Thoughts on the Future of an Organization

This was written specifically with Pratham Books in mind but maybe you’ll find something of interest here.  

“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” ~ Wayne Gretzky 

Since 2004, Pratham Books has achieved great successes in the children’s publishing space. With over 10 million books and an equal number of story cards published, Pratham Books has enabled access to high quality multi-lingual and engaging reading content to over 25 million children. However, it is worth looking at this in terms of the scale of the problem and to consider whether our efforts are significant when viewed through that prism. With 300 million children in the age group we seek to serve and only 25000 new titles printed each year predominantly in Hindi or English, our numbers seem small but a very worthy start. For example, in the United Kingdom, 6 copies of books are published for every child but in India, we print 1 book for every 20 children. Given this, does traditional strategy work to solve problem at a scale that is almost insurmountable? It is not that it cannot – Walmart and Reliance models will work but the question is whether we are okay building an organisation at that scale and performing at that level. Everyday. And, of course, the capital required doing so.

To begin with, there are some fairly sticky questions for us to answer. Our mission, while laudable, does involve some confusion that is mostly internal. What exactly does “A book in every child’s hand” mean and what is the problem we are solving? To me, it means two problems of quantity of quality content (and corollaries of diversity of content) along with the challenge of access to content.

What is the problem we are solving? Our current model focuses much energy on the quality of content (rightly so) and the price of content but with focus on the latter and if access to reading material is the problem, are we simply moving the problem to a lower price point? And if we compete on price alone, what happens when other publishers are at the same price point – do we believe our mission is then done? A further question worth exploring is what we define as a ‘book’ – is it the form that we hold dear? Does it have to be a Pratham Book’ book? Or is it wider and implies that every child will have access to a book or even wider, that every child will have access to reading material. Then again, does that imply every book will be paid for and if so, does that payment have to accrue to Pratham Books?

As publishers, the biggest question we have to ask ourselves is whether we, who are content creators, are also gatekeepers of content or curators of content. I think with our Creative Commons model, we have answered many dimensions of this question such as acknowledging that the intrinsic and extrinsic value of our content appreciates when freed and that there a net increase in value, when freed from the strictures of copyright law – value that is captured by the entire ecosystem and not just by us. In a sense, our challenge is to create infinite good with finite time and resources. In some small way, our Creative Commons model has allowed us to create more value than we capture, to build a reading commons of content and to create real value.

For the most part, the publishing industry is still in the dark ages and as much as we are publishers, we are also educators. Given this mild dichotomy, do we follow the rules set by entrenched publishing players with vested interests in the current systemic setup where the old rules do not work anymore or do we make our own rules because if the rules of the game are killing us and killing our mission why play should by them?

To me, what makes us unique is that we work on things that matter more than money and sales, we take the long view and are less about selling more books and more or about getting more children reading. While we have innovated at a process, product and service level we need this innovation to be at our core: at a business model, strategic and management level. 

Assuming we are to make a dent in the problem and that we do not want to build a 200 person, or larger, organisation, a few thoughts come to mind. 

I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.” – Edward Everett Hale

The alternative to scaling the organisation is to enable the organisation to scale through external resources – in short, building communities, engaging networks and creating platforms. As much as Pratham Books is a social enterprise, I believe that there should be a greater focus on the social aspect, not as in media but as in community, than purely on the enterprise aspect. Social should not only remain an outcome of our work but the approach to our endeavours. We could, of course, be the 800lb gorilla in the children’s publishing space but it is expensive to feed such a beast and the beast is also slow and lethargic in responding to external changes. It also represents a single point of failure. An alternative to this, or the social alternative, is to be a herd of 800 gazelles – they are lean, nimble, respond both as a group and as individuals and have no ostensible single leader that is subject to a single point of failure. However, in theory, it’s far easier to manage the 800lb gorilla simply because it is a single entity but there is a way to manage the herd – to build, or even better, to be the watering hole where they can gather.

The traditional approach to strategy to solve this problem is to build multiple teams, in our case say content, sales, marketing and communication, that work in defined boxes pulling towards a common goal. Our mission is how we get there but there is a far more basic value at play – our purpose. I think we have understated our purpose, which is our reason for being, and overstated our mission, which is our plan for how we get there. This model works well when scale is the solution to the challenges but I am not sure that Pratham Books want to be in the scale business – we want to be in the impact business.

The alternative view of this organisational structure is a far more fluid state of being, where individuals share a common purpose, have specific skills that they hone but contribute more broadly than just those, and every outcome seeks to add velocity to the structure to drive momentum. I use the word momentum because in driving social change, it isn’t merely speed that is important it is also the size of the change and as a single organisation, the size of that change is limited by the size of the organisation. How then, do we overcome the challenge of scale and size without morphing into Walmart? (Interestingly, Walmart seems to be looking ahead too: 

“In the long history of humankind those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” ~ Charles Darwin

By bringing the outside in. Over the last four years, Pratham Books has built an enviable digital presence in new media and social media properties so much so that we have won a national award for our use of social media and the strategies employed. At the core of our social strategy lie three elements:

  1. Openly licensed content to spur discussion and community formation
  2. That our social strategy is anchored not in our brand and identity but in the larger context of our purpose.
  3. That we are consistent in
    our approach and the periodicity of interactions.

The first point is important because it is the fulcrum of our work. While people are attracted to our cause, our purpose and our mission, our content are basic building blocks in the creating communities and enriching conversations by functioning as social objects – objects around which conversations coalesce. Further, the open content model allows the capture of value throughout the eco-system such as entrepreneurs who take a chance on creating new formats or new mediums or organisations being able to change them in to forms that are accessible by those who are print impaired to individuals and communities who can localise the content in ways that are relevant to their contexts and that we cannot do. This is why our open content model is important and why changing this is to bring the entire community edifice we have built, using open content, down and with it, anything that we can do with and by community.

The second point is worth talking about especially because it is one we do right. Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Books, recently wrote a wonderful piece, and please do read this and other linked pieces in their entirety, titled “It’s Not About You: The Truth About Social Media Marketing”

At its core, the social revolution allows people to consume what they want, when they want, and largely on the recommendation of friends and other non-professional influencers.  Attempt to graft old models onto it and you are doomed to struggle; find models that are native to the medium and you will thrive.

Activism has been the core of our marketing ever since.  We tell big stories that matter to a community of users, and together we use those stories to amplify a message that we all care about. Framing ideas in such a way that they include and reinforce the identity of a group of people who might not previously have seen themselves as part of the same community allows everyone to tell their own story in a way that adds up to something bigger than any one of them might tell alone. And once they start telling their story as part of the bigger story, it suddenly looks like a parade. But what’s most important about a parade isn’t who’s in front – it’s how many people are in it, and how many people are cheering them on. 

The consistency of approach and periodicity of our interactions, allied with the two previous points has allowed us to build momentum and direct action in ways that have not been done before. In particular, the build up to our International Literacy Day event this year – we have, over 2 years, gone from having 19 sessions to 419 sessions that impacted close to 20,000 children. In one day. However, this was not without much pain to the organisation as running an event of this scale and being the pivot is a non-trivial activity. Which also means that they cannot be done frequently nor can they build momentum in any significant way. In many ways, we have looked at social (media) as an intermediate layer between the organisation and the external world but that needs to be revisited and we need to focus on how to be social, not on how to do social. Which begs the question, what can we do to involve the outside on the inside and to do it scalably, reliably and sustainably?

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” ~ Jane Howard

If we were to look at our work through the boxes we have defined – content, sales, marketing and communication – each one of them has the tantalising prospect of scaling via the outside-in methodology described above and ties in to our purpose and our mission. However, it is important that we create platforms, or more simply put, a kind of stage that showcases our work and provide visibility for our cause, that allow the community to function alongside our organisation and staff. The reasons platforms are important are manifold:

  1. They provide a way to scale without scaling the organisation proportionally.
  2. They provide a way to continually bind and engage communities even when we do not engage. While platforms are scalable, the scale also allows us to build sustainability and reliability  – because economic sustainability comes from a very small slice of the user base and hence, one needs a large user base while reliability, in communities, comes from a larger number of eyeballs .
  3. They are a force multiplier and allow us to tap in to networks and leverage the power of networks and as the network grows, the value increases exponentially.
  4. While social media platforms are great beachheads, or acquisition channels, they should not be our default retention channels, as we have no control over them. We can, however, build and own the platform.
  5. Lastly, platforms give us some protection against failure. The platform, once stable, needs far less overhead to function than an organisation does. 

Platforms are the best way to engage what Seth Godin calls Tribes. A tribe is a group of people or a community that has a shared interest. A platform then becomes a way for them to communicate and organise. From an interview

Big world-changing ideas have had three cycles. The first cycle was that you could change the world by building a factory the way Henry Ford did. If you could put productive people to work and make money producing something that made change, then people like Henry Ford and Andy Grove could cause world-changing things to occur. The second cycle had to do with advertising and TV and media and promotion. The idea that if you talked about an idea enough and pushed it on people enough, it could change the world. The third idea, the one that I think is really available to a large number of people now without a lot of resources, is this idea of finding and connecting like-minded people and leading them to a place they want to go. The internet means geography isn’t so important, so if you can find the 1,000 or 5,000 or 50,000 people out there who want to make a certain kind of change and can connect them and show them a path, they want to follow you. And you can use that tribe, that group of people, to make change that matters. 

What makes Pratham Books so unique is that we already have the start of our communities or tribes, that there is a shared interest in our purpose and what we need to do is transform that shared interest in to a passionate goal and trigger a desire for change. To us, outcomes and momentum are far more important that the size of the community we have. To be a movement one needs a spark or a basic purpose, which we have, a connection between the community members, a platform that we do not yet have, leadership, which we have, and a finite call to action and desired outcomes, which we have. There is no one better placed than us to make this leap in to the future of children’s book publishing. There is no organisation better placed to be the platform and not just a publisher.  

As Hugh MacLeod says, “The market for something to believe in is infinite.”

In terms of content, the crux of the platform will always be our open, Creative Commons licensed, content. It provides a base upon which to build and the fuel for communities to form around content
in multiple ways – across languages, across themes and across functions. Given the myriad possibilities that exist, and that have been demonstrated, it would not be wise to tinker with the license model here because it will break interoperability of content, will create additional organisational overhead in negotiating licenses, provide less value generation opportunities within the ecosystem and vitiate a very basic compact we have made with the communities that have grown around our content. Which is not to say that all our content must be openly licenses. While that is indeed a wonderful situation to be in, we can continue to hold some content back and monetise that through different mediums on our own. Assuming a level playing field, we can also create our own applications and products on top of our pool of openly licensed content. Competing with your community is only possible when a level playing field exists and everyone has access to the same content in the same way.

We have, in the past, tried to partner with organisations that have platforms that we might have been able to use or modify to use but divergent priorities have meant that they have remained minor exercises only and not something we could put our name on. However, since then, technology has moved on and new platforms have emerged for our consideration. In particular, I am most excited by what has to offer. It is a free, open source platform that produces beautiful, engaging books formatted for print, Amazon, iBooks and almost any eReader within minutes. It allows users to create books individually or with others via an easy-to-use web interface. We can build a community around our content with social tools and use the reach of mobile, tablet and eBook technology to engage new audiences. What is then possible is for individuals and communities to slip in, do exactly what they want to, from proof reading, to translating one word, one sentence or one book, to creating an entirely new book without too much effort from us. We no longer are the slowest link in the chain. Excitingly, for us, their roadmap essentially envisages the creation of InDesign (the publishing tool we currently use to create books) in the cloud – which is exactly what we need. This is not to suggest it will be a perfect match and some work in customising it will most certainly be required. However, given everything I have seen, I remain positive that BookType, if not a similar platform yet to be discovered or developed, will fulfil our needs. With that said, I would like to reiterate the importance of supporting the development of Unicode fonts for Indic languages and for using Unicode fonts for our publishing. It is no longer academic discussion – without Unicode, our books, in digital form, will not be accessible or useable and in time, will be unlikely to be supported. In addition, we will not be able to do crowd sourced translations unless we move to Unicode fonts.

With sales, we have yet to implement well-known methods for bringing the social element to our online and offline sales models. Our current sales model, outside of the Government led buying as in Bihar, does scale but scales too slowly and requires a proportionate growth in the sales teams to support these sales. The corollary to this is that the organisation then has to carry that overhead even in years when sales are slow. Assuming a base of 1 million books and 1 million story cards being sold a year, we will achieve a target of 2.4 million books and 2.4 million story cards in 2020 assuming 10% year on year growth and with 30% growth, do around 11 million each. Large numbers, no doubt, but still small in the context of the problem. This also assumes that the market preferences and ability to absorb technology does not grow but we know that will not be the case over an eight year horizon. Which leads us to two questions: How do we deal with digital? And how do we scale sales without building a very large sales force? The question of digital has been answered above and our open, collaborative content framework is key to meaningfully democratising the joy of reading and fulfilling our fundamental purpose.

I do not suggest that we do away with a physical sales team – that is and will always remain important to reach underserved communities but limitations and costs of distribution will remain a choke point. Within the ecommerce space, there are multiple methods that we have not really implemented – the affiliate sales model is one such model where we allow people to sell our books via their websites and other such digital properties in exchange for a small percentage of the sales transaction. We do not use online advertising at all nor do we do any sort of search engine optimisation – these are both low hanging fruit to tap. A subscription based model is also interesting: Buy or gift one years worth of supply of Hindi books. A hopeful side effect is an increased awareness within the organisation of the need to publicly state and produce a certain number of books every year. For our books that are now out of print, using an on-demand publisher, both in India and outside, are worth considering. They might not draw huge volumes but again, are very low hanging fruit for us to target. The last model, the community model, holds the most interest for us.

Lead generation from within the community is something we should look at – it need to be in the form of fees but could be simply in the form of credit to buy books or even social capital. We currently see lots of interest from individuals and organisations that want to set up libraries and sometimes need to raise funds for that. Currently, customers cannot create lists of books they want to buy nor can they create and share such lists for other people to fulfil buy way of charity or gifts. There is much promise in such a platform and even more so if we could include other publishers on this platform – a Library in a Classroom that isn’t just our books but the books the individual or the organisations wants. For non Pratham Books’ books, we could charge a transaction fee, a flat listing fee or ask for special prices that we could use to make a small margin on these sales. The power here really is engaging the community of those who need libraries versus those who can fund them while the beauty and simplicity lies in the fact that the former will actively solicit the latter growing our community. Indeed, we could drive partnerships such as the Pearson one, to have corporations fund libraries or book drives and because we have a platform, setup feedback loops that tie in to a rating system for those requesting books or libraries that will tie in to a public rating system.

One step removed from this is to replicate the First Book model – to set up a platform that allows individuals and publishers to donate excess stock of books to those who need it. Key to all of these community led platforms is that we build and identify them as being about our purpose and not our books alone.

Relooking at our Pratham Books Champions, it is very clear that while it was a success, there is no way it is scalable without significant resources at our end and there is no way to replicate on a regular basis as it takes far too much bandwidth to do it on a regular basis. Which is a pity because it has immense potential to be a movement to amplify our mission. One can mobilise volunteers around specific geographies, languages, themes or even institutions – say hospitals, remand homes etc. What we need, once again, is a platform to manage this from – a platform that will help use viral channels to sign people up, to stay in touch with, to solicit feedback (that we currently post – pictures and a blog post) that builds social credibility and capital and, in time, to open up to other organisations that either want to run book reading (and similar activities) or need such activities at their institutions. 

Assuming the above are implemented, in some form or fashion, I do not believe marketing and communications will exist in the traditional form. Branding will and must be a very strong component of our work – in many ways our brand is our message and our story of trust. These are two elements that are the easiest to socialize and should not be seen as verticals but as horizontals cutting through the organisation or as pivots, around which everything else pivots. The distinction between marketing, communications and social media is an artificial one and not one that should continue to exist. This is an area we have done well at and have learned many lessons from – I do believe this is a integration we can achieve sooner rather than later.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

In working with communities and creating platforms, one should be careful of not predefining outcomes we seek too rigidly or defining our universe that the community must come help build. The beauty of a purpose led organisation is that we co-create the universe along with out community and that is where all the magic happens. 

There are many things we need to do, however. Some of which, we have done, and some that remain undone. Our understanding of social networks is better than most organisations but we have not been able to create an internal social culture. We do listen, engage and build relationships with individuals and organisations but have not yet made the leap to building trust through transparency and to making the organization simpler. We also need to learn how to work with crowds, build specific learning and feedback loops and begin to govern through the network rather than try and govern the network. For most of these elements, the tone at the top of the organisation sets the example, needs to be demonstrated by action and cannot be delegated. Something that the CEO of HUL seems to have taken to heart

“Most people say we either need to do short-term or long-term. I say we have to run the business with a bifocal lens. Part of it is looking at this week, this month and this quarter and the other part is how do I shape this business and make it ‘future-proof’ five years from today. Both have to be done,” he argues.

So, he got himself a ‘reverse mentor’. A young 25-year-old at the firm was put in charge of tutoring the CEO on how to navigate the social media. How do you tag a person on Facebook? How do you write on somebody’s wall? How do you tweet? Most people at his level lead seminars. But he figured if he had to participate in the world his children were now a part of, he’d have to “go back to school” and attend digital workshops led by his brand managers, read the materials they insisted he read, and submit assignments they asked him to complete. When we last checked, he had 251 friends on Facebook; on Twitter though, he remains a passive participant.

Marketing Director Hemant Bakshi says Paranjpe was clear the strategies that helped them win so far may not necessarily be what will help them win tomorrow. “Because the skills and capabilities with which I grew up as a marketer are dramatically different from the skills and capabilities needed in the future,” Paranjpe explained.

While existing platforms (Twitter, Facebook et. al.) are great, they must not be our primary platforms because we do not control their agenda. They are beachheads in the social world but we must feed community back to our platforms where we control the development, messaging and purpose.

JP Rangaswami recently wrote two pieces “The plural of personal is social” where he says:

You need to start thinking of the customer as someone to have a relationship with, to get to know, to invest in, to trust, to respect. And you need to get everyone in the company to think that way, to act that way, in everything they do. And you need to do this everywhere, not just with your customers. Not just with your supply web or your trading partners. Not just with your staff and your consultants. Everyone. Everywhere.

And a follow up piece “Social is the plural of personal” where he says:

Social. Not a layer. Not a feature. Not an app. Social is the plural of personal.

Our mission of “A Book in Every Child’s Hand” has four areas that I would like to focus on:

1. More: There is an element of scale involved which is inescapable. To get more – books, children, reach, sales – the only common element is scale. Currently I see us grappling with this – How big should we be? Are we supposed to be big? Do we have it in us to be big? Is this big, big enough? If we are big will we be different? Managing scale involves a massive deviation from what we do on a daily basis – it involves a loss of control, it involves a huge amount of delegation and trust in employees and in involves a goal that everyone should be uncomfortable with. This ambition on scale and the quantity and quality of it can only be decided by the senior leadership and, to me, it isn’t necessary that we have any immediate idea how it’s to be done. Just that it needs to be done, because that’s what the ambition on scale is.  In short, an upfront acknowledgement of ambition on scale is inescapable – because, to us, our scale is our impact.

2. Getting: Our cause is a noble cause. It’s a fun cause. It’s a cause most of literate India can understand, identify with and participate with. Potentially, we are, sitting on a goldmine of resources – people’s interest, their time and their money in that order but the benefits of partnering with our cause is something that’s not trickled down to the last participant. How does my participating with us make me look a better person? Whether that is crowd funded content, or distribution, the end benefit for a consumer is the appreciation of an audience that they are contributing to a good cause. I see the role of a larger audience in 2 broad areas – content and building communities. Content acquisition need not be driven solely by our Creative Commons led content and can be driven by a broad method of user generated content as well. They supplement, rather than replace, each other and the former acts as a catalyst. That said, there is no escaping the need for a platform for this to scale, as currently we, as an organisation, are the slowest link in the chain. On community building – we are fortunate to live in a time where there are more and more people who are willing to deviated from the beaten career path, and still build a career for themselves. The skills of this new generation of “self-made” workforce, mirror the growth of certain fields – social media, content, food, design. These fields are close to our growth and any non-monetary contribution from this army of people will definitely benefit us. However a lot of this is possible only when they recognize us as a brand that requires their help and that there is great badge value. Our Pratham Books Champions program is a start in that direction. But we do need to build a feeling of belonging to a tribe. A cool tribe that helps one look better among their peers.

3. Reading
This for me is the toughest part, in two ways.

a. One: There is an overt importance give to reading technology and how digital solutions will be available for reading itself to be digital. The question that seems to crop up is “If digital devices are going to increase, then will we be ready with reading content for children in the future.”  The corollary to this is “If digital devices are going to increase, will reading be done on devices”? What if video takes off better than text? Will we be a publisher of audio/video reading content? Or are we going to be limited by “books”? And can we create a community that helps us be nimble?

b. Two: The digital revolution is probably best described as maddening. Suddenly you have women in a small town watching movies on their phones and sharing them via Bluetooth (true story), and at the same time no one in the whole town has access to any information off the internet (via phone or otherwise). There is still a huge market for a non-digital focus, so that means that we have two tasks – the now and the future. Can we handle both or do we build communities than can help us with these two tasks? And if in the affirmative, what do we need to provide to make this happen?

4. Children: The focus has always been children, and will hopefully be.

I firmly believe that communities, networks and platforms are Pratham Books’ best way forward to grow and engage communities, to build a purpose led movement, to co-create content, to build sales, to scale and to ensure against our own failure or irrelevance. Our model of innovation must be disruptive because incremental improvements will not begin to make a dent in the problem. Social must be our framework and purpose the glue that holds it all together.

Here are my recommendations:

  1. Set the tone at the top – Pratham Books will achieve its mission using scale and social as pivots.
  2. Pratham Books will invest in infrastructure needed to bring the outside in – from Unicode fonts to platforms.
  3. Pratham Books will create a modern organisational structure not defined by the strictures of traditional hierarchy but a far more fluid model that includes community.
  4. We will create a common shared purpose, something we can rally towards, which is not a pithy slogan, but something that is the heart of our organization and the reason why we come to work every day.
  5. We will set goals. At HUL, as part of most senior roles, they have to choose three goals they will achieve as part of business and one developmental goal. Why three? Because humanly, one cannot focus on more than that and if they do their three properly, and someone else does their three, they end up doing six. And that’s good. Why the additional goal? Because that’s an area one can contribute and the one additional goal is something that one is good at but the organization is not, and something one can help the organization get better at it. It makes everyone part of the company, and they really feel like they am doing something to help their teammates.
  6. We will create an organisational philosophy with a bias for action where an emphasis is laid on suggesting a course of action, picking up that course of action and seeing it to the end because that’s how new things are created. Bias for action needs to be rewarded and visibly rewarded, so that the employees understand that thinking like this is a benefit for both the employee and the organization. Three additional thoughts here, one that done is better than perfect, an internalisation that there is no such thing as a perfect plan, a perfect product, a perfect solution, but getting something done is better than wasting time on the perfect something and that we are always one 1% done.
  7. We will drive change, acknowledging that it is difficult both for the enforcer and the participant, and send a strong message from the top. And changes, at the top, when and where necessary, will be made. 

[This isn’t a very original piece. Many of the ideas and example are straight from 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era by Nilofer Merchant. Many of the points are from an email a friend sent to me with his ideas, thoughts and feedback on an early draft. This wasn’t meant to be an original piece – more a synthesis of existing ideas to create a strategy, of sorts, for an organisation I worked with over the last five years.]


About gkjohn

Recovering lawyer, erstwhile entrepreneur, pretend polymath, hopeful zookeeper and future dilettante and farmer of organic strawberries. Work at @aksharadotorg and @klpdotorg. Previously at @prathambooks. Was a @tedfellow.
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