Sit down to read this with the mind of a research engineer in the public or the private sector. On the screen in front of you there are links to the foremost research resources that you are likely to use in everyday life. Behind them are other links to a host of services that you may use. Above all, you want to be able to search this corpus of knowledge as an entity, and you want the alerts and intelligence services that you use to reflect updates and developments across the entire waterfront of engineering knowledge. And the data types are pretty different. Some is classic data, and may occur in the evidential material that underlies academic research, or in reports and findings on performance or failure of materials. Other information exists as design specifications, or patents, or standards or as structured academic articles or ebooks. Some exists in index entries and as citations or references. Still more is available online in newspaper files, video archives, blogs, tweets and magazine morgues. Engineering research was never easier, but is still not easy. And few subjects are as fragmented as engineering – or have a more important task than ensuring that knowledge is shared across those fragmentations when necessary, for the sake of progress, and the health and safety of everyone. Here is a classic Big data argument waiting to be made.

Yet as it came to the Web few areas were more diverse than engineering. Despite the early attempts of Engineering Village (later bought by Elsevier), it was not until Warburg Pincus funded GlobalSpec that real vertical search arrived, and with it the focus on a huge user-contributed library of specifications. This service is now owned by IHS, who are able to align with it their equally vast collections of patents and standards. So is this the staring place for all enquiry, given that GlobalSpec also indexes the content of vastly authoritative sources like IEEE. Well, almost – but the academic articles remain in the locked service environments of journal publishers like Elsevier, the leading player in this field. So we still have to sign up for all those journals wherever they are published? Well, yes, until yesterday, that is, when Elsevier announced the acquisition of Knovel (,-provider-of-web-based-productivity-application-for-the-engineering-community). Knovel indexes all of the 100 professional and scholarly journal publishers in this sector, including IET. It is a fast expanding online source which claims to have added 20% more data in the past year. So what we now need on our engineer’s dashboard now?

Well, we certainly need GlobalSpec/IHS, with links to IEEE, and we certainly need Elsevier/Knovel, with links to ScienceDirect, but wouldn’t it be better to have a single access and complete cross-search in a Big Data context? Just a minute, though. Way back in 2006 a really good database visionary called Scott Virkler, then VP Business Development at GlobalSpec, helped to put in place a strategic collaboration with Elsevier, and after that became Elsevier’s VP of search strategy. So are those links still in place? And can you easily cross search all of these files from one place as Scott undoubtedly intended? I ask because it seems to me that consolidation and collaboration is the name of the game, and the game need have no losers. Alexander van Boetzelaer, who runs the corporate markets sector of Elsevier, has a fine record in collaboration. He and his team created GeoFacets, for the oil and gas industry, and IHS was one of their partners in doing that. But in order for collaboration to work partners have to be determined to make it work, creating interfaces with shared ownership, developing ways of exchanging user-derived data, and sharing marketing efforts and knowledge where necessary. There is still a tendency for collaboration to develop a market of two – and then end in a situation which is just one step away from what users really want.

All these takes time, and since it is over a decade since Elsevier invested in Engineering Village we appear to have plenty of that. Knovel was not even founded then, but it now amounts to a very considerable step forward in Elsevier’s further work with corporate markets. It claims 700 corporate customers and will add real muscle to the corporate markets drive at Elsevier, but we need to bear in mind that acquisition is no longer what it once was in the major market players in information. Thankfully we have matured from the 1990s, when it was about corporate ego and machismo when it was not driven by a desire to hoover up all the proprietory content in the sector. Now we know that content is not king, we can buy securely in the search to create more marketing connections while developing premium vale added services designed, whether collaboratively or not, towards the complete satisfaction of the customer service need. And all that Knovel data and all that GlobalSpec data will not do that in separate containers unless they can be combined and intermixed in the user’s workflow. The next chapter here is the next level of service development, and, given the differentiation of their resources and the fragmentation of the market, it seems to me unlikely that either Elsevier or IHS can do this alone in engineering. There was never a better moment, as in many markets, for talking to the apparent, but unreal, competitor.

Don’t you love the way that financial analysts run for the cover of the Big Generalization? So Thomson Reuters buying PLC (Practical Law Company) on 3 January is Consolidation. Big getting Bigger. More market share. Problems of law markets in the recession years need to be addressed by bigger content units. Simples? No, not at all. And this form of analysis entirely misses the point. Why did Thomson Reuters need to buy PLC now? Where does it place them in the evolving story of professional services? And what does this acquisition do to their existing services and their positioning in the place where there is growth – small and medium size law practices? In fact, what is this story which may be superficially easy to categorize but actually tells us a very great deal about what is happening to networked services in the professional sphere of activity.

I have written about this in several pieces in the last 3 months (“Beware: Lawyers at Work”, 4 November 2012 and “The Way Lawyers Work Now”, 13 September 2012). I have tried to underline there that this is not a new process. Robert Dow and Chris Millerchip, who founded PLC, left Slaughter and May to do so in 1990. As I recall the story, their very first impetus was to start a magazine which would advise lawyers on practical processing issues in dispatching routine legal matters, and only later did they turn to devising and implementing those pieces of process – precedents, practice notes, checklists, document templates etc – which would dig down deep in key sectors like commercial, corporate, employment, intellectual property, competition or finance law. They now have what the press release describes as a “comprehensive suite” and they do this in the US as well as in the UK. They are universally respected, used by 96% of the UK’s top law firms and 80% of the AmLaw 200, yet at around £50 m in revenue in 2011, surprizingly small. However, they are exceeding profitable, running subscription services which few ever leave (they become part of the way your law firm works), and often quoted as running ebitda returns in the high 30% range. Estimates of their sale price this week were around £300m, arguing 12X a forward ebitda of £25 m. We shall never know, but even these estimates indicate a very valuable company that Reed Elsevier’s Lexis and Thomson Reuter’s Westlaw have sought to buy for years. But they would never pay the founder’s idea of a full price. So why Thomson Reuters and why now?

I have tried to indicate in those previous pieces that Publishers (aka Butterworth or Sweet and Maxwell in 1990) would not have seen what PLC do as  publishing”. And, from the 1970s onwards, big law publishing had invested in the world of Research (which in lawyer terms mean that they were mostly concerned with litigation, always a bigger game in the Us than in the UK). As a result Westlaw and Lexis dominated law library budgets in major law firms globally, but their revenue base was very dependent upon a small base of litigators, and the ability of their costs to be charged through the system to the ultimate client. However, the practise of law is not mostly like that, but rather more like the patient game of form completion and document filing where PLC sought to introduce productivity game. It took a global recession but now the big law publishers get it too. The impressive attempts by Lexis in London to build practice tools and sell more use of research through them bear witness to that: strategy turns through 180 degrees when we realise that we are not in business to simply support and then replace the library, but that we are there to handle the whole business of the law office. This is about productivity gain, better decision-making and cheaper and more effective compliance, this “business of law” thing, and if we can do it for lawyers we can do it for any professionals. As the largest player in Law as Research, Thomson Reuters were the most vulnerable player as the market began to move towards these Business of Law considerations.

But, just a minute, a lot of those future customers in the law office context will not be lawyers. Even lawyers, as polled by Lexis in the UK, see the majority of routine work getting parcelled out to legal services and paralegal services players, both onshore and offshore. And there will also be Expert systems doing some of this work. Law offices will get smaller and more expert, and sell on their expertise alongside and within the workflow that they place with contractors. But how do you ensure quality results – unless the outsourcers use standard precedents and proven workflow modelling from verifiable sources. And what happens when these tools reach medium and smaller practices: quality gets improved and cost competition grows. It is not hard to see the law office and the corporate law/counsel office of the future. It runs on the network, uses work processed by a variety of hands in different places, employs standardized and compliance-approved workflow tools allows users to collaborate in alerting each other to threats or reversals (in the Courts) which may inhibit the utility of some of those processes. Thomson Reuters just joined this world, and not a moment too soon. Some of their thinking and some Lexis minds were there already. But now it is official: Business of Law is the Future of Law.

Two points remain to be made. We have to recall that Messrs Dow and Millerchip left Slaughter and May where they had been working lawyers in search of efficiencies. In other words, they were not the editorial/academic lawyers normally employed by publishers. This says something about the sort of people Thomson Reuters and Lexis will need to employ to get this huge transition right. Then again, one major player is yet to shift. Bloomberg is a private company and what it does is its own business, yet the maintenance of the infant Bloomerg Law separate from Bloomberg BNA is an enigma, as is the apparent indifference in the 12 months since the BNA acquisition towards global markets or these Business of Law issues. Perhaps having to have everything on the Bloomberg box, rather than in cloud/network configuration, has something to do with it. As it is , in contrast to Thomson Reuters and Lexis, Bloomberg’s offering looks a bit off the pace of change. Enough reason, perhaps, for Thomson Reuters to buy PLC in the first place?

Thomson Reuters Press Release:

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