Wednesday 15 January 2014

Kurt Paulus on ALPSP International Conference 2013: Part 1 - setting the scene

Setting the scene at the ALPSP conference
This is the first in a series of reflections on the 2013 ALPSP International Conference by Kurt Paulus, former Operations Director at the Institute of Physics, and long time supporter of ALPSP. Our thanks go to Kurt for capturing the sessions. If this whets your appetite, save the date for the 2014 conference, 10-12 September, Park Inn Heathrow London.

"Page fright: where to begin? Six plenaries and six parallel sessions in this sixth ALPSP International Conference, with six x six papers presented in all. How to make sense of all this in a number of screens small enough to entice anyone to venture beyond screen one? We shall see. Suffice to say that the 250 or so registrants had a varied, instructive and enjoyable time in the big marquee outside, and other facilities inside The Belfry near Birmingham and each will have carried away new insights, contacts and friendships, repaying the three days spent away from the office.

Inevitably this account of the conference is but a sketch. Detailed presentations can be viewed on the ALPSP website and YouTube channel. Early accounts were posted on the ALPSP blog.

Unsurprisingly this conference was all about change – technical change, changing customer profiles, changing participants in the great scholarly publishing endeavour, changing needs. Nothing new then, as the predecessor conferences and seminars have also been about change, albeit at a slower pace, and change and uncertainty will continue to be with us. One reason for the success of these conferences is that they allow us to take comfort from the support of our fellow publishing professionals and their willingness to share their experiences with us.

Setting the scene

‘Waving – or drowning?’ was how Tim Brooks, CEO of BMJ, headed his keynote talk opening the conference, adapting the title from a poetry collection by Stevie Smith. From his experience of the newspaper industry and his membership of the Cabinet Office’s digital advisory board he was able to draw lessons from other fields.

Waving - or drowning? asked Tim Brooks.
Other Belfry visitors may agree.

Modern life is very complex and change is not always predictable.

While leadership may have a vested interest in stability and the status quo (cultural obstacles to change), change requires agile responses: multi-level, high-speed, self-correcting.

“Doubt is not a pleasant state, but certainty is a ridiculous one” Voltaire

The newspaper industry has been and still is responding to the digital revolution and different publishers are coming up with different business models: the traditional, paper-based one is still durable but not eternal, and it is not yet entirely clear whether pay walls (The Times) or free access (The Guardian) will be the best approach. Nor is it clear which of the available structural options will be most viable. Even the metrics can fool you: new services will not outperform established ones on old-service metrics like profit, at least initially.

Some “surfing tips for the digital breakers”:
  • Ensure those who know, have a voice – the Inuit have known about climate change since the 1960s but nobody listened.
  • Get all publishing functions involved and enthused and get them to imagine the future.
  • Get people in with outside experience.
  • Treat staff as volunteers: explain what they do and why they do it and celebrate outcomes. Look after the team and yourself!
  • Keep talking and listening, especially when things go wrong: the good news culture is unhelpful.
  • Honour the rule of five: Five positives against one negatives is a good indicator of success.
Some of these tips recurred in other sessions."

Kurt Paulus, Bradford-on-Avon

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