Following our recent De Gruyter case study, we thought we’d introduce one of the key members of the team who work on that partnership and delve into how 67 Bricks do things just a little differently. Meet Dave Curtis, our Client Delivery Manager.

Welcome, Dave. Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your role at 67 Bricks? 

Hello! I am the Client Delivery Manager, which means I head up our team of publishing consultants. I joined 67 Bricks in February 2019 having worked at Cambridge University Press (CUP) for 8 years. I come from a technology background having previously been a developer and then Head of Technology Solutions at CUP, specialising in educational technology. My role at 67 Bricks now boils down to ensuring we deliver what our publishing partners need to thrive. 

Can you tell us more about the publishing consultant role? What do they bring to the process?

The title publishing consultant is fairly unique to 67 Bricks, and the role itself is flexible depending on the needs of the client. All of the publishing consultants at 67 Bricks come from a publishing background and this is a real strength of the team. They understand the industry and can bridge the gap between business and technology to help clients make informed choices to deliver the best value for their customers.

At the beginning of every relationship, a publishing consultant is allocated to take the client through the process as a dedicated point of contact. Having a broad range of experience within the team means we can also bring in additional expertise where needed to consult on specific problems. 

Next, a big question – what is digital transformation? Why should publishers consider embarking on it?

In its simplest form, digital transformation looks at how technology can improve systems and processes, find new opportunities and uncover more effective ways of working. That may involve modernising legacy systems, or exploring new business opportunities to create new revenue streams. This is a hot topic for publishers, as the publishing industry continues to see rapid change which requires publishers to adapt proactively, instead of reactively. Being able to adapt isn’t just about technology, however. It also touches on organisational readiness in terms of structure, skills and people. Those companies who don’t embrace these changes risk being left behind. 

That being said, transformation shouldn’t just be for transformation’s sake, and an important part of that is keeping focused on users and their experiences. There is a very traditional view of authors, reviewers, readers, librarians etc… and part of digital transformation is challenging historical precedent. Services such as Google Scholar and Research Gate have changed the expectations of service users and publishers need to be mindful of this. 

Let’s look at the De Gruyter partnership in more detail. We talk about our approach being very collaborative – what does that mean in practice and how was it fostered with the De Gruyter team?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to this, in fact, that flexibility of approach is key to our success.

Typically we have several initial discussions with the client as part of a discovery process. The earlier we can be involved in discussions about a new product or service the better, as we can help clients to dig into what problems they actually need to solve and challenge any assumptions about what the end result should be. Throughout we leverage our technical skills and experience of working in the publishing industry, but we also ensure that we become a critical friend for clients as collaboration will be at all levels within an organisation.  

With De Gruyter, we were fortunate to be afforded the flexibility in our work for the first 6 months to establish a strong foundation with key stakeholders. This was important as they had previously embarked on technology changes with mixed success, and there was some scepticism about doing this again. Once we had built their confidence in what we were doing, De Gruyter took the next step by building out their own technology team, with specific focus on roles in product ownership and UX. This enabled their teams to take over ongoing ownership and maintenance, and freed our team up to work on more complex problems for them. The knowledge transfer process between our developers and theirs was important, and continues as we develop new solutions. The 67 Bricks development team are very skilled at describing approaches to complex problems and solutions, and they worked closely with the developers at De Gruyter to ensure they understand the what, why and how of our developments. We also work with De Gruyter to bridge gaps in technology understanding or skills as part of our ongoing partnership. This is a particular strength of our team and an enjoyable part of this ongoing collaboration. 

Something we hear about again and again is the importance of being data- and user-driven. How do 67 Bricks ensure this approach? What steps did we take to achieve this with De Gruyter?

Publishers are sitting on a wealth of data, but it can sometimes be hard to unlock, trapped inside long-form documents or legacy systems. Essentially, we help them to understand how they can best store, manage, enrich and use their data to create better products and services, power internal efficiencies, uncover new insights and drive better-informed decision making. This is an ongoing process and easiest to achieve when we’re developing something from scratch. That way we can establish processes to ensure that data in its various forms is gathered and made useful for the future. Whether this is about logs for triaging problems, data for analytics, or ensuring the approach is extensible to support future business intelligence initiatives, we can embed those approaches as part of best practice.

There are more challenges when we are required to adapt or build on a legacy solution, or where the historical approach to capturing and making meaning of data has been an afterthought. This isn’t insurmountable but requires time for open conversations on the quality of existing data and what processes led to its current position in a business. 

With De Gruyter, as with many of our previous clients, we focused on moving from abstract principles to real-world examples using their own data, which gave them the evidence to drive real change. As we move through the next twelve months this will continue to be a focus, with data-driven decision making becoming a real way of working for De Gruyter. 

As far as being user-driven, this is where our approach as a critical friend is crucial. Combining our wide-ranging experience across publishing with our position as an outsider to the client organisation makes it easier for us to ask ‘why’. This may sound basic, but the discussion that follows can be very useful to challenge a status quo or help an organisation to understand the importance of user experience design. 

With De Gruyter, both approaches were important. The incumbent solutions had been in place for some time and there were both assumptions and a sense of resignation about how things worked. Building from the ground up and showing De Gruyter that they had control allowed for actionable discoveries around user needs. 

What do you think you’ve learned over the past few years at 67 Bricks?

Not to make assumptions. As an organisation, we have a huge amount of collective experience in the publishing industry, but we shouldn’t be afraid to continue to ask our clients ‘why do you want this?’ or ‘why is that important?’. Visualising the future can be difficult and questioning why something is done in a certain way is helpful. Challenging the status quo and then demonstrating through execution that change and transformation can be successful continues to be an important part of what we do.

What advice do you have for other publishers wanting to start their own digital transformation? 

Have a vision and strategy for what digital transformation means to you as an organisation. Break this down into a series of iterative improvements that will make up the whole. Be agile, be responsive, accept that things will go wrong, but embrace change for the opportunity it presents. In addition to this, and perhaps something that is lost when considering digital transformation, recognise that it isn’t all about technology. Organisational and behavioural change is also likely, and this needs to have time and space in the overall approach.

Digital transformation can seem daunting, and it is a big deal for organisations, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. This is where we come in, so please talk to us if you’re thinking about embarking on digital transformation and let’s see what we can achieve together.