Organisational mid-life crisis: Lessons on survival

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The biggest challenge has been to maintain the successful elements of our traditional business while morphing into a business relevant in a VUCA world

Running a 50-year-old business at the forefront of change has presented some unique challenges. Publishing had pretty well remained the same since Caxton invented the printing press in 1476, but with the introduction of digital technology around the turn of the millennium everything changed. Online retailing, new digital formats and a change in attitude to the copyrighted industries meant that we, along with many other companies, had to recognise that our ‘comfort zone’ had become anything but.

The sudden demise of high street retailers – resulting in the UK having only one national range retailer (Waterstones) – was a sharp wake-up call. Amazon had become the big new kid on the block, and we had to think quickly about what the implications for the company were likely to be.

Perhaps the biggest challenge has been to maintain the successful elements of our traditional business, while at the same time morphing into a business that is relevant in a VUCA world. A pragmatic approach was the only way I could see that might achieve this. First we needed to reaffirm what our core values and objectives were, and recognise that the things that have stood us in good stead for the first 50 years were likely to still hold strong.

The two fundamental principles of our business – developing fantastic content and developing channels to bring that to market – are as relevant today as they were in 1967.

This cleared the way to look at how we could benefit from new digital tools and techniques to help support our business growth. Reframing the challenge into an opportunity rather than a threat was a fundamental agent of positive change and a galvanising force for the company. Creating an atmosphere of excitement rather than fear has been key.

Hard decisions had to be made and none more so than understanding that we needed new skills in the business. My own mistake was to assume that everyone was comfortable with this transition and that I had communicated adequately the rationale behind it. A dreadful couple of months in 2013 revealed that I had got this horribly wrong and we lost a number of staff.

However, this was also the moment of recognition that at the heart of an aspirational company – even a middle-aged one – there has to be transparency and strong communication to all stakeholders. We began to work closely with our staff to reaffirm our core values and create a strong understanding about our value proposition.

We looked at our core markets, interrogated whether we could do better, and began to work closely with key gatekeepers (such as the CIPD, with whom we now work as its publisher) in each of our areas. This resulted in a period of intense innovation and this year – our 50th – we have seen the launch of a multimedia digital collection platform and a range of online courses to support professional qualification and CPD.

Balancing the needs of a 50-year-old firm – its valuable networks and relationships, its established brand reach, its need to respect its own history – while injecting the energy and agility of a start-up has not been easy. It requires a level of honesty about what the company has become and clarity about some of the hard decisions that have to be made. A mid-life crisis wasn’t necessarily welcome at the time. But it became a vital stage in our ability to evolve with the changing times.

Helen Kogan is managing director of Kogan Page

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