And now for something entirely new (here, at least) – a Book Review.  I have been reading Simon Waldman’s new book, Creative Disruption (FT Prentice Hall 2010 ISBN 978-0-273-72573-2). And a very good read it is too, full of thought provoking insight. I recommend it. Simon, known to many in the industry as the digital strategist at Guardian Media Group during its discovery, adoption and triumphs in creating digital media marketspace for itself, has a great deal to say. His core observation, derived from four interesting case studies, is that real world companies receiving the painful jolt of a swift kick in the digitals can and must re-invent themselves through a three stage process of re-generation. This involves a transformation of their core business, the discovery of big adjacencies, and the ability to “innovate round the edges”. His case studies include Encyclopaedia Britannica, Apple, IBM and HMV, and within their recent history he is able to demonstrate how these processes operate. And his point is that the re-invention of these businesses could not have taken place without the digitally-inspired disruption which can be so creative but for many companies can also simply demonstrate the inadequacy of management, the disaffection of audience from brand, or the inability to understand, finance or harness the transition to technology innovation.

So I completed my readings in total agreement with Simon, but rather wishing he had written a slightly less panoramic study. At some point in the generation of this work, I hear Simon’s publishers saying, as publishers always say, “Can’t you widen the scope a bit? So much of this is about media, the land of the vanishing headcount. We need buyers, so please bring in the whole range of tech businesses – and then point to the wider business world, so we can promote this as a vade mecum for industrial re-invention!” Simon has answered these syren cries very well, but for this reviewer this entails an element of regret. I wanted to read from a master with this experience exactly how media markets will be regenerated. In some ways he points in the direction that I was discussing in the previous blog – and indexing to his successors at the Guardian. What if emerging from the the flames of digital transition leads to businesses with less revenue but higher margins on the revenues they retain? Certainly Britannica qualifies there, and probably HMV. But Apple? Or IBM? We may be in danger of putting strictly non-comparable items into the same scales for measurement and judgement; and then finding that our measurement system needs to be re-calibrated in order to make any sensible generalizations at all.

And I would like to say that this aspect of the book is redeemed by a chapter late on entitled “Out of print:the reinvention of book publishers”. This has its interesting aspects, but leaves me where I was already: we have all seen newspapers and the music industry go over Niagara in a barrel, and I hope, with Simon, that  book publishers “have learned eough to get the basics right from the outset”. Since he is talking about another consumer market, however, I must eschew his genial optimism. By far the larger part of the management of consumer book publishing known to me have, while embracing a digital strategy, regarded everything that emerges from it as a defence mechanism to protect the printed book. Using the eBook creatively in multimedia formats (as that wonderful, wilful publisher Peter Kindersley did within the chronic limitations of CD-ROM in the mid-1990’s) is just not happening. Managements seem to view continuity as a strategic aim, and re-invention as a car crash unless it has instant acceptability. Simon uses a favourite Latin tag: Contra vim mortis, medicanem non est in hortis. There is indeed “no cure for death in a garden”, and as these thoughts are written from the bottom of my garden during the “little death” of autumn, I see a great deal more of it in media marketplaces than he does.

But here is a hopeful note. Simon quotes from what I recall as a conversation with him during the writing of this book when he makes reference to the potential of turning research articles on X-rays into a workflow solution for digital training of X-ray technicians. I want to refer Simon to the excellent Brian O’Leary’s “Unified Field Theory of Publishing”  There he will find that passive content no longer has value in networked applications. O’Leary is a “context” man, but his context is ever closer to my workflow. The problem we all face is not just that it is very hard to get people who are not used to it to start analysing the active, problem solving applications of content in the lives of their users/consumers, but it is well nigh impossible to do that if the end purpose is to defend the rigid linear internal production workflow model of the publisher, who cannot conceive of relinquishing his containers or his pricing models, or the accident-waiting-to-happen business model of advertising.

Mischievously, I was also thinking of Simon’s general business readers when I opened a press release from Experian. That company now offers “Decisioning as a Service”, creating a workflow model around decision making and designing in, presumably from the web as well as their own copious resources all the content you need to inform and support a decision. I am sure that this solution does not work at all levels, but it is at once indicative of where the content market is going and poses a challenge to all who commentate on Digital Disruption: why don’t we go and create the modelling that does the job and indicates, even if in outline only, what we need to do in order to transition an old and broken business model into a networked (and mobilely networked) society in a context of rapid change with no foreseeable end. Now that would be a workflow triumph!

The road to anywhere starts from where you are, so I was not a bit surprised to find that the first item up on the agenda of the International STM conference last week alongside the Frankfurt Book Fair was fully aligned with the themes of the Outsell meeting the previous week. And as I ranted (now an over-used term) in my last blog about neutral platforms and the architecture of content delivery to a multiplicity of devices, so in turn I found myself listening to an organization that aspires to do just that. Accordingly, Stephen Dunn, Head of Technology Strategy at Guardian News and Media is my Player of the Week, and I shall watch out for his slides coming up on the STM site ( with great interest. He gave a clear description of how you use a neutral platform to respond to very different customer expectations, and I reflected that the Guardian’s problem is common to most of us. Different customer types in different cultures and geographies whose level of intensity of use is very varied and whose connection to the brand ranges from committed to peripheral. So when we got to Q&A I asked Stephen who gave the Guardian its brand mandate – the 300 thousand or so who read the paper or the 36 million online registrants who identify with something of the aura of moderate liberal politics exuded by its communications. In a sense this was a cheat, since I had once asked the editor in chief, Alan Rusbridger, the same question. He ducked and weaved but eventually came back to the newspaper and its mission. Stephen was much smarter: he coolly said that he didn’t know, leaving his audience with the feeling that it might have been divine, or at least, manifest destiny. The God of the Nineteenth Century sent the Scott family to earth with a purpose, and a right to perpetual existence to deliver it.

I wish, however, that I had asked the next question. When he was asked about the size and margins of the business that he was building in the ruins of a once profitable Manchester newspaper, the answer came back that it was a profitable business, though its margins were not dramatic, and that in revenue terms it was a smaller business than the newspaper at its apogee. This is a secret fear that we all feel. While we can demonstrate explosive examples of growth businesses created in the network, with very high margins, these start-ups disguise the fact that it remains very hard to point to real world media businesses that have fully migrated to the Web and grown at both top and bottom line. Now the Guardian is a charitable trust and its equivalent to the “Do no evil” incantation is “Make no losses”, since it is only the impact of long term losses which can sever the trusts mission to keep publishing, and in print. But for other, commercial players, the thought of being smaller in revenue terms, and not nearly as profitable as print was in its heyday, is a very dubious sort of salvation.

I had not meant to go on at length about this, but I sat there reflecting that this problem is widely faced in B2B, and in professional publishing fields like STM, and everywhere whenever someone is trying to extend brands from print to digital. It arises from the lower cost expectations of users around digital, whether that is in advertising or access, and it is fundamentally formed by the unspoken idea that content on a screen is somehow ephemeral unless it does something – enables an action, or a transaction. By contrast, print feels permanent, meaty, residual in value, even if it enables nothing. The problem is chronic in STM, and is present everytime a major publishing player negotiates with a university librarian.

So it was not a problem for my interviewee, Bob Massie, the President of Chemical Abstracts (American Chemical Society) when we reached the public interview item on the end of the agenda. Chemical Abstracts (CAS) is an example of a service born to be digital, but born a little early and briefly encased in print. Here was an example of service values which could produce growth, margins for re-investment and an unchallenged position in the industry through being the instrument of user willpower. No question about who wanted the comprehensive certainty of the CAS Registry of every searchable molecule known to Man. No doubt about who mandated the workflow modelling of SciFinder. As Bob put it, the industrial and research chemists had driven solutions to their content handling dilemma in the world of content overload, and  there is chemistry in all scientific endeavour” which explains the growth (as does the geography, since Bob strongly reminded us that Asia is now the critical centre of research and usage).

Avoiding more of the Fair, I pushed on to Lisbon and a conference in the misty hills of Sintra. I had no copy of Vathek, William Beckford’s Gothic tale (actually an Arab horror story) written in these woods in 1787 and one of the key influences on the romanticism of the next century. But I was reading William Gibson’s new thriller, Zero History, which in its way is an exact echo of Beckford. One of its protagonists wants a piece of information that no one has ever been able to have. He calls it the “order flow”: “Its the aggregate of all the orders in the market. Everything anyone is about to buy or sell, all of it. Stocks, bonds, gold, anything. If I understood him, that information exists, at any given moment, but there is no aggregator. It exists, constantly, but is unknowable. If someone were able to aggregate that, the market would cease to be real”.

But maybe that is just it. The networks are not Publishing, an abstraction, but they are Life. Only when they we are able to replicate the forms and processes of our real lives in our virtual worlds will we get anywhere near the return that we seek.

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