As we in the information services market start to get our thinking right about the influence of Big Data and our current obsession with workflow, then I am beginning to think that we will need to revise our whole approach to collaborative working in marketplaces. At the moment we are playing all the old tunes but none of them seem to quite fit the customer mood. Like that old vaudeville star, Jimmy “Schnozzle” Durante, we need to tinkle those ivories again and again until we find it. The Lost Chord!
So here is a sample of my keyboard doodling. I reason that we cannot “productize” information services for ever. Our customers are now too clever, and as we open our APIs and let them self-actualize or customize, we face real dangers. At the top end of most markets in most sectors the top 10 customers are well-equipped at the skills level, and are surrounded by systems integrators who can service them expensively but effectively. And amongst the medium and small enterprizes in our client base, the cost of doing anything but allow them to customize for themselves is prohibitive. And we are sitting in the middle of this, talking passionately about selling solutions and always seeking stickiness, while our client base shows dangerously independent tendencies.
There are two answers. We could sell less. Just licence everything, put the APIs in place, let the user community get on with it. For me, this is like sleep-walking on a cliff edge. Our only potent quality as service providers has been our knowledge of what users do with our data and how they work. Make the relationship one of pure licencing and we cut off the feedback loop and isolate ourselves from the way in which workflow software is being tweaked and refined, and the way our data grows, or diminishes, in importance as a result. Or we could go to the opposite extreme, way past the current middle ground where we build “solutions” and customers adopt and install them as applications, with all the difficulties described above. The “opposite extreme” is equally difficult, but at least keeps us in the game.
So what is the opposite extreme? Simply this: that we go on building solutions, but we increasingly customize them for our major customers, working in partnership with systems integrators and our software solution partners whose Big Data environment, or analytics, or data mining is part of the key to our service specification. Setting up our own systems integration, by alliance or as an in-house installation, could be vital to our ability to stay sticky, to bring the client’s own data and resources into play, and to learn where the market is going to go. I hear cries of “We are a content company, not a software house!”. Not so for the major players in B2B and STM, who have been fully invested in software for five years or so, and are more likely these days to buy a tool-set than a data-set. Much more cogent are the protests of those who do not want to get into ownership of major pieces of systems software: the answer there is strategic alliance. Discussing the pharma market the other day, where size is very important, I found myself advocating approaches to major customers for outsourcing large areas of non-research process which offered real productivity gains to the user, and gave the services solutions player and his systems software partner the ability to work inside the firewall and grow with the client need.
There may be 1000 major global clients across all verticals with whom this approach would work. It certainly works in government and financial services, traditionally the targets of the major players in Big Data software. But it again exposes two new problems. It leaves the bulk of the market behind in medium and small players unable to afford this type of soup-to-nuts solutioning. This, again, is a real opportunity for solution packaging with a systems integrator, either externally or internally to the content player. This will enable 3-5 year contracts with upgrades, data updating and maintenance. And in some instances integration will go further and permit scaled down custom solutions that parallel what the major players are doing. The trick will be to start by seeking to sell in the standard integration package, and then respond to the smaller customer’s need for customization. And there is a market of small players and consortia where this type of solutioning has been working for some time. Its Education, and the service area to watch is Pearson Learning Solutions.
And the other problem for the bigger data content players? Simply that there are killer whales out there! As the major enterprize software vendors see what is happening, they will feel that this type of solutioning undermines some sacred territory. We see that with Oracle in particular, but also IBM and SAP are always ready to buy on a vast scale. Some of today’s Big Data ex-start-ups, in the 5-10 year old Valley vintages, will be absorbed into these big players, which could be difficult – or an opportunity – if your content solution is tied to that newly acquired player. In fact, if the major content providers are not talking regularly to the mighty enterprize software players about how these worlds come together then they are less smart than I think they are. At the moment, in my experience, some at least of the enterprize software players are saying “We should probably buy some of them – but we have no experience of managing content.” If ever you find yourself saying “I never imagined that Springer or Elsevier or Wiley would end up as part of the solutions division at Oracle” then I hope that you will recall an article that went right to that point. And at least that would integrate all access at all points!