Across the street from where I work (and blog), an elementary school has been dismantled. The new building is probably going to be a lot taller, and all summer long various works crews have been digging, drilling and blasting their way into the bedrock often found in midtown Manhattan.
Around the neighborhood, we’ve grown accustomed to the long whistle that signals another round of explosives is about to be set off. Each blast rattles adjacent buildings, including ours.
A few short whistles signal “all clear”, after which a thick rubber dam is pulled back from the blast area. One machine divides the blasted material into even smaller chunks, while another scoops up the material into the next available dump truck. It’s a batch operation, but it works steadily enough that you could mistake it for a continuous process.
Yes, I’m also a construction geek, but that’s not the reason I write about it here.
Much of my career has been dedicated to improving how things work, an elevator pitch shortened over time to “faster, better, cheaper”. It started with things like the timeliness of printing instructions, moved on to shortening the time required to deliver subscription copies, and more recently has focused on optimizing cross-platform content workflows.
In 27 years of “faster, better, cheaper”, I’ve learned that getting people to change what they do, how they do it and what tools they use is pretty much impossible without either absolute power or some controlled destruction.
Few of us have absolute power, and those among us who do hold it are understandably reluctant to use it to improve something like content workflows. That leaves us with controlled destruction.
You may be thinking, “But the old school/new building isn’t like publishing. We can’t just shut down for a year and come back when everything is arranged as we want it.” On that level I’d agree.
But content workflows are more like the sidewalks, streets, subways (there are six lines running within four blocks of this site), water mains and electrical and communication subsystems that still have to function as this controlled destruction takes place. Those things stay “up” because people have mapped them, identified where they might be affected and worked around them until the new construction is put in place.
That’s where publishing – in this case, both books and magazines – can go badly off track. We favor authoring tools that are cheap, or that are two releases (or more) behind, because “they work”, “the staff knows them” and “it’s a tough budget year”. We skip investments in accessible content repositories (whether purchased outright or rented using third parties) because “we’ve paid for these file servers”, and “the staff knows where everything is.”
We also find that it’s hard to map what’s in place already. And over time we discover that distribution of our content, hard as it is in one format (print), feels nearly overwhelmingly difficult as we take on formats that include the web, digital files, in components, syndicated feeds, you name it…
Nearly a decade ago, a consulting colleague noted that “big bangs make big holes”. I’m not advocating big bangs. Most publishers can’t handle them, and the few who can understand the complex nature of rebuilding everything at once.
But the content workflows that once made sense no longer do. We need approaches that are more flexible, lower-cost and capable of evolving over time. Pushing those developments into the future only increases the cost, complexity and urgency of change.
Publishers would do well to have already started the change process in earnest. Otherwise, the long whistle may signal the end of a business, not just a process. If we’ve learned anything in the last two years of economic turbulence, things really do go boom, like that.