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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.keep looking »