So in a platform-driven world, what’s the alternative? Online parties, says Xinyuang Wang at UCL, who reported on a campaign supporting her OA book with a MOOC and YouTube videos translated into multiple languages. The greatest impact of this was the means of attracting new and wider audiences to the work. It’s an audience-first model that legacy publishers will struggle to match.

The larger point seemed to be that OA publishers, particularly those without legacy models to protect, are potential incubators of innovation. Without a cumbersome legacy model to restrict format or dictate price, they can engage more fully with the long tail of high quality titles. Diversity, said Andrew Lockett of University of Westminster Press, has much greater value once you’re not obsessed with the US library market.

10. Print isn’t going away

Despite everything, physical books still make a difference. Ultimately, that’s why the transition to OA monographs has taken so much longer than journals. Lots of university presses are offering books as short-run PODs (often 100 copies) to ensure they cover demand, and OA isn’t replacing print. This was the funding message too: academic choice is a big part of the HEFCE approach. Data from Brill and UCL suggests that print sales are not decimated by OA (it’s the effect on ebooks that is more notable).

And this is what’s so interesting – the mix keeps us going. When it comes to OA monographs, what do we want? Everything.

Martyn Lawrence is Publishing Manager at the Royal Armouries Museum, with oversight of the books programme at the museum's three sites (Leeds, the Tower of London and Fort Nelson). He is a frequent contributor to international publishing workshops and training events, including seminars for ALPSP and London Book Fair, and he has chaired numerous conference sessions around the world.

ALPSP organises a full professional development programme of seminars, training workshops and webinars. See for details.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Why train? Why online? Pippa Smart explains how ALPSP blended learning came about...

photo Pippa Smart
I run quite a lot of workshops for ALPSP and other organizations, and I love the immediacy of meeting people in different companies, with different experiences and viewpoints. It is a luxury to be able to travel and meet people and learn with and from them.

However, pressures of work, costs of travel and problems of timing make physical meetings problematic – just today I had to plead off a meeting and video-in because of workload.

We work in an exciting industry where you could be speaking to people from USA, Germany, China, and Japan all in a day, and physical workshops are just not practical in such an environment – nice as they would be. This is why, about 5 years ago, there was a loud buzz about "distance learning" and I was involved in writing several courses for different organizations. They were all seeking to resolve the same problem – how to reach people anywhere, anytime. However, many of them were not successful because the model they relied on was – in effect – simply providing an online handbook for people to read in their own time.

However, there has been a recent resurgence in the idea of providing remote training opportunities with larger publishers looking at video conferences, virtual meetings, and online training resources for their staff – those in the office and those who work from home.

The new approach takes into account the following important factors, learnt from earlier experience:
  • There must be a set time for the training – a start and finish time, because people are very good at procrastinating -  anything that is not "urgent" and time-limited won’t get done
  • There must be an opportunity for discussion – contributing and sharing
  • There must be some interaction – simply reading or watching is an ineffective way to engage people.
And all this must be added to the right content – what do people NEED to know, and what is the best QUALITY that can be delivered to them?

ALPSP has been repeatedly asked about providing its training to a wider audience, and face-to-face workshops are – for all the reasons above – not scaleable (or economical).

So, when I was asked to help develop an online version of the Introduction to Publishing course we agreed that there had to be quality content delivered in an interactive, time-limited and focussed way. And so the "International Primer - Introduction to Publishing" was born. Taking all the lessons learnt, we have structured it as follows:
  1. A comprehensive handbook for reference (you can't get away from needing content!).
  2. An interactive webinar – discussing issues raised in the handbook and allowing for discussion and contribution.
  3. A quiz – to help participants check understanding of what they read and watched and discussed.
  4. Follow-up access to the trainers – for questions, comments and reactions.
We ran the part one at the end of 2016 and part two (there is a lot to cover!) runs on 24 April this year. We had some interesting discussions last time and (learning from that) we are going to devote more time to these in part two – do join us, it should be a fun event!

Pippa Smart and Simon Linacre will be presenting Introduction to Journals Publishing 2: An international primer on Monday 24 April, online, 10am EDT (New York); 3pm GMT (UK); 4pm CET (Central Europe).  You can find out more here.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Why is the business technology side of eJournals so unnecessarily complex? Tracy Gardner reflects...

eJournal technology is an essential part of the scholarly publishing industry. It is also the topic of one of our most popular training courses. Here, we spoke to Understanding eJournal Technology co-tutor, Tracy Gardner, about the challenges of keeping up-to-date in this area.

"One of the biggest challenges publishers face is making sure their content can be easily found in the various discovery resources readers use to find journal articles, and then to ensure the steps between the reader finding the content and reading it are seamless and without barrier. There are so many potential pitfalls along the way, and this issue therefore concerns people working in production, IT, editorial, sales, marketing and customer service.

The pace of change is fast, technology is evolving all of the time and the driver for much of it has come from the libraries. Libraries are keen to ensure their patrons find and access content they have selected and purchased and by keeping them in a library intermediated environment they feel they can improve their research experience overall. Ultimately the library would like the user to start at the library website, find content they can read and not be challenged along the way.

Simon Inger and I have been running the Understanding eJournal Technology course two or three times a year for ten years now and we have never run the same course twice - it constantly needs to be updated.

Those working in customer facing roles such as sales, marketing and customer service may not fully appreciate how much library technology impacts on the way researchers find and access their content. Many people are surprised to learn that poor usage within an institution is often because something has gone wrong with the way the content is indexed within the library discovery layer, how it is set up in the library link resolver, or issues with authentication.

For those in operational or technology roles, the business technology side of eJournals can seem unnecessarily complex and, especially for those new to the industry, the way the information community works can seem counter to the way many other business sectors operate. What makes sense in classic B2B or B2C environments will not make sense within the academic research community.

By helping people who work in publishing houses understand how the eJournal technology works and how they can most effectively work with libraries to maximise discovery and use of their content. Many people who have attended our course have not been aware of the impact some of their decisions have had and our course has helped them understand why they need to work in certain ways."

Tracy Gardner will tutor on Understanding eJournal Technology in March and November 2017. Book your place now.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Introducing Content Enrichment as a strategic publishing capability

photo Sam Herbert
In this post, Sam Herbert discusses the benefits to be gained when publishers introduce content enrichment to their business processes as a strategic capability.

Content enrichment is the application of modern content processing techniques like natural language processing, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to add structure, context and metadata to content to make it more useful to humans and computers. It is a key enabler in the array of techniques, skills and know-how needed in order to successfully complete the transition to digital, data driven organisations. In the digital environment, content enrichment unlocks the potential to get the best out of all parts of the publishing lifecycle.

So far, most publishers have only dabbled in using modern content processing tools or they have implemented spot solutions for specific needs that do not deliver value across the organisation. We have seen that when content enrichment projects are done separately and in isolation in different parts of the business, even though some of them prove to be very successful, very few leverage the success from previous work or build a capability that can be reused. Isolated projects often also use different technologies to achieve similar results and because there is little coordination between the projects there is wasted effort, unnecessary repetition of work and little shared learning. Therefore, these initiatives do not take the business forward.

To maximise the business benefits of content enrichment, it should be introduced as a strategic organisational capability comprising people, processes and technology. When implemented strategically, rather than as individual features within single products, content enrichment delivers multiple benefits. For example, introducing the capability to create semantic fingerprints for pieces of content can deliver a peer review recommender tool, but it can then also deliver other features like a relatedness feature, a smart notification feature etc.

Our work with publishers has identified benefits from content enrichment in every part of the organisation (editorial, content production, product development, IT, sales, marketing, and finance). Implementing content enrichment as an organisational capability ensures that any investment delivers value across the whole organisation as well as delivering more value to customers.

To remain relevant, increase efficiency and deliver new revenue streams every publisher should be developing a plan for how they will utilise modern content processing techniques and tools.

For more information about how to take a strategic approach to building your core content enrichment capability and how to use it to achieve strategic business objectives, take a look at our white paper, Content Enrichment: an essential strategic capability for every publisher.

Sam Herbert is Client Services Director and co-founder of 67 Bricks. Founded in 2007, 67 Bricks is a software consultancy specialising in content enrichment.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Challenges of Outsourcing Part Four: Supplier selection (top tips 6-10)

photo Lorraine Ellery Matthews
In this post, Lorraine Ellery Matthews continues to share feedback from leading scholarly publishing professionals focusing on practical advice and further top tips (Tips 6-10) to consider when selecting a supplier to outsource your product or service.

The first post in the series identified 10 key drivers to outsource and the second post outlined Stakeholder Engagement.

Part three identified five top tips for selecting a supplier

1. What impressions do you have of a supplier?
2. Ensure effective communication
3. Forge positive relationships
4. Engage in early collaboration
5. Look under the hood

In this post, she outlines top tips 6-10:

6. Consider time and resources

"When moving suppliers you need to have built in sufficient post-implementation time to ensure that the quality of the core service is at least as good as it was before the change. The call on time and resources and the resultant loss of momentum should not be underestimated - you want to be able to reassure your customers, and ideally involve them in the ‘live’ test phase." Daniel Smith, semi-retired Publisher and Consultant, previously Head of Academic Publishing at The IET

7. Obtain recommendations and feedback

Requesting references from a supplier should be a given and once received, ensure you ask for feedback from different roles within the organization that deal with the supplier, including those that deal with the day to day communications. Ensure you ask the supplier’s customers how their transition went and their current experience.

Obtaining recommendations from a trusted source of your own can also provide you with a more in-depth insight than relying on those references supplied alone.

In conversation with Simon Laurenson, Operations Manager at Bioscientifica about the switch to a new eCommerce supplier, Simon shared some helpful advice:
"It's important to speak to other publishers and get as much advice as you can, with lots of society owned publishers our size we have the opportunity to exchange notes." 

A word of caution, however. When talking to another publisher/organization you need to consider that at the time of talking with others, they may have been optimistic so it's best if you do not rely on this feedback alone.

All the publishers I spoke to will provide clear feedback if asked by the suppliers once the RFP/Tender process has ended, recognizing the time and effort invested by the supplier and to aid continued improvement. At the end of the selection process do also ask suppliers for feedback from their perspective too. For example: How did your RFP compare to others they have seen and what other questions could have been asked?

8. Expect the unexpected 

Expect the unexpected cartoon of jack in the box

Even with good planning, it's hard to know exactly what to expect back from a supplier.

Ove Kähler, Director Product Management & Global Distribution at Brill speaks about proposals he received back from suppliers:

"We didn't expect to get responses back that were close to 150 pages long. Also, the diversity of proposals and different aspects of pricing made it difficult to compare them. We tried to prevent this by providing vendors with the Excel version of our requirements. Even though they filled in the sheet and highlighted what was in scope and what wasn’t, it was still a challenge to get a good easy overview of how the proposals compared."

9. Quality assessment

In discussion with Jeremy MacDonald, Director of Technology at Pharmaceutical Press, quality assessment was raised as a key undertaking when developing an APP and he emphasised the importance of selecting a supplier that can get the data right first time:

"There are multiple internal challenges that arise when trying to present data that needs to be clinically correct. People are using this data to make important decisions about other people including children so there is a high level of responsibility for you as the publisher to get it right. When developing an APP, you are having to create your content set in different media so have to ensure quality assessment has been undertaken before presenting the data.

Getting an App to work across different platforms is a challenge with the different versioning of devices e.g. IOS 5 and IOS 10 - things evolve forward and therefore you need to ensure the App can continue to work with different devices and platforms. Upgrades are open to error and we have to continually test and modify the code base."

Testing partners
It's not always possible to test different versions of iPhone for example within your organization. Therefore, the publisher found test partners who were able to undertake the testing for them. Everyone in-house at the publisher runs Windows 7, therefore a SaaS partner was also needed to test their browsers and Apps on different desktops.

10. Planning

Finally, if things do NOT work out it can be really painful so it is important to ensure you have agreed on a project plan with you supplier that is prepared for every contingency. A good project plan will allow you to monitor the stages of a project development, make adjustments where necessary and maintain a momentum with your supplier through to implementation and beyond.

Daniel Smith, in discussing hosting services noted "A properly formulated project plan would allow at least 6-12 months of post-implementation activity to ensure that the service is fit for purpose and where it is not, there is time and resource to put it right."

It is important to be realistic with your timelines. If you have to change supplier at short notice, you need to be accommodating in terms of what you expect of the new supplier. If you are pushing a tight deadline on them, you need to be aware this may cause longer term problems.

Effective communication and forging good relationships will go a long way to ensuring a successful project and outsource partnership. However, to avoid frustration, don't forget also to plan for the expected as one publisher suggested: "Everything can stop for Christmas!".

cartoon illustrating everything stops for Christmas

Do you have any further tips or thoughts on this topic that you would like to share?

Join Lorraine Ellery Matthews who will be chairing the Outsourcing Challenges workshop at the forthcoming Research to Reader Conference in London on 20 and 21 February 2017.  The workshop poses the following question to the wider community:

Which aspects of the scholarly communications process can be outsourced, how can risks be mitigated and how can outsourcing be most effectively managed?

Register here for the 2017 Research to Reader Conference.

Friday, 20 January 2017

The Challenges of Outsourcing Part Three: Supplier selection (top tips 1-5)

photo Lorraine Ellery Matthews
In this post, part three of the Challenges of Outsourcing, Lorraine Ellery continues to share feedback from leading scholarly publishing professionals focusing on practical advice and tips to consider when selecting a supplier to outsource your product or service.

This follows the first post in the series identifying 10 key drivers to outsource and the second post outlining Stakeholder Engagement.

1. What impressions do you have of a supplier?

You may have already undertaken an early RFI (request for information) from a supplier, carried out your own research or commissioned a competitor analysis of the supplier landscape. However, to really get a good impression of the supplier, you need to consider how they are positioned and what they can bring to your business. You may find you need to engage in a more formal RFP (request for proposal) or tender process.

The RFP/Tender process should provide a framework that allows you to obtain a clear impression of the supplier; the product and service offering they provide; how they will address and meet your requirements and a clear indication of how they stand out from their competitors. The following key questions need to be answered before reaching an outsourcing agreement with a supplier:
  • Can they understand my business? 
  • Can they meet my requirements? 
  • Can they offer service reliability? 
  • Customer service, can they carry through on their promises?
  • Budget and ongoing costs, are these visible and agreeable? 
  • Have we agreed on critical value objectives
  • What is their value proposition, is this measurable?
  • What is their track record in servicing similar organizations?
  • How will their location affect me and my organization? (onshore or offshore) 
  • Do they have the ability to communicate effectively? 
  • Will I have Insight into their product/service roadmap? 
  • Are there signs of instability? 
  • Will our external auditors accept them?

If you are happy with your current supplier then you may not wish to spend time in going out to tender (unless you are obliged to do so) or in progressing with a formal RFP process. It is, therefore, advisable to first consider the opportunity cost involved!

2. Ensure effective communication

It is very important to mitigate against misunderstanding and incorrect interpretation usually caused by poor communication.
Cartoon illustrating importance of effective communication

I asked "is stakeholder engagement key to effective communication?" in my last post and wish to add that it is advisable to ensure you have agreed a clear project scope and selection criteria with relevant stakeholders before you reach out to suppliers. Whether this is before embarking on an informal or formal tender process, the preparation will take time, but this investment will ensure your objectives, goals and requirements are clear, assist you in managing expectations, provide a frame of reference and help take the emotion out of the supplier selection decision.

Clear expectations
Caroline Burley, Journals Operations Manager, Publishing Services & Production at the Royal Society of Chemistry shares her thoughts:

"Suppliers may say “yes we can do that” straight away without taking the time to fully understand what we are asking them to do. To ensure the supplier fully appreciates our requirements we try to make the documentation we provide as clear as possible and work through examples with them, providing feedback so that they can understand exactly what we are asking for.

If everyone is clear on the expectations and in agreement, then you should be able to work with the supplier to agree a realistic timeline to deliver the service. If they are not clear on what you are asking them to do, they may have to do additional last minute work that they were not anticipating which may affect the delivery time. Or if, as the customer, you are pushing for a fast delivery, it may be the case that they can't do all of the preparatory work before you go live.

You may need to be accommodating in terms of what you expect of the new supplier if you have a tight deadline, but be aware this may cause longer term problems once the motivation to finish the preparative work is removed.”

Agree to a SOW (statement of work)
The Head of the Journal program for a large medical society which completed several transitions to new vendors in 2016 recommends:

"Publishers and the selected vendor should agree in a SOW (and in great detail) what will be delivered and when with compensation or penalties for non-delivery. This is especially important for key workflow processes and functionalities.

Ideally, the consultant and client staff should document or record meetings with vendors during the RFP process and make sure that all parties are in agreement on what was presented and discussed to minimize disagreements and differences in interpretation at agreement and transition stage."

3. Forge positive relationships

"There is a lot to say for a relationship that is a positive one, and where you and the supplier are clear about your expectations both ways. Not just in a contract or agreement, but in terms of the actual interaction with the people you are working with. As the sales cliché suggests 'people buy from people first', there will be relationships that are particular to the organization and not every publisher is looking for the same thing." Director of Publishing, leading UK society publisher

4. Engage in early collaboration

Collaborating with consultants:
Collaborate with consultants to help distill information and facilitate discussion to allow stakeholders to talk through their frustrations - this feedback can strengthen the value of the final offering.

A consultant can ensure you select and retain the partners that best fit your organizational goals, provide advice and manage all or specific components of the RFP/Tender process, including the following:
  • Early research e.g. Competitor analysis 
  • Project management and advice
  • Support and assist in management of the selection process including creation of the RFP/tender documentation; evaluation of responses received, selection and brokering of agreements
  • Create and manage the implementation of contracts and SLA’s 
Matthew Cianfarani, Director International Business Development, Mark Allen Group collaborated with a consultant when outsourcing their hosting platform. Matthew suggests
"Use a consultant early to shape the whole thing – if you don’t have a large IT team who understand academic publishing you need an outside view of what you do, to communicate to potential vendors."

Early involvement of technical experts  
Sometimes you will find that you are dealing mainly with the commercial staff at the supplier end and it is not until an agreement is signed that the hand over to technical experts begins.

"Involvement of a technical person earlier in discussion provides continuity." Helen King, Digital Strategy Lead at BMJ

4) Look under the hood

Cartoon illustrating Look under the Hood

Before buying a car, you would look under the hood, before buying a new outfit you would preferably try it on. Therefore, why not apply this common sense when outsourcing?

It can take commitment of both time and finance to try a service before you buy, however, it can certainly be worth the investment as Helen King, BMJ found: "Working with a potential supplier to test their services before you decide to move platform can provide you with a large amount of qualitative information about the service and if it will be a good fit."

Sign up using your email to receive blog posts in this series, post four will highlight a further 6-10 tops tips to consider.

Lorraine will be chairing the Outsourcing Challenges workshop at the forthcoming Research to Reader Conference in London on 20-21 February 2017: Which aspects of the scholarly communications process can be outsourced, how can risks be mitigated and how can outsourcing be most effectively managed?

Register here for the 2017 Research to Reader Conference