Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Mary Beth Barilla. Mary Beth is Program Director for the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP). She is also a former co-chair of SSP’s Annual Meeting Program Committee and a winner of the 2017 SSP Appreciation Award.

This January 14, the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) will host its second pre-conference at APE 2019 in Berlin. Playing off a question asked by the theme of this year’s APE meeting, “Where is the Value in Scholarly Publishing?,” the theme of the pre-conference is Bringing Value in Academic Publishing: Practical Solutions for Thriving in a Changing Environment. As the program suggests, one way to bring value is through the introduction of new products and services, particularly if such solutions take the needs of all users into account. Martha Sedgwick, Vice President, Product Innovation at SAGE, will address this topic in her pre-conference keynote address, “What a Difference a Decade Makes: Digital Innovation at SAGE.”

I was eager to speak with Martha about her experiences leading a product innovation team. One of the things I love about being Program Director at SSP is having a virtual front-row seat to the lively exchange of ideas happening at any given time in our community. Those conversations and debates generate the kinds of ideas that can in turn lead to innovation. However, the implementation of those ideas, and ensuring that results truly meet user needs, are goals not always easily achieved. In advance of Monday’s keynote, Martha shared some of her insights gained in her role at SAGE.

Martha Sedgwick
Martha Sedgwick

I’m always interested in hearing from colleagues about their career trajectories. Can you tell us a little about the path that led to your current position?

My background is in product management. I moved into publishing straight from university, joining Macmillan as a graduate recruit after I finished my degree. I worked with the corporate strategy director there, looking at market reviews and competitor reviews to support the strategy development of the individual Macmillan businesses. I then moved to work in a new business that was part of Macmillan India, MPS Technologies as a Product Manager. It was all hands on deck there as we were in start-up mode and I was responsible for the development of a new product called ScholarlyStats that aggregated COUNTER usage data for libraries. I worked with wonderful colleagues in India, the US and the UK and was involved in everything from product to operations to sales and marketing. Great fun and lots of travel. After a few more roles at MPS I moved to SAGE as their first Product Manager, supporting the development of their early digital products. I built up the Product Management team at SAGE and now run the Product Innovation group, looking at how technology is changing learning and research and evolving our product lines as well as launching new products to support these changing needs. I think if you asked my colleagues what I’m good at, they would say “making things happen.”

As a preview to your talk, are there any particularly noteworthy or unexpected lessons in your experience as an innovator that you can share with us at this time?

Over the past decade at SAGE our product innovation has developed an entirely new area of the business for SAGE, delivering a new class of products that support learning and research with new product lines that deliver newly commissioned content like SAGE Video and SAGE Business Cases to software products like Talis and Lean Library.

We have taken a fairly pragmatic approach, building on existing skills and knowledge to launch products that are adjacent to what we know. Successfully delivering this program has required alignment and commitment from the top that is understood and supported throughout the organization. In the early days we proved successful delivery, launching products within time and budget constraints that met market needs and created an entirely new business at SAGE. We started our program with innovation closer to what we knew and are now in a place where we can confidently explore more experimental innovation where we can future gaze.

Enlightenment and innovation concept

The pre-conference program committee is particularly interested in exploring how our innovations meet the needs of all users, including students, researchers, users with disabilities, and users in emerging markets. What best practices do you recommend for ensuring all users’ needs are met?

Understanding and responding well to user needs is absolutely critical to developing successful products. We have found that to do this successfully required a combination of harnessing existing organizational knowledge and also bringing in new skills. Critically, driving an inclusive culture internally is important. Then, many of the editorial teams working on our new content products are individuals who previously worked on our textbook and journal programs, bringing over deep knowledge and understanding of pedagogy, research, curriculum, as well as their researcher and faculty networks. We’ve combined this with new skills in our user experience team including UX, user research, accessibility, information architecture, and data science.

At SAGE, one of your key customer groups is researchers, particularly those in the social sciences. What do you see as some of their key challenges over the next few years?

We are very excited about the opportunities big data and new technologies offer to social scientists looking to understand the world around us. There are some pioneering researchers doing cutting edge research in this space; however, the barriers to many social science researchers looking to engage with vast data sets can be huge. New skills are needed as well as accessible software and tools alongside access and ethical guidelines to use these data. We recently launched an initiative called SAGE Ocean to raise awareness about these new opportunities and tell the stories about some of the new research emerging. We are also experimenting with new types of products to meet these emerging needs, including SAGE Campus, online courses to teach data science skills to social scientists and an investment in an exciting new tech firm with a software product called TagWorks that harnesses crowd workers to code and analyze text at scale.

How can an organization maintain an environment/culture that rewards innovation and creativity?

Number one I think is alignment at the top about the scale of the ambition, and commitment to it. A clear understanding across the organization around the purpose of the product innovation and what success looks like is important to give everyone context and direction to channel their creativity. Also, clarifying the balance between product innovation to drive delivery and the more experimental future gazing innovation.

Once you have this big picture outlined it’s then important to dedicate the right level of resource to successfully meet the ambitions. This might be 2 hours per week or it might be a new dedicated team of 10 people – it will look different depending upon what you want to achieve, but if you have big goals you can’t realistically expect a couple of people to do it in their lunch breaks. Finally, I believe it is important to drive a culture of learning that celebrates success as well as failures, but always capturing lessons learned and agreeing as a team how you move on. I’m a big fan of retrospectives as a format and we do them regularly throughout our team.

Many thanks, Martha, for sharing your thoughts with us, and we look forward to hearing more during Monday’s keynote! Thanks also to our pre-conference program committee, which has spent many hours putting together a program of timely, user-focused panel sessions, case studies and workshops. If you are attending APE this year, we look forward to seeing you in Berlin!

Mary Beth Barilla

Mary Beth Barilla is Program Director for the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP). She is also a former co-chair of SSP’s Annual Meeting Program Committee and a winner of the 2017 SSP Appreciation Award.