Ken Brooks is senior vice president, global production and manufacturing services at Cengage Learning (formerly Thomson Learning) where his responsibilities include the development, production, and manufacturing of textbooks and reference content in print and digital formats across the Academic and Professional Group, Gale, and International divisions of Cengage Learning. Prior to his position at Cengage Learning, Ken was president and founder of publishing Dimensions, a digital content services company focused in the eBook and digital strategy space. Over the course of his career, Ken founded a Philippines-based text conversion company; a public domain publishing imprint; and a distribution-center based print-on-demand operation and has worked in trade, professional, higher education and K-12 publishing sectors. He has held several senior management positions in publishing, including vice president of digital content at Barnes & Noble, vice president of operations, production, and strategic planning at Bantam Doubleday Dell, and vice president of customer operations at Simon & Schuster. Prior to his entry into publishing, Ken was a senior manager in Andersen Consulting’s logistics strategy practice.
This interview is part of our larger study on digital publishing.
Ken Brooks has spent most of his career implementing new technology solutions designed to improve the quality, efficiency, and cost effectiveness of book publishing and printing processes. However, when asked what the greatest challenge has been, he is quick to reply that changing human behaviors is especially difficult.
At Cengage, he currently leads a number of initiatives designed to develop new workflows, processes and tools; redefine job accountabilities; and increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization. Like many organizational changes, these were greeted with a certain degree of skepticism, by the Cengage team. At the beginning, it felt that more processes and work were expected of a smaller team.
While new technologies were available, many of the same processes and accountabilities lingered from earlier eras. For example, production teams still focused their efforts on technology changes for individual titles rather than developing automated processes to speed the production of all titles. Rather than owning specific outcomes, vendors were task oriented and required considerable oversight. Metrics were inadequate and too much time was spent on data entry. The lack of clear accountabilities and metrics often caused strained relationships between Cengage and its vendors.
Training and education were the keys to creating a culture that was committed to improved quality and efficiency. The production organization needed to understand the company’s overall business objectives, as well as the needs of customers and business partners. They needed to understand how metrics could help everyone do a better job. And they needed to become more “techno savvy” by understanding how popular applications such as wikis and blogs work and through exploring popular Websites such as Flickr, Facebook, or Technorati.
Next came the development of best practices that included:
- “True” partnering with customers and vendors via better understanding of their needs and business goals.
- Empowering all team members to be responsible for specific business outcomes.
- Continuing to implement new technology to improve efficiency and communications.
Improving communications was particularly important. They conducted “town hall meetings,” provided news flashes on important corporate developments, used wikis for group problem-solving initiatives, and published internal blogs to share ideas.
The outcomes are still a work in progress. However, without these initiatives, it would have been nearly impossible to support existing businesses while integrating the large Houghton Mifflin acquisition.
Brooks also plays an important role in helping to inform the publishing strategy for all of the company’s imprints. iChapters is one of its most visible digital publishing initiatives. Today’s students are extremely value conscious and seek to purchase only the learning materials that will help them meet their goals as students. iChapters allows them to buy only the parts of eBooks that their instructors require and to delay their purchase decision until they are certain that they will really need the content to pass exams or complete homework assignments.
When asked where higher education publishing is headed in the future, Brooks suggests that the next generation of products will be more digital than today’s products. Combining technology with content will help students explore important topics, improve their writing skills, and solve homework problems more easily, while learning more. He believes that products will be modular in their design and will be tied to ontology of learning outcomes. It is uncertain whether it is more efficient to develop the next generation of learning products from today’s textbooks than to create new architectures for digital content. Current textbooks may be too linear in their orientation to become easily modularized. It is very possible that for new learning products to take full advantage of digital platforms that, may need to be developed from scratch by a new generation of Web-centric authors.
Brooks believes that product planning processes need to be revised to plan for the full range of products that will be offered on all types of media. While some students may still prefer print products, these are likely to be customized by their instructors. They may wish to use a combination of media ranging from powerful personal computers to dedicated readers to mobile devices such as iPhones. Audio and video content are certain to be part of the product mix. It is important to develop a product roadmap before specifying individual product offerings.
Ken Brooks is among the most forward thinking production and technology executives in the publishing industry today. His grasp of technology is very strong and his grasp of human behaviors and how they can be modified is outstanding. We agree with his emphasis on best practices, evolving processes, and innovative technology. We share his vision of the future for higher education learning materials and will watch with interest as they come to market.