Does Agile work in ELT print publishing?

Two years ago, ELTjam asked whether it was possible to produce an ELT course book using Agile workflows in the strictest definition of the term, creating lots of discussion. At emc design, we’re starting to see our clients use many different approaches to new courses, some using agile-inspired techniques. But can traditional ELT print publishers take ‘true’ Agile on board sustainably? Is it possible to approach a print product in exactly the same way as we approach digital products? Or are they just too different?
It makes sense for a digital-focused company like ELTjam to encourage traditional print publishers in any sector to use Agile development techniques. Rightly or wrongly, and despite waves of innovation, the reaction of more established publishers generally seems to be to shy away from the level of risk and massive change of direction implied by the challenge. That said, we have seen some big companies begin to embrace these ideas in small but incremental ways, even for printed ELT materials. Teams are being restructured and communication between different departments is getting better. But we’re still a long way off from having flexible, adaptable teams and production plans, and we’re certainly a long way from Agile.

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But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. By its very definition, traditional ELT print publishing can never truly be Agile. It’s unnecessary, expensive, risky, and at that point it would become something different. That being said, publishers can and should (and do increasingly seem to be trying to) blend some of those practices with their existing processes.

We’ve seen our clients try outsourcing, use specialised production teams, consider new project management techniques, etc., but they still can’t seem to break free from a waterfall approach, even when there is a greater amount of work to be done to more condensed schedules. So if it’s not possible, but the demands from the market require better, faster delivery, could some kind of blended approach be the solution?

What we’ve noticed – a supplier’s perspective

From a supplier’s point of view, we constantly push ourselves and our systems to be ready for anything our clients throw at us, but we are still tied to the workflows determined by our clients. We have learned to adapt our internal processes to handle anything that comes our way.

Most of the time, schedules and workloads sit comfortably within the realm of traditional publishing (waterfall), but this is slowly changing. Even if it wasn’t as immediately disruptive as predicted, digital disruption has massively increased demands on print publishing. Print publishing is by no means disappearing; learners just want their material to be as up to date as possible as quickly as possible. The risks are all still the same, the expectations of quality and extent are all still the same, but time frames are drastically reducing.

We’re lucky to be in the position where our clients value our feedback and are willing to discuss possible solutions with us, so we are able to work with them to develop different approaches to ensure each part of the project goes as smoothly as possible – sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. What we need, and have started to see, is an adaptable approach that takes some of the most meaningful techniques from all styles of working and makes them fit for purpose based on each individual project.

To a certain extent, publishers already follow an iterative and incremental production process (sampling, proof stages, reprint corrections, new editions, albeit very long compared to software development). They do conduct consumer testing long before the project is ultimately published (we’ve had entire courses redesigned midway through the job due to market feedback). They do try to be as flexible as their entrenched structure allows them to be (smaller teams, agile-style project management techniques).

It’s not technically agile, and it’s not quite lean, but does it need to be?

What actually works – staying flexible

We’ve seen many different kinds of projects come through our studio – no project is exactly the same. There are the traditional, long-schedule jobs; the publish-three-levels-of-course-material-in-four-months jobs; and then there are the jobs that start off traditional but suddenly become very tight very quickly.

From everything we’ve been seeing here at emc, it’s clear that consumer demands are forcing traditional publishers to adopt a level of flexibility that’s difficult to maintain and plan for, and as suppliers we have to do our best to adapt to those conditions. Print publishing is slow to change, so we need a solution that will work for the transition period we are currently in – but what form should that take?

Whether a project takes an agile approach or a lean approach or something completely different, there are a few things that are consistently done well in the most successful ones:

  • Constant communication and collaboration
  • Defined, but flexible, expectations
  • Quality control

Probably the most useful and adaptable aspect of agile is the feedback–achievement loop. Things change over the course of any project – that much is 100% certain. Communicating those changes well and collaborating to adapt to them quickly makes a big difference in how smoothly a job runs.

Now, this doesn’t mean bombarding your suppliers with emails all day, but it does mean having a better handle on what’s been achieved and what needs to be achieved at critical points of the process. Yes, daily or even twice-weekly ‘stand-ups’ or ‘scrums’ may mean more day-to-day admin time, but it also means that everyone is kept in the loop and the team can work more cohesively throughout the process, which is really one of the biggest benefits of agile, isn’t it?

The big picture – what’s next?

If traditional ELT publishers are going to try to integrate agile and lean publishing techniques into their product development, then they need a more flexible and, dare I say adaptable, approach – one that allows for the publishers to feel comfortable with the amount of risk they’re taking on and also for customers to continue to receive the kind of quality they require, especially in ELT.

We seem to keep asking the same question: Has traditional ELT print publishing changed in the last 10 years? Probably not that much. Maybe what we should ask is does it need to? And if yes, what needs to change, and why? That’s what will change our industry, and what we’ll adapt to.


emc design

emc design is a leading UK based design agency dedicated to publishing. Since 1990 emc has specialised in delivering the best print & digital solutions for an evolving elt publishing industry, offering design & production, creative content buying and project management.

3 thoughts on “Does Agile work in ELT print publishing?”

  1. Thank you for this elaborate case study.
    We’ve been preparing our agency to introduce agile for some time now.
    It is remarkably helpful to be able to read how you manage to become more agile and how it worked out for you.
    Do you use any software worth recommending?
    We’ve read a lot of favorable reviews of and decided to give it a try.


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