The word “strategy” has its origins in warfare: the Greek word, “stratēgia” means generalship, the marshaling of all available forces to achieve a military goal. Strategy, then, is all about competition, also an enduring concept.
A more useful perspective on strategy lies in evolutionary biology. Competitors abound, and it is the fittest that survive and thrive. In business, the drivers are assumed to be the same. With limited resources and markets, it is the business with a unique advantage that wins, crowding out weaker competitors. Business and biology differ, though, in one important respect: when developing a business strategy, the rate of development of competitive advantage can be influenced by strategic thinking – not so in biology. In business then, there is a deliberate development of strategy to secure competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Strategy of course can mean many things to many people. The most important component of thinking strategically is defining your goals clearly. Without goals — set in the context of mission and culture, with articulated themes for success — strategy is worthless. As a society, what then are the goals for a winning strategy? Survival alone? Should we be chasing market share? Or perhaps we should be expanding our definition of the market in which we operate. Is it financial growth? Or is it not growth for growth’s sake, but rather growth to ensure sustainability?
One thing that is clearly missing from the militaristic origins of strategy is the notion of collaboration. For research societies faced with increasing competition from companies driven by maximizing shareholder value, there is much to be gained by collaboration – thinking through how we best serve our communities as a collective, rather than retreating into competitive isolation.
And then there is the matter of scale. Most non-profit societies are relatively small in comparison to their corporate competitors. Fellow chef Kent Anderson suggests, in his unnerving post Scale Rewards, Scale Punishes – Is the future of Scholarly publishing already determined, that scale matters, “The big will get bigger. The small will be swallowed up or vanish altogether. No current trend or innovation will change this.”
So, strategy is a valuable thing. How do we go about developing strategy? Many societies are excellent at operations. Maintaining the day to day business of publishing is of course vitally important, and yet it can be difficult to come to grips with strategy development. Societies are operated by staff and governed by academics and it is not a natural state for a society to be entrepreneurial – yet it is necessary.
The starting point has to be recognition from the society governance that strategy development is indeed necessary. There are questions to be asked. Do we have the right people in place to focus on strategy? Do we have a good understanding of the key themes and drivers that shape a society’s community and market? There is little point in developing strategy without truly knowing why going down this road is important, and identifying key important directions for the society. For many societies publishing provides the financial wherewithal to support community activities. If publishing is the key to financial health, then membership of the society is the currency of success. The two pieces are intertwined, yet for many societies run independently.
The next step is defining what is meant by strategy development. Is the goal to produce a statement of strategy — a massive tome that takes a long time to develop, which will never be read? Clearly, when described in this way, the answer is no, but for many organizations this is just what happens. Rather, then, it makes sense to create a living document of organizational strategy, by having set themes and goals for the society, spending time with staff, and incorporating their ideas for projects that help realize the big picture goals. Identifying themes from the top and having ideas and projects built up from the bottom allows for a cultural involvement of all those at the organization in success. Ensuring that a doorstopper plan is replaced by a brief and to-the-point identification of mission, values, goals and a roadmap should be a continuous exercise, constantly evolving in response to market conditions.
Let’s discuss organizational culture. When an organization faces change, there is inherent uncertainty. A strong workforce culture that embraces strategy is healthy, but sometimes challenging to develop. Elias Canetti in his masterful book Crowds and Power, examines the phenomenon of the crowd, and the interplay of individual and group behavior. Military strategy relies on shaping the behavior of the crowd. Business strategy is all about enhancing the ability of an individual to contribute to a wider mission. Societies need to address the question of how best to involve staff at all levels in the future of their organization, embracing change. When change appears to threaten livelihoods, or is forced upon staff without involvement, then strategy development itself can undermine success.
This is sometimes a point at which consultants are brought in, who specialize in shaping an organization’s culture and leadership skills to empower strategic development. The trick here is not to get bogged down in touchy-feely life skills, but rather, focusing on involvement in the business itself with tangible and achievable goals that stretch an employee’s contribution and build on and recognize their insight and expertise. This approach is more likely to build a thriving and entrepreneurial culture than any other. A consultant may also be useful in allowing an organization to see the big picture, enabling staff to step out of their own shoes to see how existing products may be evolved, or new products developed, and thinking through market share and the evolution of markets.
Of course, this is all a personal opinion. At the American Mathematical Society
we have embarked on strategic development across the organization. Publishing strategy development is already up and running. I have no doubt that here are many who may agree, or indeed disagree with elements of this discussion, including some of my fellow Chefs whose career it is to engage with others on organizational strategy development. Fire away. In the end, I think we will all agree that to engage with building a sustainable publishing future for societies is going to require a fundamental shift in thinking. We must be well prepared for us to be the fittest for survival, especially when facing large scale competitors.