Thu Dec 15, 2016
I joined SAGE at the start of September. Hello SAGE!! Here I outline some of my initial impressions.
First up, I’ve been really delighted to meet so many great people at SAGE. I’ve received great support from everyone in the company. I generally find publishing folk to be very friendly. This is a friendly industry, working on the fabric of knowledge, knowing that your work can help to make a difference, trying to make the work of academics a bit easier. I believe that these are all things that can help to create a good environment for an industry to be situated in. All that aside, I’ve still been really impressed by how lovely everyone is. I think that comes from some initial interactions that I had way back in my first week, and it’s only continued through the weeks.
One obvious change at SAGE is the scale of the company. It’s a good bit bigger than eLife, and I’ve not worked in a company close to this size since 2010. At Mendeley, and later at eLife, I saw what happens as a company starts to grow out beyond the point where not everyone is able to know everything that is going on (that’s not a bad thing at all, just an inevitable part of the development of a company). Back when I was working in Springer and Nature my work mostly involved interacting with people in close proximity to my project. What I’m working on now is of interest across the company. Communicating across the natural silos of information that will emerge in a large organisation such as SAGE has required some new thinking. The main thing to note is the existence of structure that is contingent on the history of how that structure emerged, and the best thing I’ve found for understanding that quickly is just to tap into the collective wisdom that already exists within the organisation. Basically asking people who have been around for a lot longer than I have about how to do things, or who to talk to. That’s mostly been successful. The one time where it didn’t work so well was when asked someone a few things, only to discover pretty quickly that they only knew fractionally more than I did because they had only been here about a week longer than me!
I’d never known a huge amount about SAGE before starting to think seriously about coming on board. I’d known a few people for a few years, whom I held in fairly high regards. I didn’t know that the name SAGE comes from
Sara and George, the founders of the company. Sara is still very much involved in the company, and chairs the board meetings, as well as continuing to take a keen interest the strategic direction of the company. Since joining I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her a couple of times, and I’ve been hugely impressed with how impassioned she is for the important role that social research can play in society. One moment in particular stands out. It was a few weeks ago, just a few days after the US election. Moods were a little deflated. She stood up at a small meeting and simply articulated the importance of what social science researchers are doing for societal outcomes. She talked about how organisations like SAGE are in a privileged position, and being in that position almost sets a demand on them to do what they can to help support that role of social science.
I think this connects well with another thing that I’ve learnt in the last few months. For the particular project that I’m working on I’m spending a lot of time talking directly to researchers. They uniformly have a positive attitude to SAGE, and the things that SAGE builds in this space. It’s clear that the values of company really seep into how they act in the market.
So what is it that I’m doing now? My job title here at SAGE is Head of Product Innovation. For the time being that title sits in front of one very specific project. My main responsibility over the next year is to support the emerging field of what we might loosely call computational social science. Specifically the team I am in are working on finding services that SAGE can partner on, or build. It’s a pure greenfield product development position.
Here I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of what to call a data intensive way of doing social science (there are subtleties around whether we call it A or B, or some other label), but I’ll tell you what we currently believe, and what we have observed.
We believe that data at scale is transforming many aspects of how social science is done, and with that transformation is will come the opportunity to answer questions that were previously intractable, as well as making it easier to tackle currently hard questions. We believe we are seeing the emergence of a new methodology for how social science can be done (but we also believe that this does not remove the need for existing methodologies, rather it will enhance them). My favourite analogy here is to think of this as akin to the creation of a new kind of telescope or instrument. It opens up new ways of viewing and understanding the world that builds upon and broadens what we already know.
We see some groups out there already doing this kind of work, and we see many others who are interested but who face a variety of barriers to starting with these techniques. This is where the project I am working on comes in. Initially we are trying to understand these barriers, and design things that can help reduce them.
There are many many reasons why this move towards data intensive social science may be important. At a very basic level expanding the tools available to scholars is always a good thing. Being able to make the most of the implicit data that is now a by-product of the digital interfaces of our lives may move us from a position where we may be haunted by that data to a position where we have have the means to understand how to deal with it. I feel that most importantly it’s also about bringing some humanity to the systems that we are building today. These digital systems and the data that we as a society, and as individuals, are generating are determinative to many social outcomes. If the only driver for the creation of these systems is the market then those outcomes are probably not going to be wholly fantastic. (Cathy O’Neil writes about this clearly in Weapons of Math Destruction). To help balance this I think social scientists need a seat at the table when it comes to the design and engineering of those systems.
Over its fifty year history the publication of methods has been core to what SAGE does. From this perspective finding a way for SAGE to support the emergence of a new class of methodologies makes perfect sense for us. We are not working in isolation either, rather, we are contributing to a strong trend in a way of thinking about the systems that surround us. We want to help by being an active partner in initiatives that can help with the agenda I’ve outlined above, and where we have the opportunity to build things that help move that forward, we will try to do so.
Our thinking about the kinds of things that we can help to create is still very open ended at this point in time. It is also almost impossible to predict what are the things that you do that will have a real impact, and what are the things that you do that end up not making much difference. What is clear is that you don’t have a chance of finding out if you don’t try. We aim to try, and to learn, and hopefully we can iterate on what we learn to find a way to make a meaningful contribution.
I’ve been asked by a lot of people why I decided to move from eLife to SAGE. I’ve already outlined here a bit about the project that I’m working on. Overall when I was approached with this opportunity I decided to weigh up three factors, what impact might the project have, what impact might I have on making the project a success, and overall how would working on this help me support my family.
It was clear to me pretty quickly that this project has the potential to be impactful, and certainly that the motivations behind the instigation of the project were very aligned with my own personal beliefs and interests. I also felt that my background in working on digital tools for researchers over the last few years was a good fit for the needs of the project. This past summer my family grew by one, and now with two young children to juggle (sometimes very literally), the opportunity to work on stuff that matters, and to do so from quite close to home, was one that I had to look very closely at. I made the jump, and now three months in I can honestly say I’m just getting more and more excited by where we are going with the project.
If you have managed to get this far and you are still interested in what we are working on, then maybe you might like thinking about joining us? We currently have a very small team. We decided from the outset to pursue a lean approach to product discovery and development. The team is myself, half of the amazing Katie Metzler and some time from the also awesome Martha Sedgwick.
After a lot of learning in the last three months we have decided that we want to bring in another person full time (on a 12 month contract) to help with the development of the project. We are initially setting the position to be a 12 month fixed contract, as we just have a high degree of uncertainty around what the ideal shape of the team will be in a year from now.
Initially we we want help with the following kinds of things (at the heart of which is helping us to understand the needs of researchers, and helping us to follow up on the many amazing conversations and leads that we are having right now), but we also have a fair expectation that the role, and the entire project, will continue to evolve over the coming year:
* Assist with market segmentation and market sizing • Conduct competitor analysis product positioning • Recruit a pool of relevant users for testing of product concepts with • Conduct solution interviews • Participate in usability and product concept testing * Participate in product ideation workshops * Synthesise and capture feedback from interactions with researchers, and share and distribute that feedback amongst other team members * Provide product development support during the build phase from concept to MVP * Be a voice for the user through the evolution of our product ideas.
If you are interested and want to find out more please reach out to me!