What Drives Innovation in Education Publishing (and What Doesn’t)

edtech education publishing Inkling Pearson innovationBig companies aren’t always great innovators. But how come?

Clancy Marshall, VP of Global Core Platforms at Pearson, posed that question to Inkling founder and CEO Matt MacInnis at the Book Industry Study Group (BISG)’s “Adapt, Innovate, Learn” conference on higher education in New York City this morning and received this two-word answer: finance departments.

As MacInnis explained, larger organizations’ finance departments are designed to optimize business processes, whereas in a start-up environment “there is no business to be optimized.”

Rather than going after innovation through acquisitions, as Marshall pointed out bigger publishers tend to do, smaller players like Inkling are built the other way around—in order, in MacInnis’s words, to “allocate capital haphazardly to the riskiest things you can come up with that may have the highest return.”

But MacInnis doesn’t think big education publishers are fated to lumber sclerotically to their deaths. Instead, he sees them positioned to drive further innovation as long as they can emerge from the technological transition phase that currently prevails.

Here are some things MacInnis believes publishers are doing well and some things they aren’t.

What’s Working

Traditional publishers have a “shared vision for what the future of higher education learning technologies ought to look like,” MacInnis says, and this is a collective strength. That vision includes adaptive, personalized approaches to content, similar to what Houghton Mifflin Harcourt CEO Linda Zecher has described.

“Whether this is going to be a bunch of Balkanized systems,” though, “is ‘TBD,’” MacInnis says. “Most publishers understand that HTML5 is the format of choice,” even if they’re prone to getting bogged down in discussion of standards.

“Taking preexisting assets and content…that can be repurposed—I think that is the right evolutionary approach.”

Related: Thinking Past Linear Publishing | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Bulks up on Ed-Tech

What Isn’t

MacInnis calls it “the book disease”: “When you develop a product in print, you use a certain workflow to develop that book, and you come up with all of the features and specifications that are going to be in that book…and then you build that book, and you don’t ship that book until it’s done.”

Software, by contrast, isn’t built “in one fell swoop” but by iteration.

“Undoing this mentality that version one has to have all 713 features in its first edition” is among the topmost challenges for education publishers seeking to innovate. “It should be a ‘version zero,’ a beta you put in front of a small number of instructors.” The structural barriers Marshall attested to make that a tall order, but as MacInnis sees it, “there is no other way to build software.”

And developing software is essentially what education publishers are—quite rightly—already doing.

“The most expensive way to test software is to build and ship it,” MacInnis says. Yet “that’s what most organizations do.” Investing in a more agile product development approach “takes longer on the front-end, but the end-result from the customer’s perspective is much better.” And that, in MacInnis’s view, is where innovation and growth come from. Not finance departments.

2 thoughts on “What Drives Innovation in Education Publishing (and What Doesn’t)

  1. Michael W. Perry

    I like what Inkling CEO Matt MacInnis said about the need to view books, particularly educational ones, as being more like software that’s constantly updated than the traditional publish-and-forget world of print publishing. The problem is that the broader book market isn’t structured that way. That creates unnecessary barriers.

    ISBNs are a disaster. They were fine for the punched card, pre-Internet, IBM mainframe era of the 1970s. They’re a pain in the neck today. Anything more than a modest change in book’s content requires a new ISBN and that creates supply-chain problems all down the line as that former ISBN goes away. Still worse, each format a book is released in (print, epub etc.) requires a totally new ISBN, without creating any clear link between the various editions. The scheme seems to designed to maximize Bowker’s income while being a nuisance to the rest of us.

    A much better scheme would issue a specific long-term number for a title, with each new edition and format (i.e. print, epub or whatever) being covered by an additional sets of numbers whose meaning is predefined. Like software, which keeps the same name, each improvement would get a new version number while still saying, \this is the same product, only improved.\

    Selling is another problem area. Retailers such as Amazon do allow for updated editions to be issued to former purchasers, but they make the process needlessly confusing for publishers and readers. The assumption that digital books aren’t updated needs to be changed to an assumption that they’re likely to come out in improved editions.

    Finally, a digital book’s format should become irrelevant to purchasers. Readers shouldn’t be forced to buy books in only one format. Both Apple and Amazon need to sell together their fixed format editions, great for displaying on tablets, with their reflowable versions, which work on smartphones. That versatility is particularly true for textbooks, which are more likely to need a fixed layout edition that’s virtually identical to the print version.

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  2. J.A. Coffeen

    One more thing they must do, hire back their marketing departments, or build them back up.

    A company that doesn’t try to sell its product is doomed.

    Book publishers now depend, at least partly, on authors, who are, almost by definition, not marketing experts.

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