FEATURE 

Developing Human Capital

Publishers are investing in technology, but, asks Peter Houston, what about the people that have to use it?

By Peter Houston

Publishers spend a lot of time and money on technology - they have since Caxton brought the first movable type back from Germany in the 15th century. From Rupert Murdoch swapping hot metal for electronic input in Wapping, to Chicago’s Sun Times newspaper replacing photographers with iPhone toting reporters, media executives have looked to the cutting edge to make processes better, faster, cheaper.

Today, it’s all about digital – apps, HTML5, Big Data – and if there was ever any argument that investing in digital media was a bad idea, it’s long since been lost.

As the average print-digital revenue split crawls toward 50:50, every publisher is trying to work out how to get the best return on their technology investments. A shiny new CMS is a big temptation when you are desperate to make it in digital media, but there is another side to the investment equation.

Harnessing the talent

More than fifty years ago - long before the digital disruption got going - a small group of American economists started talking about the role that people play in the creation of economic value. They figured out that, alongside manufacturing lines and machinery, business leaders who invested in their people saw a positive impact on income. They called this ‘Human Capital’.

Human capital was defined as the stock of competencies, knowledge, social and personality attributes, embodied in the ability to perform labour and like any other form of capital, investing in its development could improve returns.

The theory was that spending money on education, training and enhanced benefits led to an improvement in the quality and level of output and helped the long term productivity of a business. Everything from on the job training to improved worker health could have an impact on profitability.

Theories of human capital investment were controversial at first, with the theorists accused of reducing human beings to the level of manufacturing equipment. But from our vantage point at the centre of the knowledge economy, we would readily accept that it is only common sense to invest in the skills of your staff.

Justin B Smith, new CEO of Bloomberg Media Group and the man credited with bringing the Atlantic Media Group back to profitability, was reported as writing in his first email to Bloomberg employees that “talent is the ultimate driver of media success… the super-ingredient for media success, and the organizations that recruit and maintain their top talent — and manage it well — will win.”

Inspiring words from a media legend in the making. But what about back here in the real world, where ‘nothing is more important than our people’ is too often a bad joke rather than an aphorism. Are our publishing firms investing in the top talent that will see them through the digital transition?

“If you believe that people are what give you the ultimate competitive advantage, then surely you would be mad not to try to get your best people fully equipped for this digital age in which we now live,” says PPA CEO Barry McIlheney.

The PPA has moved away from being a direct training provider in recent years, but McIlheney says he doesn’t know of any PPA member who isn’t investing in their staff to move them closer to digital. “Some use in-house expertise for this, some come to us and ask us to help them find the right external trainers, some go for a mix of both these methods.”

He says he doesn’t hear publishers talking as much about the challenges of moving staff to digital as he used to. “I think a lot of the heavy lifting has now happened, and a lot of the realignment of roles and people has taken place. I also think that any ‘refuseniks’ who simply wouldn’t move with the times have now gone.”

McIlheney says there are lots of “pockets of excellence” across the PPA membership, but he cites Future as the most obvious example of a traditional, consumer publisher moving to digital-first in ‘double-quick time’.

Mike Goldsmith, Future’s Editor-in-Chief, digital editions, says when it comes to staff development, the secret has been persistence. “A company-wide email from our training department has just landed in my inbox re. YouTube audience retention. That's the answer - do it, keep doing it, then do it again as something new or different comes up. You have to keep going - the second you think it's finished, then you're finished.”

Goldsmith points out that the focus for development is not driven by technology, or for that matter by staff. “It's our audiences that drive both these things. Our technology solutions, whether self-developed or bought in, are all about giving our people the knowledge, tools and delivery mechanisms to create the right content for our audiences and deliver it in the most appropriate way.”

Audience focus

This focus on the audience is a strong theme in the development of staff to handle digital.

McIlheney says, “Most journalists and publishers I know, and I know a lot, care far more about communicating than they do about what platform they are given on which to communicate.”

He believes one of the core talents that publishers need to carry forward into digital is the bond they have always had with the audience. “That unique way we have always had of telling a story for our particular community. Why should it be any different just because we are now using different technology? The really smart people who are able to connect with their audience, whatever the platform, are the ones who are now being promoted into the top jobs.”

Adam Tinworth, digital publishing strategist and former editorial development manager at Reed Business Information, agrees. “The best route to digital savvy, in my experience, is a very deep understanding of the audience's needs, and a pretty neutral view of the tools available to serve that.”

This begs the question, should publishers be cultivating audience awareness in fresh-faced digital natives or teaching seasoned old dogs new tricks?

Wise heads

Tinworth says he sees a sharper audience focus among older journalists more often than young ones. “Younger journalists - for all their experience with the internet - are still too busy ‘being journalists’ - or ‘being digital’ to really think about the audience.”

He believes we're going through the process of disentangling what makes good journalism from what makes a good print product. “Those core journalistic skills are more important than ever, as they're expressed through new mediums.”

This is a thought echoed by PMA Media Training MD Riva Elliot. “Publishers may have recruited a few digital natives,” she says, “but they are still rare creatures who can write a mean news story or feature, produce a video and upload it, create an engaging repurposed app… and all the while keeping the right side of the law.”

Elliot, who suspects publishers are fearful of getting behind the curve, has seen increased demand for training around digital skills. “PMA and PA Training have experienced a growing demand for the past three months. The fact that publishers are investing in training again and putting their budgets into the digital skills arena is an indicator of an improving economy and a confidence that they now have the teams they want to take them into the digital future.”

However, she says the ‘digital IQ’ of the publishing sector is patchy. “Some think they know it all, but deep down they know they don't. Their problems stem from the ever-changing digital landscape and they are reluctant to admit some of their experiments which might have worked in theory have not worked out as planned.”

Self-proclaimed digital ‘geniuses’ are not likely candidates for the PMA’s courses. More common are publishing staff with intermediate or even beginner’s skills in businesses that have developed a level of knowledge but haven’t taken the time to co-ordinate their learning and share it.

“They have their digital strategy, they have their mobile platforms under construction, they have embarked on some training for their embattled editorial teams and they are beginning to find new revenue streams.” But, she explains, “they all feel rather exposed and lack confidence. They really appreciate some guidance from an expert tutor and their line managers have identified that this is a sensible route to take.”

The Digg lesson

Goldsmith says he has been “pleasantly surprised” by how well one-time print people have adapted to digital, but says, “digital changes so much and so quickly - best practice is lightning in a bottle.”

He reminisces about the days when everyone chased traffic from now irrelevant web aggregator Digg. “That seems like an eternity ago. Digital natives need to translate these moving targets for the rest of the business - taking everyone along with them - so they can get the understanding and backing they need to figure this stuff out.”

The issue of continuous change is key for Tinworth. “The digital landscape is evolving constantly - How old are iPads? Three years? Look how they have and are continuing to evolve the market.”

He thinks it’s dangerous to underestimate the scale of the change we're going through. “This isn't just a technology adoption cycle we're passing through - like the arrival of desktop publishing was - but a fundamental shift in how information is created, consumed and remixed. We're still in the early stages of that transition, not the end game.”

So where does the real investment in human capital need to take place for publishing to develop that “superior ingredient” that Justin Smith thinks is necessary for success?

For Tinworth, the key is to define people's jobs by input rather than output and create flexible reporting lines that allow publishers to allocate resources to channels as needed.

“Often, you need to break the power base of the middle editorial managers - the desk heads - who actually tend to be the biggest blockers of change, as they often define success by the number of journalists writing directly for their section.” He says the ‘hard bit’ is that this involves devolving a lot of trust down to working journalists.

Publishing’s leadership also needs to invest in the development of their own ‘digital IQs’ to be able to make better decisions. “There are plenty of senior management types who had a digital success in the late 90s but who have not kept pace with the landscape transformation,” says Tinworth. “Sometimes the early ‘new media’ types are a bigger problem than the print die-hards, in a ‘little knowledge can be dangerous’ sort of way.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing? That has to be the best argument of all for publishing to keep investing in the development of its human capital.