There is nothing more certain in the information industry than that, once past a certain point, the big only get bigger. Thus I see no logical end to the steady growth of Pearson, over the past decade, as the leading force in education systems and services. Indeed. I predict another decade of such growth, driving national education champions to despair and frustrating would-be competitors who lack the global outreach. They now have the size to balance slower running developed world markets against fast-flowing BRICs educational economies. While their competitors want to play them on a pitch named Textbooks or Blended Learning, they have the scope to introduce just the right amount of technology, curriculum control and assessment into the mix to satisfy a Brazilian state, an American city school board or a consortium of vocational training panels. Their custom business will build over time. And so will their approach to individualized learning.

In short, over the next decade they will become recognized for what they now are: the behemoth of education with every growth option at their disposal. As a company that early recognized that the enterprise systems of schools were one of the keys to digital education they can be systems and solution suppliers of turnkey environments with the content in place. They can get to grips with the assessment engines of the world, using their experience of owning the major US solution supplier as well as a major UK examination board to drive national systems globally. While we have been saying for 20 years that education is different because of national and cultural distinctions, they have got on with identifying the things that education has in common – from sorting out timetabling, communicating with parents, marking exams and providing administrators with performance reporting – and have made a business of this alongside schoolbook supply. Does any other player in their competitive sector have a strategic alliance with Oracle?

Pearson has always been able to change. A nineteenth century builders merchant from Yorkshire, UK, became, in the hands of Weedon Pearson, a successful oil wildcatter in Venezuela and finally the collector of great tradeable brands in mid-twentieth century Britain. Some of those brands remain in terms of Penguin and the Financial Times, but as we saw with IDC, having a few brands around to toss into the investment fire is a great way of fueling the next stages of growth, just as the last realization from the last sale is now lighting acquisition fires in China, Brazil and India. So we should be asking what next at this point. And we should be interested in the parts of the education scene where Pearson currently has little scale or penetration.

I once had the enjoyable consultancy task of introducing a major hardware player to “the largest educational publisher in the world”. Dreams of strategic alliance were in the air. My hardware client was frankly disappointed: “we get more revenue from printer cartridges sold to education than they do from textbooks”. Now the roles are reversed. My hardware friends are buying search software to stay alive and Pearson are powering on, following a strategy which will undoubtedly see them emerge as a major owner of schools and universities in a number of countries, the owner of distance learning institutions with global outreach (including degree awarding and exam setting bodies in countries like the UK), a partner of governments in delivering national solutions and a leadership role in the flight from content into an individualized learning environment. And they are the only player in the sector big enough to do the whole education value chain.

They have invested and played around experimentally in some sectors for years, however, without coming up with a real strategy. Learning management is one. Working with Blackboard was one phase, buying Fronter was another. Yet their latest announcement, last week, that they will now enter a partnership with Google to develop OpenClass as a free generic LMS available globally on the Web is something else again. Here is a well-tenanted marketplace, with Blackboard and open source Moodle occupying some 80 per cent between them. Pearson seemingly have no real axe to grind here – except pure disruption (and they have teamed up with the arch-disruptor to do that). At the moment huge amounts of Pearson content must sit on Moodle or Blackboard installations. But I suspect that Pearson think this is a temporary world, that the future of learning management may have mobile and Cloud attached to them, and that they need to be somewhere fairly unique, where even larger competitors like Cengage could not follow. OpenClass could be a place like that.

Finally, as Pearson puts further distance between itself and its rivals, it is interesting to see how it now feels that it is important to build viewpoints and concensus in education as well as develop systems and solutions. The work of the Pearson Foundation was highlighted recently in Media Taylor ( I am not sure that I take such a sinister view as this blogger, but, especially in countries like India, it will be important to prepare the ground and widen the options. Major players like Pearson have an interest in this – but also a duty of care. Since there are such plentiful national educational interests that Pearson will not face competition issues in most of its markets for some years. In the meanwhile informing and educating educational buyers could be a critical part of that.

In case anyone has doubts, this is a continuing stream of (un)consciousness arising from my earlier Dogpatch thoughts about innovation and STM. And, of course, in my enthusiasm for the new, I neglected some of the “slightly older but just as valid” new. Thanks everyone for reminding me of this. We shall go there anon, but I wanted to start at the STM Association dinner the night before the events described in my last blog. There I had the pleasure of sitting next to Rhonda Oliver, now running publishing at the Royal College of Nursing, but doing so after leaving Portland Press, where she was CEO. And it was Portland Press, a distinguished but not yet world dominant player in biochemistry publishing, that I first learnt of really interesting forays ito the world of semantic-based publishing. Here is what I wrote about them in this blog last year:

“Particularly noteworthy was a talk by Professor Terri Attwood and Dr Steve Pettifer from the University of Manchester (how good to see a biochemistry informatician and a computer scientist sharing the same platform!). They spoke about Utopia Documents, a next generation document reader developed for the Biochemical Journal which identifies features in PDFs and semantically annotates them, seamlessly connecting documents to online data. All of a sudden we are emerging onto the semantic web stage with very practical and pragmatic demonstrations of the virtues of Linked Data. The message was very clear: go home and mark-up everything you have, for no one now knows what content will need to link to what in a web of increasing linkage universality and complexity. At the very least every one who considers themselves a publisher, and especially a science publisher, should read the review article by Attwood, Pettifer and their colleagues in Biochemical Journal (Calling International Rescue: Knowledge Lost in the Literature and information Landslide Incidentally, they cite Amos Bairoch and his reflections on Annotation in Nature Precedings ( and this is hugely useful if you can generalize from the problems of biocuration to the chaos that each of us faces in our own domains.”

And the reference to Steve Pettifer recalled to mind my old friend Jan Velterop, once agent-provocateur in Springer’s thrust into OA (how grateful they should be to him now, given that his work drew them alongside BMC, and thus to real growth in this year of OA and eBooks compensating for negative trends elsewhere). Dr Pettifer advises Utopia Documents  (, who have been developing in parallel to Labiva and Mendeley in the workflow space for PDFs. Each is different, though they have common attributes. The fact that there are now three environments in this space is a strength for all of them. Isolated good ideas rarely work out. Constantly re-iterated solutions “invented” separately in several places shows a sector responding to the same calls from many customers – “Help me out of here – I am losing control!”.

Utopia Documents is also running a public trial on Elsevier’s SciVerse environment. This is critical, and prompts a question: if Nature and Elsevier see this, why doesn’t everyone else? And I think this may be in part because we have been confusing the workflow utility of PDF handling with the strange world of scientific networking. In one of the many frank and helpful comments made by Annette Thomas in the interview I referred to earlier this week, she remarked that much of what Nature had done to “create” networking between scientists had shown very modest results. She said that while scientists showed a modest appetite for networking via news and blog comments, she thought that Nature Networks did not succeed because they lacked the immediacy and involvement of workflow tools, and it was more likely that in this context real contact between self-formed interest groups would take place. Here she seems to be moving closer to the Mendeley ( position, but with a qualification. She clearly feels that you build the utilities first, and then see how interest groups develop their own dynamic using the shared information created by the toolset. Crowd-sourcing a la Mendeley is good, but self determination may be better.

Thinking about Portland Press and Jan Velterop also took me back to Jan’s company, Academic Concept Knowledge Ltd (AQnowledge – The semantic search environment created here is now embedded in Utopia Documents. But this is not what strikes me most emphatically about Jan’s work in recent years. Here is a hugely experienced academic research publisher who is not format bound and can think beyond the book, the journal, and even the article. Integrating, with its 300,000 antibodies and related products for concept matching shows that he and his team are creating a small player with an eye for data and for what research workflow really entails. By putting together all of the laboratory supply sources and the raft of descriptive material that they generate AQnowledge may be doing more for using article stores as a live element in workflow than any of their peers. Yet it has taken a company like BioRAFT  ( to push this home with compliance information, demonstrating once again that we are in the sectoral tools age of workflow, unable as yet to envisage the full desktop of tools and utilities, or the way they link together, or indeed the Electronic Lab Manual to which they in all probability lead.

Finally, STM now has major players – think of MarkLogic, TEMIS and SilverChair to name but three – quite capable of deploying the technology to drive towards the Big Data vision which I referenced in my previous piece. So, with all of this in the wings, why do the publishers still want to pursue the parochial and eschew the visionary?

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