London Book Fair 2023

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BMJ's Agile Journey: A Case for Embracing Change

The London Book Fair 2023 was an exciting opportunity for us to showcase our ecosystem for scholarly publishers. We were thrilled to participate in the event with our booth, where we engaged with attendees and demonstrated our technology-led solutions for publishers. In addition to our booth, we had the privilege of hosting a speaking session with one of our valued customers, the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

We were honored to have Gill Flynn, Head of Business Systems Platforms at BMJ, join us for the speaking session at the fair. During the session, we delved into the rapidly changing publishing landscape and explored how publishers can stay nimble in the face of such changes. Through the case study presented by BMJ, attendees had the chance to learn about the steps BMJ took to streamline their journal publishing process, achieve remarkable turnaround times, and scale their publications. It was an exciting opportunity to gain insights on how publishers can collaborate better, improve author experience, and seamlessly grow their publications. Keep reading for the full transcript of the speaking session, where Gill Flynn talks to our COO, Sowmya Mahadevan, about the BMJ's strategies for thriving in the ever-changing publishing landscape.

Key talking points

Introduction: Change is the only constant

Sowmya Mahadevan: The only thing that is constant in life is change. I know that is such a clichéd thing to say, but that's true, isn't it? The only thing that is constant is change, and especially in today's world, change is coming at us so rapidly. You turn this way, you hear about ChatGPT. You turn that way, you hear about all kinds of digital technologies that are coming at us. It's very, very exciting but also very, very scary at the same time. In such a world, how do businesses, and especially publishers, keep up with change?

That is certainly a question that's on everyone’s mind, and that's exactly why I'm so excited about this talk today, Gill. I'm so happy that you could make time for this talk. Gill heads the business systems platforms at BMJ and has been championing embracing change at BMJ.

Gill, you’re a self-confessed technology enthusiast, but I think what’s interesting is you don't just look at technology for the sake of technology, you look at solving business problems using technology. So, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Gill Flynn: I’ve worked with BMJ for about 10 years. I started as an IT freelancer, and I became an employee in 2017 and now head up Business Systems Platforms–that’s CRM, Revenue, and Publishing systems.Prior to publishing, I started off as a developer in the telecoms world, and I also had a brief stint in the parking fine software industry, User Interfaces (UIs), that sort of thing. So, I’m not from the publishing world originally, but I’ve been here for the last 10 years.

Sowmya Mahadevan: Looking at all the things that you've done for publishing, I know you're heading business systems platforms, but you're not just looking at keeping things running. I think one of the things that keeps coming up in a lot of our conversations, you're constantly challenging the status quo, you're looking at how to make things better. So, would you say that “using technology to make things better” is what motivates you and what drives you? Is that a fair way to describe who you are?

Gill Flynn: If I had a strapline, I'd like it to be, “Work smart, not hard.” I'd rather spend an entire day trying to automate something than just spending one hour doing it. So, I like to solve problems.

In this day and age, everyone expects everything instantly, especially younger people. So, I think what drives me is getting users into the system as soon as possible. As soon as you can get them in the system… It's almost like a lie you shouldn't tell. Users use the system, so even if things aren't ready… I've got some of our team here, I like to shove them into the system. What drives me is getting the users into the system and then seeing their pleasure when they can see that things are working.

Sowmya Mahadevan: It is a very agile way of thinking and an agile way of doing things, isn’t it? I'm a certified agile leader myself, and I totally think that that's the only way that businesses can run today, which is to embrace agility and look at how to keep up with change that keeps coming at you.

BMJ's vision for agile publishing

Sowmya Mahadevan: So, let's get on with this journey that we want to talk about, the agile journey. I think it was about 6 or 7 years back that Kriyadocs was associated with BMJ, and I know that at that time you were looking for a partner to work with to handle your journals program. We were a smallish company, but we were talking a lot about using technology, and we were talking about putting authors at the center of the whole publishing process, which is not something that a lot of other people were talking about, not something that traditional publishers were looking for. And despite having a long history of publishing in a very traditional way, I must say that BMJ was very forward in its thought process in saying that this is aligned with our vision. So, talk to us a little bit about how the vision of BMJ is to constantly look at a better way of doing things, looking at technology enablement, and so on.

Gill Flynn: There's a lot of talk about AX—yet another acronym—the author experience. And just to give a bit of history, at BMJ, I'd say about 10 years ago, there was a kind of company-wide move to move everyone to the agile way of working. Prior to Kriyadocs, that started with all the staff taking all the traditional email and office systems that were desktop-based and moving everyone to the cloud. Users weren't keen, frankly, but they were quite hesitant because this is software that they've used for a long time, they're really comfortable, really feature-rich software, and users were worried about that loss of functionality and not being able to do their day jobs.

That whole thing was delivered, it was really bold, it was challenging the status quo, which I really love. I come from the parking software industry, which is not fancy. And that all took place in 6 months. Even though I'd say 80% of the functionality of the features were gone, productivity demonstrably increased. It was really apparent that losing 80% of the features actually made people's lives easier and quicker. So, you know, the example of spending hours working out a Table of Contents and automatic numbering, and all the rest of it… At the end of the day, you just need the text.

As for the collaboration, BMJ is a global company, and of course, we're all used to the virtual world. We work with people in India, America, and so on. And the collaboration benefits were great. So, moving back to your question, I think that exercise really showed all the users that you don't need to be scared of change. In fact, it can actually be better, and simple is better; it's not just about the IT.

BMJ had been publishing for over 100 years, I wouldn't say we had typewriters before, but things were quite old fashioned.

I think the [BMJ] team was actually really ready to embrace the change, and that's why we came across Kriyadocs. It was quite young at that stage, but it looked very modern, which was appealing.

The importance of leadership commitment

Sowmya Mahadevan: That's fantastic. So, you have the vision and you have to get aligned on the vision. But it's not just important to have a great vision and throw it at the team, leadership commitment is absolutely necessary.

We hear a lot about why sometimes, change fails. It's because you can't just mandate change. You need to show that the leadership is committed to change, and that's something that I have personally observed at BMJ. When you decided to partner with us, there was a lot of commitment from the leadership to say, let's actually take a really hard look at how things are, and let's challenge what we're doing today. If that means we need to optimize some of the workflows, we need to change the way we are doing things, you were open to those sorts of discussions.

I've had long conversations with Malcolm [Smith] and Kate [Spencer], for instance, who have also joined us today. We’ve had conversations about optimizing things, and we appreciate BMJ for being open to that.

I think the leadership commitment is very important to make any sort of transformation project successful. Would you say so, Gill?

Gill Flynn: Leadership commitment is absolutely important. I think it's almost—and I don't want to get blasé—but it's almost routine for us that we have leadership commitment. I would say that at BMJ, they've seen demonstrable results. I've worked with my team for such a long time, and I've seen tech projects that we talk about for 3-4 years, but we never actually do it. And by the time you have done it, what you've delivered is irrelevant because you're 3-4 years down the line.

Leadership can be really committed, bold, and willing to take a risk. The downside of them having seen results is their expectations are through the roof, which is a bit annoying. [laughs]

I think that to keep and maintain that leadership commitment, you have to really keep an eye on what you're trying to achieve. It's not just about agile delivery and doing new and lovely things, it's about proving that we're making a difference. For example, has the author experience improved?

BMJ’s Head of Production Services, Natalie Bryan, was ready to make a change, but the software was old-fashioned and inflexible. It was really hard to make significant change without making a shift. Her real passion for change really helped the team.

I also think you need user buy-in. I think the reason why the production team has done really well with moving forward with these new systems is because they feel like they own it a bit more.

Collaboration, trust, and transparency

Sowmya Mahadevan: What comes when you have user buy-in is that there is a lot of collaboration, trust, and transparency, right? And that is a key component of any sort of change management. Anytime you want to make things better, you are going to challenge what you're doing right now. If that level of collaboration and trust isn't there, things don't go well on day one.

We've had a fair share of mistakes, but I think the key part to any sort of collaboration is that you know that it's going to get better, you're open to collaborate, and you have the trust that on both ends, people are looking at solving the problem and that it's not just a blame game. That high level of collaboration, trust, and transparency has been a key component of what BMJ is as a company. And I must say that as a company we have imbibed some of those beliefs and principles back into our own organization and brought in that level of collaboration and trust within our own teams.

Is being collaborative and challenging the status quo a part of BMJ’s DNA? Where does it come from?

Gill Flynn: Collaboration is so important for everything we do, especially with working across the board. But I think in this particular example, I know that the software was very young and we had that situation where 80% of the features had gone, so it was quite difficult with the first versions of the software. So, I asked the team, how come the relationship between you and Kriyadocs continued to improve rather than going south. And they said that, first of all, the software looked so modern, and they could see the vision. It might not be there yet, but they could see the possibilities. So, that was number one. And number two, very quickly, I mentioned Natalie, the Head of Production Services… She started off the KPI dashboard, really honing in on how we can make the author experience better, where the bottlenecks and the delays are, and so on. I think that we shared that with Kriyadocs. Basically, you could see exactly what we were shooting for, you could see what was working well and what wasn't, and that’s quite motivating for both teams!

It's so important to be transparent. Perhaps in the past, the suppliers would say “Yes, yes, yes, we can do that,” when actually they can't, or, “Yes, we can deliver it in a month,” and a year later, it's still not delivered. If you can have that transparency, then the supplier can say, “Yes, we can deliver that, but should you really?” and challenge us. That just builds up that trust, so I think it's worked well.

Sowmya Mahadevan: I think that's where the magic starts happening. When you involve the teams and you have this high level of collaboration, the teams now start looking at how to iterate, how to make things better, how to bring in new features.

We've had such wonderful contributions to the Kriyadocs platform and to the processes, coming from all over the place. And as you said, once the users have the buy-in, they are looking at how they can make the platform better. So, we've had some wonderful innovations that have gone back into our workflow. For instance, there was a case where content had to be automatically published in another journal as part of a specific workflow, and we had to move content from one journal to another journal. We figured out how to automate that, and we had to make sure that certain types of articles or content had to be copyedited by only a certain pool of people. We figured out how to make that happen. We removed a lot of manual interventions and checklists that needed to happen. We were constantly looking at how we can challenge the software to do more, and those ideas were not coming from the top down, they were actually happening at the teams who were working on the platform. That's when magic really starts to happen—iteration and constant improvement. When you get into that sort of a culture and mindset, I think it's beautiful. What do you think?

Gill Flynn: I've spent my life deprecating legacy systems, and I feel like I've been annoying users for years, because I keep on changing their systems. [laughs]

I used to see a real resistance to change; it was a bit of my job that I didn't like, because I wanted users to get in there and use the new software. Now, I see a demand for change. I mean, these guys are monsters, always wanting change! [laughs]

The users own it, and they come up with the innovations, because they know it's possible—and not just possible, they know it can happen quite quickly as well.

You've mentioned some of the things that they did, but one of them that Malcolm was talking about, which was about Correction Notices. This was where an author has published an article, it's gone online, but perhaps a name's wrong, or there's a missing apostrophe or something, but it was such a manual process before.

If you make the Production Editor happy, you make the author happy because, as pedantic as it were, they want perfection. To turn that around took two days, so it would mean making a change, downloading a PDF, opening the files in the software, transferring them to the SFTP server. And we work on different continents, so depending on the time, you're talking two days before that change can happen.

The idea came from within the production team, and the Kriyadocs dev team came away, and I'm not quite sure how they managed it, but they just basically produced a button. So, you make the change, you click the button, and now it happens in 30 minutes. Although I don't think that reduces time, because there aren’t that many Correction Notices, you're really improving the author experience, and the user's experience.

Gill's vision for the future

Sowmya Mahadevan: I think that when, as a user, you’re asking for more, it certainly challenges us as a company to figure out how we have to become more agile and deliver on that request. Overall, you're raising the bar constantly, and now you're moving up, so we're at a point right now where we're looking at what’s next. I'm very happy to say that we've got into the state of constant innovation, and like I was mentioning earlier, it's the teams, the users, who are coming up with the use cases that would make sense. There is pushback, where needed, but there's also acceptance and delivery when it makes sense. So, constant innovation is what's happening at the moment.

What's next in your vision, and as for the future, what else do you look at in terms of the roadmap?

Gill Flynn: I've got a huge wishlist. It's all about self-serve. I mean, even if you buy a sandwich now, you're used to not speaking to someone, going in and waiting for your sandwich.

Really looking for software, especially customer-facing software, that has great collaboration. Also, it's got to have lots of interconnectivity, and that interconnectivity is not just a great API library, but it might go to the community, author hubs, and so on. It needs to be really, really flexible. I would say that I'm always on the lookout for flexible, scalable software, modern software. But sometimes, the software can be so configurable and flexible, and we always have to bring it back to keeping our eye on what we are actually trying to achieve and not “going too off-piste.” It's so tempting. With IT, if someone says, “Can you do this?”, the answer is almost invariably, “Yes, we can.” But just because we can doesn't necessarily mean we should.

We're talking about IT and being agile—a huge benefit we've seen is really not just, “Do we need an IT solution or should we look at simplifying our processes?” And, just to say, all of this that we've got along is not a tech project at all. I mean, my job is going to be redundant quite soon, because it's owned by the production team, it's owned by the users. The authors and the users, they are at the best place to drive that. So, that’s kind of my wishlist. And of course, it’s free as well. [laughs]

Sowmya Mahadevan: And actually, during the pandemic, we had a lot of papers come in. A lot of COVID papers had to be published. There were a lot of constraints that came in at the same time, but because we had an engine, machinery that was working really well, we were able to handle that surge in volume during COVID exceptionally well. And we were innovating at that time as to how to handle this surge of articles that has come our way.

Metrics that matter: The BMJ & Kriyadocs collaboration in figures

Sowmya Mahadevan: Moving on to some numbers… As you said, at the end of the day, it’s the numbers that matter. We have to look at the KPIs and see if we’re headed in the right direction. Gill, would you want to talk about some of the numbers that we’ve accomplished?


Gill Flynn: This graph is genuine. You can see that over the years, there has been continuous improvement.

I have a slight concern with this graph because this turnaround time (TAT) is from an article being accepted to actually being published online and ready-for-print. I think by 2030, it’s going to be accepted and published in an instant! But you know that, that’s probably going to happen. It’s probably possible!


Gill Flynn: And, as I said, the BMJ publishes medical content. As you can see, in 2020 and 2021, there was a huge surge in COVID research. The volume almost doubled in terms of what these guys had to do. But equally, it was COVID research; we really wanted to work at speed. So, higher volume, get it out there more quickly. And they continued to innovate, and again, that sets such huge expectations. [laughs]


Gill Flynn: So, this is something new that Kriyadocs put in place in 2023. This is the authors’ feedback at the end of the proofing and production processes. About a third of our production team are in BMJ India, and one of the production team leaders there, Abhishek [Silas], is very passionate about data. And I know this data is only from the beginning of 2023, but he would be looking across all the 60-70 journals, and he’ll be saying, “Hmm, in this category of journals the “Great”s aren’t so good. So, that will give us real focus on not just getting things out quicker but also coming back to the author and making sure that there’s less back-and-forth, the collaboration is easier, we can do more. It’s about improving the process, and like I said, simplifying it. Once you start with something like this, we hope that the only way is up!

Sowmya Mahadevan: Absolutely. There is a very small sliver of “Poor” and “No comments,” so I think the goal would be to convert those to “Great” and “Good.”

I think the important part is that when you have data at your fingertips, automatically, people take the right actions.

Gill Flynn: Yes, you must never forget to focus on achieving those results.


Sowmya Mahadevan: We also have some more author feedback. The reason why this is very important is that when you put the authors at the center of the process, things will go in the right direction. It was very important to have proof that that’s actually happening, so it was good to get these sorts of author feedback about the system.

An agile roadmap for continuous innovation


Sowmya Mahadevan: So, if we look back at what we’ve been talking about, Gill, what BMJ has done is move from being a traditional publisher to an agile publisher. Would you say so? You start with a great vision, there’s leadership commitment, there’s collaboration and transparency that got built in, a lot of iteration and improvement, and now we’re at a point where there’s constant innovation that’s happening. And this is not magic that happens overnight, it’s a process, it’s something that you have to be committed to, it’s a path. That’s why there’s a long roadway over there. [laughs]

But then, things do happen and change is possible, isn't it?

Gill Flynn: Absolutely. In that journey, perhaps we’ve painted a very rosy picture, but obviously, in the first stage we forgot to pack a few things, maybe we had different plans, and so on. Now, there’s a nice cadence.

At BMJ, we’re working on a more project-y type thing along with the production team carrying on with a few different things. That’s moving another bit of our production process into this software because we can see that we’ve got the opportunity to make it work. There’s a vision of how we can make things better. That’s on clear objectives, hard deadlines, and a fixed budget, but you can still do things in an agile way where you’re just remembering that it’s about the author experience.

Sowmya Mahadevan: I think that as a company, when we work with publishers like the BMJ who are constantly challenging us—we also work with eLife, Portland Press, Medwave—we get a lot of good ideas that we’re able to bring back into both our culture and processes as well as the product and technology. That’s been a fabulous journey for us as a company as well.

So, if I look at where we are…

Sowmya Mahadevan: At the end of the day, the author experience, and Gill, you talked about AX, is really what matters. The researcher is the primary persona that all of us are looking at. When you are an agile publisher and you are focused on continuously delivering more value to your authors, what you get is happy authors who come back to you as a publisher because they’ve had a wonderful experience publishing with you. And what that does for us at Kriyadocs is that we are now motivated to elevate ourselves as an “agility partner” because we have to become agile ourselves and also help you become more agile. That’s been a very interesting and exciting journey for us, and I thank BMJ for putting us on this path and for continuously being there as a guide and showing us the way as well.

Sowmya Mahadevan: Where we are right now is that we’re going all the way from submission to peer review to production and all the way to distribution.

And that’s pretty much it! Thank you so much, Gill, for taking the time and sharing your journey and the BMJ’s journey with us. It has certainly been very exciting.

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