Remember those days when intermediary businesses in information markets were going to be taken out of the loop by savvy operators who could increase margins by collapsing processes in the service cycle? In the far-off nineties, before bookshops had disappeared and while libraries were still functioning as they had for the previous century, this disintermediation stuff was really hot. We spoke of “disintermediating the disintermediators”, and even “re-intermediation” – well, I did at least, and I rather hoped that you might have nodded off through some of this, since it is all changing again now, and in ways that demonstrate that we were not always entirely right in our prognostications. No, let me rephrase that – I was more often wrong about this than I am now comfortable about admitting.

There are many reasons for this but the most obvious is the most painful – pure failure of imagination. I convict myself of the crime for which I have so often harangued others. A simple failure to remember that when one relationship in a chain changes, it changes everything else in the chain. A month of illness and recuperation and holidays has given time to catch up on a backlog of reading – and thinking. And reminded me to remember my roots. As a farmer’s son in the Cotswolds, the bane of our lives on small farms was the regimented slavery of milking cows at 6am and 4pm. Now that slavery is abolished, as avid followers of the UK radio soap The Archers will be aware (North Americans can start here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/robot-milkers-gaining-in-popularity-at-dairy-farms-in-n-b-1.2756987). Think through these changes in terms of the chain relationship idea, and we end up in a discussion about the future of farmers and the way we organize access to and curation of the land in our society.

So what we have to discuss is whether, in information, and often entertainment, markets our intermediate role is worth saving. Whether we call ourselves publishers, or information service solution vendors, matters not a whit. Do we do enough to stay in the loop as other relationships change in our client base, and other players threaten to subvert our value by combining it with theirs? When as a law publisher online I crowed that I had “captured” the user desktop all I was actually saying was that I had beaten the law firm’s library budget to a pulp. Very many law firms don’t have librarians any more, but, in recession, many have found that more and more legal process can be outsourced in commercial law. And, as I have noted here before, as outsourcers like Obelisk (www.obelisksupport.com/) band together the unemployed lawyers to provide a service base to re-align where the work is actually done, and outsourcers to corporate counsel like Axiom (www.axiomlaw.com) replace much of the service value that private law firms once offered to corporate customers, the tectonic plates are moving in that most conservative world of law, just as re-regulation after recession is creating a new marketplace around risk management and compliance. So, take the most conservative of professions, with highly protective union rules around membership and practice, which you would think would entomb change through mummified procedure – and even here we can see real evidence that within comparatively short periods of time, far-reaching change is massively afoot.

Then look at the organization of medicine, and medical advice. Or PR, and the ability of marketing department analytics to subvert much of the value of the PR businesses. Or insurance. Or construction and BIM, and planning processes. Or engineering design. Or property transactions. Or almost any field in the world of work or transactions that you can imagine. From the taxi drivers who resent Uber to the private drivers who park with RingGo, these changes in relationships are live on the streets of London today, yet we still take each change as a piecemeal development and not as a link in a fundamental shift. And we are very good at describing over-arching movement, but not at all good on detecting what those movements may mean on the ground. If you are still reading in the next few months I shall want to write about the Internet of Things, about M2M, about “Big” metadata, about ubiquitous computing, about semantic analysis, about additive manufacturing, about open and linked data etc etc. But I am now more determined than ever to describe those things in the clothing of work and business as it is now.

So what is the Future of Law Publishers , in the sense that I have used them as an example in this piece? Well, I think that the logic of what I have been looking at this month implies that they themselves will be dis-intermediated. Clearly the small players will successfully cope with the diminishing ranks or practitioners who want texts in some form or other, until that small market becomes a self-publishing function. I can imagine that the large players, like Thomson-Reuters, Lexis or Bloomberg BNA, will be able to migrate through acquisition into the workflow outsourcing business. Their data is becoming highly commoditized, and they have too little expertise to allow them to customize. So I see them as becoming service bureau, providing cloud-based services either to their former clients, or to their client’s clients. The decisions they make for their clients will be insurable and a good number of their employees will be legally qualified. Gradually, in some service areas, it will be hard to tell them apart from law firms. And that is a prevalent conclusion from research in these areas – only our physical, non-networked world could have sustained these separate service functions in the value chain. Put them all in the same virtual network, and inexorably they mutate into one solution. Before the summer break, I wrote about this here under the title “If its a Service, Outsource it…“. Reviewing that piece I now realize that we are seeing the first stages of a much more fundamental re-alignment. And it cannot be postponed or delayed because media and information corporations so wish it.

We all do it. Give me a platform, and I can be as arrogant as the next man. Tell me I am an expert, and ten minutes later I am telling you what to do. This is a harmless facet of most conferences, but in meetings about education it has a particularly nasty side effect. We are not just harmlessly telling our fellow professionals what to do, but prescribing remedial medicine in the only place that can save our world – the education of our children. Before starting a speech in this area we need to take a long drink of Essence of Humility!

Perhaps limping along on a stick with a bad back proved a levelling experience, but I found at the opening day agenda of the ELIG (European Learning Industry Group) Annual Conference in London on Thursday a level of smugness which might have typified the English at their arrogant worst, but which was unexpected in an international body combining expertise from across the entire continent. This was certainly untypical of their meetings: I have supported them from their foundation 12 years ago since I believe strongly that all components of the education industry need to sit together and talk. The nature of a networked society means exchange of roles and consolidation of different supply chains, so the more voices we have around the table the better the outcomes for the eventual beneficiaries – the learners – upon whom all our futures depend. And I shall continue advocacy for ELIG despite this meeting, in the hope that we get things better over the next decade.

It might have been the opening speaker who set the unfortunate tone. Adrian Wooldridge, Management Editor at the Economist, is a very considerable expert himself, as a journalist and commentator. As one of those speakers who keynote from the “I am not actually an expert in education myself but here is my plain man’s view of what has gone wrong and what we should put right…” viewpoint, he tended to sound more like an under-briefed politician than like someone with an illuminating angle of expertise. His theme, that the role of the teacher is sacrosanct and effective education can be aided by machines but always depends eventually upon what can be passed from a human teacher to a learner, may, as he said, have been formed by his own experience at Balliol and All Souls. But, he said, while his own university had only been founded in the eleventh century, the true model for education was Plato and Aristotle.

What the delegates from Pearson or IBM or Intel or several younger European universities in the audience made of this I could not tell. But it does not hold out much hope in a world where teaching is not a one on one or one on two tutorial experience. It sounds vaguely insulting in a country where classroom sizes now move firmly back over 30 as a result of cutbacks. And it sounds hugely arrogant in a world where the only hope that many will have of any form of educational achievement will be on a digital network.

But it could have been the following speaker, Chris Dede, Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard, who confirmed the tone. No one listening could have doubted the level of expertise here. Professor Dede speaks with massive authority in his field and produced useful illumination on a whole range of issues. But, as a Professor at Harvard, he knows only too well that we have got everything wrong, that no one has ever acted on the evidence that he and his peers have produced, and that no one ever will. So much of the experimentation with new forms is mostly misguided and eventually doomed to failure – and MOOCs are a classic example of this. Shortly afterwards he was joined by a panel of policy makers and entrepreneurs, and reverted to this critical line. How could it be, they agreed, exchanging smug smiles of superior wisdom, that no one had noted that this business model was a failure? How could it be, they lamented, that so much money had been invested and spent on such chancy, get-rich-quick adventures in education?

As the panel turned into a bonding exercise for a group who knew what policies should be adopted and how the world might be better organized and regulated for the education of the unwashed masses, I began to reflect on how far we had strayed – in this conference room and in the industry at large – from the real nature of education in a networked society. We – the experts, the professors, the journalists, the regulators, the businessmen – are still trying to prescribe, to push onto the learner the shape and structure of learning. Yet we have always known that learning is something you pull towards you. Secretly we all know that we learn best what we want to learn, that curricula and examinations are less effective than desire and learning hunger. And we also know that much of our most effective learning is acquired from fellow-learners – it is a deeply collaborative process.

In a networked society, for the first time in history, pull is stronger than push in education. What is remarkable about MOOCs is not failing business models – it is the millions and millions of people who signed up all over the world, and are still doing so, and will continue to do so until we can satisfy them more effectively with better learning experiences. And whether the experience contains video, powerpoint, remote group collaboration, scarce live teacher resources online or anything else is not important at all. The network is not only pull-dominated, but it is, in its very nature, iterative. MOOCs are version 1.1: before ELIG meets again, they will have re-iterated and changed. The joy of the world we are now moving into is that it is deeply user – sensitive, and success comes to those who tweak and change in ways that users recognize as beneficial – to them. So come on, Professors of Education and influential, opinion forming Journalists, join us in the networked self-educating society! But there I am, prescribing for others again. I just hope they encounter a MOOC one day that makes all these things clear.


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