Form follows function

I'm wrapping up a week in which I have been writing about five lessons I've learned while designing and consulting on content workflows. The last is a favorite: "Form follows function: create structures that reflect discrete functions, not functions that fit a legacy structure."

Most publishers organize themselves using buckets that made perfect sense in a world of physical content. Editorial, production editorial, production, marketing and sales are familar departments for almost any book publisher, while the copy desk and audience development are well-know to periodical publishers.

I wrote yesterday that publishers should try to change processes to take advantage of software design. The same applies to organizational design: it has to take into account the functions performed, not just the historical definition of the work involved.

The growth of digital forms of published content has already changed the way things like marketing work. Discovery, trial and purchase increasingly depend on decisions made months to years before the classic marketing function gets a hold of a project. As I wrote in 2010:

Only after we fill the physical container do we turn our attention to rebuilding the digital roots of content: the context, including tags, links, research and unpublished material, that can get lost on the cutting-room floor. Most of that context never makes it back.  We have taken to using things like title-level metadata, some search engine optimization and occasionally effective use of syndication as proxies for something contextually rich. Competing as we are against the “born-digital”, that’s not nearly enough.

Poorly defined structures create problems internally, as well. In the early 1990s, I managed production for Time. At the time, information for each issue was gathered in parallel across three different departments. The destination varied by the source and where we were in the closing cycle. While all the functions reported to me, the overlap was extensive and error-prone.

We were already working to create a less hierarchical structure, but as we tried to reduce the number of layers, the communications overlap became a real roadblock. After some deliberation, we stopped moving people and instead moved (some) activities into departments whose core functions were organized in three ways:

  • Gathering information about production requirements
  • Translating requirements into production specifications
  • Producing and delivering magazines that met those specifications

The central change was simple: we made one department responsible for gathering all the required information. The two other departments, long used to working in parallel, expressed occasionally deep skepticism about the new roles, but I was pretty steadfast. Over time, the change improved communications, reduced errors (we measured!) and cut down on the amount of rework.

Making one department responsible for gathering also gave us a chance to organize its staff around the magazine's sales offices. As a result, ad agencies and the sales staff at Time – people who previously had to guess who to call – were assigned a single contact within production. Imagine the impact on external satisfaction with the department.

The lesson here isn't necessarily sophisticated: persistently question legacy structures and ask whether they still make sense. When you decide to redesign an organization, start with workflow. Ask yourself what outcomes matter and identify the core activities that add value. That's your draft structure.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.