Hachette CIO writes a new leadership story

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth March 16, 2020
Chris Howell tells the story of how publishing leaders Hachette UK is reappraising people management, technology and data

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Book sales remain in good health. Despite the digitisation of the economy and society, the humble book remains a popular pastime and gift. But as Chris Howell, the CIO of publishers Hachette UK reveals, technology plays a vital role in meeting the increasingly digital needs of authors, readers and book buyers.

A lot of people underestimate how interesting doing technology in publishing is; and the reason is that you get a wonderful breadth. You have human interactions through the relationships with the authors all the way through to a digital learning platform.

If a John Grisham or Ian Rankin was in your CIO stocking last Christmas it is thanks to Hachette. The UK arm of the French business has 10 publishing divisions and 50 imprints and has given the world such great reads as Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson, Nelson Mandella’s Long Walk to Freedom and comedian Billy Connolly’s latest.  As well as fiction and non-fiction books Hachette UK is an educational publisher and provider of web based educational aids and operates Europe’s most technologically modern distribution business.  

The publishing houses are very independent. They are organisations with strong brands.

The independence Howell refers to is the third of four pillars to the Hachette UK business, which states that the publishing house will make the most of its unique federal structure.  The CIO says these pillars are really important and the history of publishing and media has seen organisations with a federal structure flourish.

Although the book is in good health, digitisation is taking place with the rise of audiobooks in recent years, and the eBook, which is now over a decade old.

Our academic sector is the richest in the digital sense, with a digital learning platform, which is used across primary and secondary education. It provides teachers notes, course guides and in recent years, the online assessment platforms.

The novel cannot escape digitisation though, despite its timeless appeal, and Hachette is developing new ways of engaging with the novel.

Audiobooks are growing and we have just put three recording studios into our London head office, but we are not expecting the market for long form to necessarily grow or change significantly in the near future.

As more and more CIOs and CTOs become involved in the products of their organisations, usually as a result of digitisation, it is interesting that Howells sees and plays an important part in respecting and preserving the love their customers have with the experience of reading a physical book.  Sometimes the product may not change, but digitisation plays a role in ensuring the customer has access to the experience and gets the maximum from it.  

Digital publishing represents the challenge. We will possibly expand the market by dropping into the smaller and smaller attention gaps that consumers have.

By attention gaps the CIO means that the customer’s range of choice has increased, 10 years ago the podcast existed, but was a minority product, and you couldn’t watch quality drama and movies on the move via the BBC iPlayer or Netflix. Therefore the long form narrative as a novel has to compete for attention with some new rivals.

The opportunities to consume content are much greater. Working out how to take a manuscript, which is a lovingly created precious thing and translate that into a different format, which is then consumed in a different manner, is something that many in the publishing industry are experimenting with.

The more we experiment,  the better we understand our readers, the more successful we will be in the future. Anything you do to better understand your customer is advantageous and a good idea.

Understanding the customer is, unsurprisingly the number one pillar of the Hachette UK business.

Data books

Hachette has been categorising its data to drive business efficiencies, the challenge for a publishing house with 50 imprints and 10 different publishing houses is that they each require a different way of reading the data. Working with UK based data specialists Altius, Hachette has created a data landscape that will allow members of the organisation to analyse book sales by any methodology they choose, including Amazon.

Data standards in books are pretty good, you can’t say something is medieval fiction if it’s not; and although there are some wonderful technological advances, there is also some of that good old fashioned data governance around control of the master data. That was as true 20 years ago as it was 40 years ago. It is just helpful to be able to rebrand and as an industry, technology has a wonderful ability to rebrand.

Advocates of the role data will play in the modern organisation talk about businesses making better decisions as a result of the data.  But the world of publishing still requires a high level of instinct.

No one has successfully worked out how to predict the next big Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer and that is one of the joyful things about publishing or any creative art, because there is a whole load of wonderful things that none of us have discovered.

Distribution network

Hachette Distribution is the non-publishing arm of the Hachette UK business and its technology falls under Howell’s remit.  Hachette operates one of the most significant distribution centres - in Oxfordshire - and the business is a key part of the book retail infrastructure. Whether its Amazon, supermarket giants like Howell’s former employers Tesco, a bookstore chain or a local independent, that is sourcing titles there is a high likelihood that Hachette Distribution will carry out the fulfillment for both Hachette UK and many other publishing companies.

Howell’s team has been modernising the sales processing, distribution and supply chain systems, all of which are on JDA.

We have really worked very very hard to improve the customer promise. The accuracy of any inventory holding means we are using lean supply chain models effectively.

As publishing changes, just as its music, movies and media cousins have done, Hachette Distribution provides a strong form of business diversification. For the publishing industry Hachette Distribution provides the sector with an organisation that holds all stock - other than what is at the printers - cash collection, debt chasing and of course the full supply chain.

Diversity and leadership

Howells is amongst a rising number of CIOs who are aware and working on the need to improve the focus on mental health in the workplace. An understanding of mental health is vital too in organisations that attract young and diverse workers, but interestingly, talk to CIOs in engineering, technology and construction and you will hear the same concerns.

Howells focus on mental health is also helping him understand and help the millennial workforce; while there are those in positions of fame or on social media that are ready, willing and uniformed to quickly castigate the next generation as ‘woke’.

I am fortunate in my life that I have had recent exposure to mental health challenges, so that makes me able to sympathise and empathise with a whole load of stuff that goes on in people’s lives and to be able to articulate the complexity of it.  

For those people born in the 90s and up they are feeling like they cannot afford a house, they will be less well off, the climate is in a state and we live in an antagonistic world. So we have a cohort of people in their 20s who have high anxiety.

As a CIO, Howell sees the role as being part of how organisations can help this age group engage and change the workplace and leadership for the better.  

I am making sure that I continue to adapt, listening and making sure that I am informed about the challenges and context. This is important as people come into the organisation who have life experiences that you cannot be close to.

Technology provides a working environment that allows diversity and emotional awareness to thrive.  Diversity is so important to Hachette UK that it is within the four pillars that guide the business.

Flexible working and collaboration mean working out how to solve people’s demands and that is really important to us. We pride ourselves on making diversity our identity and by that we do not see geographical location as a barrier to recruiting the best talent or engaging the audience.  

For me this is not about risk mitigation for a changing labour market, but because we believe it is the right thing to do.

Howell joined Hachette in November 2017, his first CIO role, having been head of IT strategy at Gatwick Airport in Sussex. He arrived bringing deep retail experience, having held roles at department store Marks & Spencer, electronics stores Dixons and his early career at Tesco.

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