I have been enjoying the press coverage of News Corp’s purchase of Wireless Generation. This is a hugely progressive move and one which could point to an entirely different developmental direction for News. However, repeated doses of hype from the buyer’s PR department induced a light sleep, during which I found that I had typed the following dialogue. Of course, any resemblance of this to the truth of the matter is entirely co-incidental, and since I do not know the people whose words I have imagined this should be treated as the fiction it really is.

SCENE:  A boardroom somewhere in Manhattan. The Strategy Team are all assembled and are talking in hushed tones when the Chairman comes in.  He addresses the Head of Strategy (HoS):

RM (for it is He): Well, guys, have you got the answer to the little problem I set you?

HoS (gulps nervously): Well, Chairman, we think so. We looked at DMGT, the FT, GMG and the Washington Post as you commanded, and they all have one thing in common. Somewhere within each of them there is a potentially game saving educational play, and it appears that investors and analysts believe, or can be encouraged to believe, that this is a hedge against the wheels coming off the newspaper industry.

RM (growls): No wheels are coming off my papers – we’ve got satellite and network television to keep them warm. And don’t tell me the pesky internet will undermine them too. Tell me about the Education Hedge.

HoS: Well, what you need is something Startlingly Digital, which hasn’t been seen and rejected by Pearson already. Then we can claim we are going to leapfrog everything and establish a unique positioning. We fancy something in assessment, with an automation/productivity angle so that you look like a benefactor of those grossly overworked teachers.

RM: I warm to this, despite the fact that these self-same teachers are too often dangerous radicals, and some are Democrats. And none of them read or watch our stuff. Say, could we do a Fox Education channel?

HoS: Perhaps a later step, Sir. Meanwhile we fancy Wireless Generation, a sound technology, deep in assessment and labour-saving, and not in any of those troublesome curriculum areas. But we think as a preparatory step you should retain a real education figure, to advise and to indicate our corporate will to enter this field. Mr Klein is just leaving the leadership of the New York School systems and would be ideal.

RM: What, a Clinton man! But I see the point – you want us to seem bi-partisan and  above the fray. A sort of Mr White- and- Klein (Carruthers, make a note of that for the next edition of The Wit and Wisdom of RM, coming for Christmas from Harper Collins).

HoS: Precisely, Sir. Then we make an initial purchase, planning to spend around $360m, and start to build a division. Soon we shall have our own Kaplan.

RM: And a completely new departure for me. Education, eh? Did I ever tell you what happened to me at Oxford…

HoS: No, Sir. But we could dress this up as continuity, since you already own an educational publisher.

RM (slightly nervously): We do? Not somewhere important, I hope?

HoS: Actually, no, Sir. It’s in London and part of Harper Collins there.

RM (morosely): No one tells me anything! And London – you know, those limeys are trying to stop me buying the rest of Sky – and trying to win the Ashes Down Under as well.

HoS: Sorry I mentioned it, Sir. But cheer up – you are no longer Australian or British but American, and we can concentrate Education here. A little Agile Publishing and we shall soon be on our way with a development unit.

RM: Now watch Agile. I am no longer a young man. But we can certainly move quickly. We can do The Daily Education on the iPad, and deliver a Killer Sudoko App with it. Can’t fail.

HoS: We should leave it to the Professionals, Sir. You can’t get stuck into Education like a mass media environment.

RM: But that’s what you said about My Space, when we bought something we didn’t understand, and kept having to hire new sets of Professionals and now I am No 2 and sinking. We are even sending the FaceFellows or whatever they are called our customers. Please promise me it isn’t one of those?

HoS: No, Sir, it isn’t. It will work just like Kaplan.

RM: OK, lets go for it. Buy this Bush radio (or was it Telegraph), but if I have to do Agile publishing give me agile margins as well. Now, next problem. I seem to be unable to work the page turner on my beta Daily – and you told me it would be “just like a newspaper”…

Around this time I awoke, and found my dreaming had resulted in a fantasy.

The emerging world of network publishing, if found on the map of a medieval cartographer, might well be seen as a land of giants. A land far larger than that occupied by the noisy contestants of consumer publishing, or the sad and plaintive territory once dedicated to Music, it is built on foundations of  business and professional information. No one writes about it much in the press or public media (they have survival problems of their own) but if what is currently taking place on the networks does not produce the expected benefits for global businesses over the next five years, then the ability of the world economy to grow out of recession and still keep control of commercial practices will be inhibited and delayed, with adverse effects on all of us.The promised B2B revolution has to deliver real benefits in improved productivity (more done by less people with improved outcomes), better decision-making (greater security around getting all the factors lined up, and weighting them effectively) and more cost-effective compliance (greater assurance that best practice and regulatory frameworks can be implemented in practice and audited). This is a tough call, but for those who can do it there will be rich rewards.

And in this land there are Giants, and their consolidation is taking them to new places,  far away from the craft practices that we might designate as “publishing”. The largest players are consumed by the idea of workflow, and not at any trivial level of integration either. In the last six months I have been privileged to walk the territory, map in hand, sometimes only vaguely recognizing a terrain that I first explored 25 years ago, and many times since, and sometimes getting re-acquainted with old features in entirely new contexts. My conclusion is that Thomson Reuters and Reed Elsevier are now at a transformational stage, that there is blue water between them and the rest of the marketplace, and that if they are able to complete the transformation at significant scale they will tap into an area of  margin and revenue growth that exceeds expectations in the information services sector at present. Meanwhile their former sector competitors are still stumbling around trying to redress the past by taking content online, re-inventing advertising models and awaiting the rebirth of format publishing in the networks. It will not happen, and the wisest and best know it.

So what is happening at TR and RE which is so laudable? I have spoken of Thomson Reuters (Rebuilding Inside Out) as re-inventing the core of this huge company through the creation of workflow products and services that start by concentrating the core assets of clients and content across the legal-regulatory-financial services continuum and then creating workflow around governance, risk and compliance that first of all standardizes practices (and thus themselves become performance standards) and then become templates for applications that move out into every business marketplace. The starting points are viral, like tax and regulation. The transformation comes when these solutions, using a mix of TR content, client content and licensed third party content, become a standard enterprize software application that can be bolted into the network (internet/extranet/intranet/mobilenet) or run as SaaS in the Cloud.

This is policy -driven workflow, ensuring compliance and allowing systems to drive governance. But you can take a completely different view of this if your aspiration is to drive business functionality itself. Imagine you are in insurance markets, where RE’s LexisNexis dominate. Workflow is created around risk assessment: know your customer, verify his record, score and categorize him, reject or insure him, check his subsequent performance. The combination of Seisint and Choicepoint at Lexis, plus all the access to public record content, and then to media aggregation like Nexis, creates a bedrock solution (and one so solid that in anecdote it is possible to speak of a new market entrant into the US insurance market basing his market entry plan on this Lexis Risk platform). Where an information-fuelled solution creates the workflow format (and to do this strategic alliance can be important – Experian, for example, is a valued partner to Lexis in the US) this model can be replicated by Lexis in countless markets.

Indeed, it can be created in law markets themselves, Lexis and TR’s Westlaw have long since moved on from information as pure research in legal services. Support for law practice marketing was an early target of both. In research days in the past litigators were the great purchasers of access, so it is noteworthy to see Lexis moving on to litigation support systems – its CaseMap workflow model is now used by 99 of the AmLaw 100, the top litigators in the world. Even more noteworthy is the equal emphasis given to the business of law alongside the practise of law: when current plans are fully implemented in the next few months it is obvious that every sector/customer segment will have business workflow integration at each level of business activity (from billing and time management to marketing) as well as each sector of practise activity. So is Lexis a law publisher when it reaches this point? Or a fully integrated systems supplier with comprehensive  solutions supporting all aspects of being a lawyer? (or, if our examples came from the science sides of these businesses, of being a researcher or a medical care provider).

One driver of these changes has been competition. Would these Giants be so impressive without each other. And yet these two Giants are showing that very different approaches are possible even in a very competitive field. As they grow there will be other competitors: are these two the allies or the competitors of IBM, or Oracle, or SAP? Dramatically, Lexis has integrated all of its workflow for lawyers with Microsoft Outlook and Word, to the huge benefit of workflow integration for lawyers (and a great gain for Microsoft as law practices are forced to upgrade). And this in turn demonstates the return to the underlying network, after the Flight to the Web in the late 1990s. Workflow by definition is not a flashy web-based offering, but a series of real internet-based applications installed within the firewall. It is this sort of consideration, as well as the Apps marketplace in consumer mobile, that makes Chris Anderson ponder about the future of the Web.

Mobile and the Devices will get built into all of this (witness TR’s BoardLink for the secure retention of  board papers and director’s reports in a workflow tool for company secretaries and directors). I have a feeling that we are still closer to the beginning than the maturity of whatever this is, as well as a sense of wonderment that so many of these changes are happening around that most conservative of professions, the Law. These two players now stand well apart from the chasing pack, and have both done what seemed so unlikely only a few years ago: created a cadre of experienced managers who know digital content and business models backwards, who truly know their own customers, and who have the technical support to make good decisions. It is here, not with Jobs and Murdoch trying to write a new future for the exhausted newspaper format via the Daily, that the real future of “network (electronic) publishing” lies.

keep looking »