This is the fourth post in a new series of perspectives from some of Publishing’s leaders across the non-profit and profit sectors of our industry. How did these leaders get into publishing? What excites them? What is their vision for the future of publishing, and indeed for the business and careers of all those working at their organization? We rarely gain these insights so we are excited to give voice to some of the key leaders in the academic publishing world.
Today, we talk to Vikram Savkar. Vikram is Senior Vice President & General Manager, Medicine Segment of Health Learning, Research & Practice, Wolters Kluwer.
What was your route into publishing? Could you tell our readers a little about what drives you as a leader of Wolters Kluwer?
When I was beginning my career, I chose this industry because I wanted to do something for a living that also seemed “good” for the world. That felt true to me at the time about publishing companies, and I’m happy to say it still feels just as true today. This industry is filled with high-minded people with strong ethics and values willing to work extremely hard to help educate, inspire, and support professionals, learners, and readers around the world, and it’s still very much a daily pleasure for me to be a part of this enlightened community.
As a leader, I’m driven by several core values. First, to live up to the vision I describe in the previous paragraph each and every day: making sure that the work we do and the decisions I make are ethical and productive of continual improvement in society. The business I currently lead is in healthcare software and information, and there’s not a single day when I am not able to feel gratified by the positive impact our work has on patient outcomes and global health. Second, to drive strong results and growth in the marketplace because these in turn allow us to make investments in new products and services that accelerate our ability to drive positive impact in people’s lives. Third, by making sure that our business can thrive on every level, helping provide strong upward life outcomes for the teams and staff for which I’m responsible. The combination of all these goals is what makes the job of leading a business so satisfyingly complex and so richly rewarding.
As a leader in academic publishing, what most excites you right now?
There’s a lot of discussion of various risks to the traditional information markets, and those risks are certainly real and serious. But when I look at this space, I see enormous opportunity for transformation and growth, stemming from an extension of what we do beyond content into data, tools, and insights. The content we publish has always been used by the researchers and professionals who consume it to develop technologies, businesses, and ideas that ultimately help drive evolution in the way we all live and work. In other words, we have long been a crucial first link in the chain of global advancement and innovation. I see an opportunity – and a hard demand on the part of consumers – for us to take the next step and actively develop solutions that help translate our content into practice; in other words, becoming a more central part of the innovation ecosystem. I find this possibility very exciting. It’s challenging because it involves a gradual reinvention of how we see ourselves. But it carries enormous potential for us all to mean even more to the world in the 21st century than we did in the 20th.
How is Wolters Kluwer positioned to serve the next generation of students, researchers and professionals?
At Wolters Kluwer we are focusing quite a lot on the vision I outline in the previous question: a vision of becoming a core part of the process of translating research content into practice. Early last year, for instance, we launched a powerful new workflow solution for hospitals called Ovid Synthesis. Ovid Synthesis helps clinicians and medical researchers take the cutting-edge research content in our leading global medical software Ovid and synthesize it to draw out actionable plans for improving patient outcomes. This solution is rapidly gaining uptake in the market, and we plan to continue to invest further in this extension of our traditional business. We are making similar investments in the “next gen” vision for all our business segments; for instance, we’ve just announced our first forays into Virtual Reality in anatomy education, a new push into real-world evidence in genomics, and many more such initiatives.
What do you anticipate the major challenges will be for Wolters Kluwer, and indeed the publishing industry, over the next five years?
There’s certainly a lot of discussion in the industry about some complex and potentially challenging dynamics, including an accelerated transition from a subscription to an open access business model, deceleration of global customer budgets, and a slackening awareness by society at large of the importance of rigor in research dissemination. Ultimately, though, I believe the opportunities for reinvention are more exciting than the risks are worrisome. In the medical space, for instance, the opportunity to become a key part of hospital technology and quality infrastructure significantly exceeds the risk from declining library spend. So, what I see as the challenge for us, and the industry at large, is convincing ourselves that we can create a broader definition for who we are and the value that we can provide than we traditionally have. To the extent that we can succeed in doing that, we can thrive. To be clear, this is a question of both/and, not either/or. We must both invest in and continue to improve our traditional activities and develop a new identity as providers of translational impact for our customers.
What does Open Access (OA)/Public Access mean for your business?
Open access is pivotal to our mission of disseminating the latest medical research to clinicians everywhere in the world, and we’re excited by the ways in which OA is expanding the universe of both producers and consumers of research. We are investing in open access heavily, whether through acquisitions (such as the purchase of the International Journal of Surgery Publishing Group in the U.K. last year), through organic investment in launching new OA platforms and journals, or by striking increasingly large and complex transformative agreements with key customers. Clearly, OA revenues can grow faster than traditional subscription revenues, so it’s a central part of our evolutionary strategy.
What publishing innovations are you most proud of?
This is a difficult question, because so often our “innovations” are based on other people’s work across the industry. We absorb, blend, add, evolve in new ways, but rarely do we create something entirely new from scratch. In this sense, we should be collectively proud of how different the industry looks today compared to the late 90s. If I had to look back and pick a few moments that I’d be particularly proud of in a personal sense it would be the moments when my teams took a real business risk, when we had the courage of our convictions to push forward in a direction that most other companies weren’t willing to. I can think of some successful moments of this kind (many years ago when I was at Nature Publishing Group we made a pretty bold decision to publish a line of educational materials that were digital first and print as an afterthought, which was quite unusual at the time), and some unsuccessful ones (when I was managing a legal education business years ago we made an equally bold decision to make our frontlist digital-plus-rental with no print purchase option, which was not warmly greeted by all parts of the market), but in both cases what’s meaningful to me looking back is that the teams were showing imagination and courage.
What is the future of hybrid/remote working at Wolters Kluwer?
Of course, I don’t have a crystal ball on this; no one foresaw the pandemic, and equally therefore I can’t rule out that there could be unanticipated changes in the future that might swing the workforce back to the office in large numbers. But at this moment, it certainly seems to me that hybrid is the new normal across the industry. There is a very strong desire on the part of most staff to have meaningful opportunities to work together in person; there is also a strong desire to have flexibility to manage schedule and location in a more personal way than we were accustomed to before the pandemic. As business leaders, we’ll need to balance those two desires in a way that keeps staff engaged but also keeps business culture and collaboration strong.
What do the next generation of academic publishing jobs look like to you?
The jobs that we have in the industry today – editorial, production, marketing, sales, and so on – will continue to be critical in the future, because any identity that we have as an industry will continue to rely on expert content as its DNA. Now, all of those jobs will evolve to index more heavily over time for technology skill; so, for instance, editorial staff will need to have a deep understanding of content consumption patterns on mobile form factors and sales reps will need to be comfortable speaking about TCO, support, and cybersecurity. But the roles will remain and will remain critical. Where I see the greatest change in the near term is in senior leadership roles. Ultimately, transformation – both organizational evolution and strategic business planning – is driven from the top to a very large degree, so the ability of senior leadership to understand evolving market dynamics and conceptualize future paths that will lead to growth rather than decline will be existential for any business in this era of constant flux. I don’t think this necessarily means senior leadership roles will always be filled from outside the industry. That’s been tried and not always successfully, for a variety of reasons. What I think it does mean is that a premium will be placed on leaders who have amassed a variety of experience, rather than staying for decades in one niche. Leaders who have a solid background in publishing, so that they understand the core market dynamics, but also have stints in software and technology, have experience managing businesses in emerging global markets, and have made moves across traditional boundaries, jumping from education to scholarly to professional, for instance, may well have exactly the kinds of flexible mental models that will be required to succeed moving forward. So, I would encourage future leaders to be conscious in building a broad skillset and understanding of the information space. To return to something I said earlier, most innovation is evolution and synthesis of ideas gleaned from other companies in the space; so, it follows that the greater the breadth of experience you have as a leader, the more depth and intensity of impact on your business you will be able to stimulate.