Since the experience of my school days, I have regarded education as a matter of pulling things from, rather than stuffing things into, otherwise preoccupied skulls. With this very much in mind, I embarked on a consultancy assignment in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1996, from the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. The assignment was organized by the formidably energetic executive director of the International Book Institute, Donna K. Anderton. She had asked me if I could assist Yayasan Obor Indonesia (YOI)—a nonprofit book publisher—to identify its training needs and help develop business strategies to bring the enterprise to self-sufficiency.

Through extensive interviews in the summer of 1996 of people involved in the generally robust Indonesian publishing industry, we established the focus for this training endeavor. Two training sessions were then set up during separate months in 1997, with a concluding off-site workshop in 1998.

Principles of the Training

For 40 years I’d been involved with editing and publishing in newspapers, magazines and books. When Anderton approached me, I was pacing out retirement as the professional fellow teaching in the Master of Publishing program at the Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia. YOI—a publishing house in this functioning dictatorial state that was dedicated to spreading democratic ideals among Indonesian intellectuals and the literate population—received no internal or government support, especially for any kind of training. Run by the legendary Pak Mochtar Lubis, an international award-winning Indonesian journalist and editor who had been jailed on occasions for his liberal advocacies, YOI was covertly respected by the industry, but it relied on foreign (mainly U.S.) aid for its continued existence.

Despite the favored model of bringing promising candidates to an institution overseas to attend formal courses, the guiding principles I arrived at for this training were relatively self-evident. By adhering to them I was confident we could meet our training goals:

  • To have any chance of a useful longterm transfer of “best practices,” a training program would have to begin with a review of generic publishing disciplines and move into professional specialization for promising individual candidates.
  • At first, a seminar and workshop approach for managers, followed by one with staff, had a higher chance of success than classroom training.
  • Language of instruction had to be in Bahasa Indonesia for generic sessions, possibly with a competent instantaneous interpreter.
  • Visual presentations in on-site generic sessions had to be simple, clear and explicit, with text in Bahasa Indonesia.
  • The first, second and third stages of any successful training program must be in Indonesia and tailored to local publishing circumstances.

In March 1997, the first on-site training session, my task was to get immersed in the YOI operation, to learn how its 30-member work force functioned, and organize the managing cadre into an effective team. Language was but a minor difficulty.

As it turned out, YOI is a functionoriented organization, as are many publishing houses worldwide. Publishers dictate. Editors edit. Proofreaders proofread. Production prints and distributes. Salespeople sell and accountants count. As far as I could tell, hardly anyone knew what others were doing in other departments, and there was no job-related interchange among them. Why? (See below on the question of “blame.”)

The consequences of this lack of interaction and communication were typical. Deadlines were missed and publication dates postponed while inventory, unsold copies, backlist titles, and obsolete volumes piled up in the warehouse. Losses accumulated and YOI’s rancorous, post-publication analyses were devoted to assigning blame.

Sound familiar?

In proposing a training program, it was an advantage for me to be from Canada. This was perceived to be nonthreatening. Managers were able to unburden themselves of the irritation they (possibly unfairly) felt with the bureaucracy surrounding the dispensation of international aid. They were intimidated by what was being peddled as the “Business School” method. Yet I arrived on the scene virtually free from this baggage, since I was proposing a plausible road to detachment and independence.

Seven managers attended the initial organizational seminar in preparation for the staff workshop to follow. It opened with an analysis of YOI’s purpose and mission, as well as its publishing and business strategies. Who did what in their publishing functions? What became clear is that careful team management was required for the entire publishing process to be efficient. I was to get across to these managers the notion that “bad communications” was not a disease but rather a symptom of rigid division of functions and the urge to “blame” others for failure. Our discussions dealt with the publishing process from the acquisition of intellectual property to its production and sale and the need for every segment of the operation to fit in the total sequence required to get the publication out on time.

Sharing the necessary historical marketing and accounting data for successful planning and future projections was as useful to the editorial group, in its role in this process, as it was to the sales people in theirs. Similarly, the editorial tasks and deadlines involved had to take an integrated “critical path” approach if sales and marketing were to reach the designated reading public on time. Reducing unit costs by upping the print run was the road to certain perdition.

This exercise was successful and productive, and evidence of this included:

  • The alacrity and enthusiasm with which the publisher embraced inclusion of profitability in the purpose and mission statement, and
  • The competence and enthusiasm the management group displayed as they conducted the subsequent staff workshop almost unaided by me as the facilitator.

The following staff workshop produced drafts of business requirements and human resource work summaries. It worked up rudimentary but telling job descriptions—with objective measurable standards of performance, personal achievement goals, and the working interrelationships needed for enlightened process management.

Statistical analysis and title breakeven techniques were used to determine what sales levels would have been and would, in the future, be needed to cover both fixed and production costs for every title published so far and for those already planned for. The managers also presented a reorganized planning framework to the entire working group for “contribution, buy-in, and commitment.”

Two teams of representatives from a mixture of all departments then convened to suggest their 10 most promising titles to be considered for strong promotion in the next publishing program. They drew on the historical data now available to all, realistic projected sales for new titles and data for pricing decisions. Team leaders presented the results.

It was a promising start.

Looking Back

The training experience with the YOI staff more than offset the drawbacks —the 30-plus hour journey from Vancouver with its many weeks away from home, the tropical temperatures, the less than immaculate accommodation, and the daily 4 a.m. call to prayer that blared across the city from loudspeakers. (I learned later that the mullahs recorded these messages and did not personally broadcast them.) Then there were the pungent back streets, the distressing disparities between rich and poor, the riots, the consequences of an unfamiliar diet ….

There were, of course, many offsetting benefits. I picked up a useful vocabulary of Bahasa Indonesia—about 500 words—and I met and talked with Gus Dur, Abdurrahman Wahid, who later became president of Indonesia amid the street rioting against the Suharto regime (and, incidentally, against the ethnic Chinese merchant class). The people I worked with were talented, committed, eager for professional development and, I suspect, grotesquely underpaid. Among them were the controversialists, and their sometimes hostile questions and remarks that sparked vigorous discussions and valuable opportunities for guidance.

What I have been unable to determine since my return in 1998 has been the long-term results of the training program. Pak Mochtar Lubis has since died and Ibu Kartini Nurdin, who was the executive secretary of the organization when I was there, is leading Yayasan Obor Indonesia. (This succession confirms another of my conclusions after now 50 years in the business. True secretaries are an ideal source for management promotions: They readily internalize the techniques of process management through the multidepartmental coordinating work they are required to perform in this role.)

Ibu Kartini Nurdin’s e-mail to me in the last days of 2004—some five years after my visit—included the words: “… We always try to increase our production in order to reach our mission. One factor is because of your consultation how to increase our capacity. You have to be proud of it. Thank you very much ….”

Thank you, Ibu Kartini, for the extraordinary and rewarding opportunity to be of assistance.

Ralph Hancox, a 1966 Nieman Fellow, is now retired as an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and from teaching in the Master of Publishing program at the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing, also in Vancouver.

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