Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Stephanie Lovegrove Hansen. Stephanie is a Senior Marketing Manager at Silverchair.

Our industry has taken a leadership role in the midst of this pandemic, with mainstream media coverage and unprecedented layperson attention. Issues of frequent discussion like open access, peer review, data availability, and discovery have reached a new intensity as researchers and publishers race to compile resources, suspend paywalls, and get critical research into the hands of as many as possible to address the global pandemic and economic downturn.

The real test of our abilities to translate these efforts into tangible action often lies not with the hardworking and mission-driven individuals working in our industry, but with our existing systems, processes, tools, and teams, making technology partnership choices a vital part of our adaptability.

In a recent report, Silverchair compiled ideas and insights on technology partnerships from publishers responding to the crisis.

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Invest in core technology and partnerships over time to adapt and respond to challenges quickly

In addition to spinning up new pandemic-themed syllabi, Duke University Press was faced with more urgent challenges as a result of the crisis when their on-campus warehouse was forced to close due to stay-at-home orders. In three weeks they performed what most presses do over the course of a year-long initiative, reengineering their supply chain, moving over 2,000 titles into a print-on-demand program, and integrating their order entry and fulfillment system so that they could drop-ship orders directly to the printer.

“The only reason we were able to do that is we have been making investments over the years in our technology infrastructure and partnerships,” says Allison Belan, Director for Strategic Innovation and Services. “We had good partners that enabled us, we had the digital assets, and we had the asset distribution partner in BiblioVault, so we were able to mobilize quickly and comprehensively. Our order and fulfillment system partner, AdvantageCS, was great about jumping in and showing us functions in the system we hadn’t been aware of that let us manage the different nuanced aspects of this process.”

Use strategic partners or consultative vendors to help you adapt operations or assess market conditions

Another client who came face-to-face with the implications of their warehousing and partnership choices was the MIT Press, who was in the middle of transferring their global distribution, warehousing, and fulfillment to Penguin Random House (PRH) when the pandemic hit. Fortunately, they’ve been able to lean on PRH’s independence, supply chain knowledge, and scale to help them plan for the challenging months ahead.

“It really speaks to the value of a strategic partnership,” says Gabe Harp, Senior Manager for Digital Products.

And that’s good, because MIT Press has had their hands more than full in responding to the crisis, with a new virtual book talk series, an individual subscription pilot in the works, a new rapid-publication model for timely peer-reviewed books, and more. One of the first things the MIT Press did was extend institutional free trial access to their almost 3,000 ebooks on MIT Press Direct through the end of the school year. What was typically a handful of trial requests a month turned into over 800 in six weeks.

“Several years ago we decided to build our own platform instead of serving ebooks to institutions exclusively through aggregators,” says Harp. “We did this to increase our ability to work directly with libraries and respond more flexibly to their changing needs in the digital environment. If we hadn’t decided to build stronger partnerships, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to serve libraries quickly during the crisis.”

The response has been global and has introduced the press to a much wider community of institutions. Usage has spiked tremendously, with a twenty-fold increase in monthly usage compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Repurpose existing tools, capabilities, and resources to address user need

At the forefront of the medical community’s response to the pandemic has been the team at JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, who has published free access to all COVID-related content published in 2020: over 250 articles, 35 videos, and 55 audio episodes. Additionally, JAMA has turned to live streaming, video, and audio as the most efficient vehicle to turn content around quickly in support of the physician and patient community.

“The article is not necessarily the fastest mechanism of translation at a time like this,” says Paul Gee, VP of Digital Product Management and Development at JAMA Network.

The editorial team is able to broadcast a live stream, process the video for journal website publication, create a transcript, turn it into a podcast, and add CME all within two days via tools that JAMA has built. Their videos have received over 4.5 million views, with 32.5 million views of COVID-related articles and related content as of June 28.

Gee attributes their ability to turn content around quickly to the development over the last few years of a strong partnership between editorial and publishing operations, a focus on digital marketing process, as well as the ability to build microsites overnight and adjust them day in and day out as the situation developed.

“From a publishing perspective we’re in a well-oiled digital machine state, something that was not true a few years ago. We have built a lot of capabilities that allow us to respond.”

Intentionally build flexibility into strategic planning so you can pivot in emergencies

Oxford University Press (OUP) has also made relevant COVID-19 related content freely available to researchers and academics around the world. Early on in the outbreak OUP signed the Wellcome Trust’s statement pledging to make relevant research available for the duration of the pandemic and joined efforts from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to make research and data immediately accessible via PubMed Central and other public repositories. Over 2,500 OUP papers are currently available to read on PMC (U.S. National Library of Medicine), with many more being added regularly. These materials have been accessed 4.5 million times since March.

“Key to our ability to make this content freely available has been the nature of our partnerships,” says Dwyer Scullion, Business Analysis Manager at OUP. “We work together to plan development, but crucially, we build some flex into that planning to enable us to pivot to deal with urgent or emergency publishing activities. It is that mutual planning and flexibility that has made this content supply possible.”

Plan for partnership risks and regularly assess relationship alignment

Last September, in circumstances wholly different than now, Silverchair convened technology leaders Ann Michael (PLOS), John Shaw (SAGE), and Stuart Leitch (Silverchair) for a technology leader roundtable discussion at its annual Platform Strategies meeting, where they discussed partnerships, risks, and the qualities of a good partner. While none of the panelists had adapting to social distancing or worries of a pandemic on their mind, their advice or insights are broadly applicable to our current situation.

The roundtable discussion touched on numerous issues, including managing risk, technology, and vendor partnerships. As the moderator noted, most organizations have essential partnerships around critical systems, yet we often wait until we’re in a crisis mode to recognize the need to make business, product, or process changes. This is why it’s crucial to bring discipline to managing risk and to engaging in constant, open communication with your partners.

JOHN SHAW: “You can never control risk 100%. With all of our technology, we have to evaluate regularly, not only with our partners, but internally to review and to ask what is our risk strategy? Where do the technologies plot on the strategy? How are we feeling about our partners in the technology? Is there alignment there? In all this, we’re trying to alleviate any surprise. You do as best you can within the framework that you can put out there. But stuff happens. It’s just a matter of what and when. And when it does, you just have to have a plan for what to do.”

As the COVID pandemic has revealed, there are situations that fall outside of normal considerations and are therefore difficult to plan for. Organizations need to be creative in the ways they address global needs using their existing resources and tools, which means they need partners who are likewise willing to be flexible in meeting those needs.

ANN MICHAEL: “Flexibility, is really, really important. It’s a risk if something is too rigid, or someone or some organization is too rigid. Because as we all know, we’re in the middle of a lot of different changes. So the idea that any of us are going to set a path for the next three or five years, and we’re going to execute in exact alignment with that path is insane. It’s not going to happen.”

Of course, not all risks are equal in terms of how they manifest. A global blackout is different than a shift to a remote workforce or capabilities misalignment. Risk may never be fully absent, but the right partnerships can elevate and accelerate an organization’s abilities, especially in times of crisis. So what are the key aspects of a “good partner”?

STUART LEITCH: “When I’m looking at partnerships, I’m really thinking about who it is that I’m partnering with. My view is that most of what we do is in a very complex world, and it’s a world that’s constantly changing. So when you run up against the unexpected, it becomes a question of who are you actually working with? Are these people that are really going to be responsive? Are we going to be pointing fingers at each other, or are we going to be rolling up our sleeves, and pragmatic, and just working through it, and actually engaging with each other, trying to understand each other’s intent, such that we can get better outcomes?”

The COVID crisis has provided no shortage of examples of partnerships that do just that – engage to solve the problem at hand. Having a good partner with responsive and flexible tools and processes is proving critical to an organization’s ability to act quickly.

As we look toward the post-pandemic world and how our realities might have shifted, Harp notes, “This has forced us to work differently, which has caused us to break down some barriers and allowed us to discover new opportunities. I do wonder whether we will see more partnerships come out of this because of the existential threat that organizations are feeling; I think they will realize that they can’t do it alone.”