News flash: it’s very hard to have a completely successful technology project. Schedules slip, costs expand, and planned features end up on the cutting room floor. By some measures, half of technology projects end up failing in some way. Yet none of this stops organizations from trying—this is the age of digital transformation after all.
Why do projects fail? For most publishers, it comes down to resources. Capital spending is the first challenge, but an even bigger problem is human capital: everyone is often too busy to work effectively on technical projects. Not only are the businesspeople who bring subject matter knowledge often too busy but technical resources are limited or nonexistent. Publishers—many would say wisely—don’t staff technical departments to the extent that they have the capability to build, upgrade, and maintain systems.
As a result, when it comes to large projects, publishers turn to vendors. These range from traditional companies that sell systems and accompanying services to firms that build custom software. I’ve seen projects succeed and fail in every scenario, including smaller publishers successfully working with traditional vendors and the largest publishers abandoning major custom projects after years of effort.
Against this backdrop, how can publishers find more success? Given the industry’s reliance on vendors, the best step is to determine how best to manage existing relationships with vendors working on key projects.
• Terminology matters: The publishers I’ve seen that have had the most success nearly universally refer to their vendors as partners. This is intentional: they knew they would work with their partners for months or longer. They establish strong and personable working relationships and they recognize that their partners also want the project to be successful. They also recognize that vendor can imply someone providing a commodity, whereas a partnership implies that the client is more open to hearing ideas and alternatives.
• Domain expertise is necessary but not sufficient by itself: On one long-running project, a client grew tired of explaining the simplest things to a highly technical partner (“Yes, books need separate ISBNs for hardcover and paperback editions”). When the client selected a different firm for a second phase, she was delighted to not have to explain the basics but then disappointed when the firm did not have the ability to integrate the new system with a second database. The best partners bring both domain knowledge and deep technical expertise.
• Bring your own expertise: Technical projects always combine people, processes, and technology—and publishers know the first two pieces of this better than outside firms ever will. The model I have seen work exceptionally well is publishers staffing projects with subject matter experts, an element of project management, and—when they can—business analysts. This keeps the voice of the customer front and center as the software is developed, tested, and deployed.
• Project management is more than knowing the terminology: The push for more formality in software development is decades old, but agile project management now dominates. As a result, everyone talks about agile project management—but there aren’t nearly enough firms that do it well. Look for partners with track records, and interview their reference accounts to understand how past projects were managed.
• Keep everyone informed: Every project has changes, so find ways to keep management and end users up to date. Agile project management is helpful here, where everyone can see how the work is progressing at the end of each sprint of activity, as often as every two weeks. Another element is even more rooted in common sense: maintain a simple dashboard of key metrics—cost, schedule, functionality, key decisions—and put it in front of stakeholders at every turn.
• Plan for the (very) long run: Don’t imagine that the relationship with the partner is over as soon as the project is completed. Build in a period of time when the partner is fairly compensated for support and minor upgrades. Many of my clients with the most complex technology have worked with their original partners for years. While this might seem like a significant added expense, it usually lowers the total cost of ownership, as it curtails the need to dedicate staff to a system the partner knows more about and can more efficiently support.
Despite what pundits are saying, technology is only becoming more complex. Yet the exigencies of the business are telling publishers to invest in new technology across areas as diverse as editorial, back office, and marketing. A failed project in one area can slow or even kill projects in other areas, leading to lost opportunities for cost savings or new business. The best hedge against lost opportunity is to partner well—to find the right companies that can help publishers adopt, design, and deploy new technologies that will help transform their business in new and important ways.
Bill Trippe is a Boston-based technology consultant and founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners.