It sometimes seemed a long way to go to find oneself engrossed in a conversation on credit referencing for small and medium sized enterprizes. However, around 3 pm Hong Kong time last Thursday I heard a conference light up with really vibrant debate, sourced from all around the Asia-Pacific region, on a subject which at once focussed regional attention and yet was symptomatic of the state of ePublishing and Information Solutions in a global networked society as a whole. The event was the Business Information Industry Association of Asia-Pacific, holding one of its sessions of joint user-provider debate within the framework of the newly-launched Online Information Asia Pacific. Day 1 of the main conference had addressed wider themes, with an excellent introduction by Stephen Mak, the Hong Kong CIO, Stephen Arnold on Search, and effective work from case studies in Thailand on Web 2.0 in the context of knowledge capture and from Pebbleroad in Singapore on Knowledge Capture. My own contribution on the Device Wars are attached in the download section of this blog.

Outside of a full conference room were some 90 exhibitors and over two days around 1000 delegates from across the region. I hope that Incisive Media are encouraged and keep plugging away at this. The old Online conference in London is now 33 years old, and there is no doubt in my mind that in the middle of that run it was a critical meeting place for industry and users. Some of the discussions I heard in Hong Kong had exactly the cathartic flavour of those vital days of industry self-discovery. As Steve Goodall of Outsell (also a sponsor) noted in his BIIA regional and global review, this is the most significant growth area in global information markets. Even newspapers sell here!

But Day 2, for me at least, focussed on the BIIA Forum, which I attended as Chairman and where, when the conference concluded, I glowed with pride at the happy accident that had led to my five year involvement in this organization, in support of my old friend and collaborator, Joachim Bartels, BIIA’s founder and now its chief executive. It was his inspiration to set up regional fora of users and suppliers, a most appropriate one in a region of such huge diversity and different cultural styles. Looking around a room that included users from trading organizations as diverse as Merck or National Semiconductor or Cargill, interested parties like the IFC (World Bank) and the Peoples Bank of China, and vendors of services and solutions ranging from Thomson Reuters and Lexis Nexis to SinoTrust, Veda Advantage, D&B (sponsors and also participants from several countries) and Standard and Poor’s one could appreciate the range of likely debate. It was when the voices began and the questions flowed – from Hong Kong itself (including an enthusiastic group from the Chinese University of Hong Kong), from Thailand, from Singapore, from Australasia, from India, from China, from Taiwan, augmented by interested participants from Europe and the USA, that the regional magic and the connectivity to global information market trends took fire.

The issues surfaced innocently enough. In a topic devoted to eliminating information asymmetries it quickly became clear that for many participants business information was becoming increasingly controversial. There were major issues concerning government-held information in the region, symptomatic both of culture and control, and of privacy and data protection legislation. Everyone recognized the role of business information services in creating value, and the utility of those services in creating credit referencing services which enabled the region’s huge and growing trade. Yet there was also an air of discontent: current content was becoming commoditized, and in particular, it was becoming much more difficult to provide reliable and verifiable information about small and medium-sized enterprizes. And the problems were not confined to banks and finance houses: clearly identifying SMEs (or even defining them) was a problem for all traders in the market, especially as SMEs are generally seen as the engine of growth in any economic recovery. How well I recall this debate in the European Union in the 1990s, and how frustrating it was that nothing could ever be done at any level to alleviate it. I settled in for an interesting but fruitless discussion.

Which was not how things turned out. Instead real energy was devoted to ways of tackling this. One party, in which I found myself a dissident, sought remediation through re-regulation. Information control was the answer, and this had to be accompanied by better benchmarking to define what information should always be available on differently defined enterprizes at different sizes. Enforcement of disclosure was the stumbling block. Meanwhile on the other side, the counter argument that the internet was an economy unto itself, where every trader left an impression, seemed to me to have growing attraction. The implication here was that increasingly, as we move about the network buying and selling things, we should want to have our efforts noted and scored, so that the favourable or otherwise impression of our activities on everyone else could be known. This would be a competitive activity, and risk management value would migrate to those who were best at mining the network’s information yields.

And it was this that hung in my mind on the long trip back to London. We have now reached the stage in a networked society where the source of all information about participants in that society lies increasingly in the network itself. We now have the tools, in data mining and entity extraction, to locate and interrogate both structured and unstructured content. Increasingly semantic enquiry and things like this week’s announcement of MarkLogic’s experiment in this area give confidence that we are at the application and not the speculative level. Then think of the advances in workflow modelling noted here from the most major players like Lexis and Thomson Reuters. I do not seriously doubt any longer that the answers to most information services development questions are already known, because the content needed to answer them already lies, though under-exposed, in the network. And Asia-Pacific remains undoubtedly the most stimulating part of the world if you want to think about Next Steps.

I first read Fred Warburg’s volume of autobiography, title as above, in 1968. I have noted on the flyleaf that I bought it in the Charing Cross Road, and, a great blow no doubt to that charismatic publisher, it had been remaindered! This did not stop me from buying, reading and enjoying the second volume from the owner of Secker and Warburg, entitled “All Authors are Equal”. Along with many others in the same genre they formed my first (and intensely romantic) ideas of what a publisher was. Like an amateur rider in a country steeplechase, the thing was to be stylish and show conviction: getting round the course was as good as winning. Publishing was not to be reduced to a science (Sir Stanley Unwin and Geoffrey Cass notwithstanding): we did what we did with something indefinably mysterious called “flair” and devil take the consequences.

That glorious past is both past and, probably, glorious. Yet the “publisher” word, once a badge of pride, now threatens to become a noose around our necks as fatal to breathing as the Old School Tie. Last week, which moved me merrily between the Imperial Boardroom in Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, and the David Lean Room at London’s Bafta (there is a link there but I have no time to fish it out), was lit up for me by a colleague quoting the chairman of a major “publisher” as saying that they could not look at the potential of workflow software to support their users because “we are content people and do not wish to become a software house”. Now, chairmen of large companies make statements like this for three reasons: to confuse the enemy, to console staff for whom the speed of change is too great, and to stop the IT department investing margins in long term developments which are needed for debt repayment or to support re-financing. I quite understand. But in my view that statement draws a line in the sand which is well behind the real situation. Any “publisher” with any reasonable chance of survival already is a software house, even if all the learning experiences associated with that are outsourced and the skills base available inside is not up to the job. It has happened, and if we do not want to call it publishing lets leave that in the museum with Fred and find another word (but, please, a better one than “information services and solutions provider”!).

My collection of news from the week aligns well with this argument. The spate of announcements from Wolters Kluwer , starting on 17 February and concluding with the Enterprize Risk Management software announcement for financial services is a case in point ( Here, following the Lexis and Thomson Reuters lead, Wolters Kluwer are consolidating other content -enhanced workflow environments under the ARC Logic brand. The game here is about providing links that enable a group of corporate functions – compliance risk, operational risk and internal audit – to operate in conjunction with each other while remaining fully updated, sharing the content they need to share while retaining access to those things that one function alone needs. ARC Logics brings together a group of services which the company bought separately – brands include AXENTIS, Sword, TeamMate – and now seeks to deploy them  to combine the “advantages of solution specific software platforms and enterprize integration”. In other words, these are not entirely off-the-shelf packages: they are modularized to create solutions and are intended to integrate with the corporations’ enterprize systems. And once integrated they are very hard to prize loose.

While this announcement was intended for financial services, Wolters Kluwer point out that they serve the same functions in other verticals. They specify insurance,  government, life sciences, manfacturing, healthcare and energy as places where they have clients. In this the are operating in a similar manner to Thomson Reuter’s GRC division, who were organized last year around the Complinet and Paisley acquisitions. And they have a similarly “horizontal” view, which says that similar requirements can be found in a very wide range of vertical market sectors, and that the issues are not about creating new or customized workflow management systems, but finding out how to get the right matrix of functionalities with the right lines of content.

The opposite camp, in some ways, would be Lexis, since its most successful model is in the insurance industry, and what has been built is both an industry risk management model (because insurance is all about risk) but more importantly, a core operational workflow model for running an insurance company. Here there can never be enough data, and while this model works well the US (low-level privacy and data protection legislation) it works less well in Europe. Or does it? The recent announcement that Equifax UK had bought Workload, a company that researches private wealth and asset management information, and is thus able to add content on ISAs, bonds, unit trusts, pensions and mortgages to the existing Equifax consumer files is indicative that data is like water – it usually finds its way round a dam. And it is no accident that the big credit rating companies are becoming entrenched in workflow markets: Experian is a partner of Lexis in the US, and the strategic alliance trend around content looks set to continue.

When we were publishers our duty was to our readers. But access was static and not interactive. In the age of networks  collaboration to build solutions is the requirement if we recognize that readers have become users. We talk change before we live change. Time to get real about “publishing”. And remember that, like authors, all users are equal too.

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