There are some major similarities and differences between the giant market players in the information/publishing media sector which are not all about markets and competition. For example, Wolters Kluwer and Reed Elsevier have clearly become portfolio strategists. If rumours in New York a month ago about leaving the law market, and rumours in London about a major entry into credit rating are anything to go by, markets clearly see Reed as a player who now has the scope to restructure the portfolio. But Pearson and Thomson Reuters, both in the $6-9 billion USD range in annual revenues, are not at all like that. The transformation they seek is about global markets and building bigger sectoral presence in order to dominate the workflow of professionals with solutions that become a requirement in markets which are duopolistic at most. Perhaps it is time to catch the flavour of “transformation”.

Pearson and Thomson Reuters, despite the differences in their marketplaces, are thus an important comparison in the Transformation Game. T-R have appointed a Chief Transformation Officer, and when they announced third quarter results this week pointed to 3000 job losses as a first transformational step. Let Jim Smith, CEO of Thomson Reuters have the first word (from his quarterly results press release):

“Our improving track record on execution gives me the confidence to now move even faster in our transformation work,” said Smith. “We will pick up the pace of efforts to simplify and streamline our organization, to shift resources behind the most promising growth opportunities and to use every tool at our disposal to drive value creation for all our stakeholders.”

And then again in a leaked memo to staff (

“The answer is to accelerate our evolution into a platform company – one that delivers to customers not just a portfolio of products, but the power of our entire enterprise. We have made progress on that front, but there’s still much to be done. To take the next step, today we set aside funding to further accelerate the transformation of our Financial business and to better align resources to our most promising opportunities.”

Here then is a strategy that remains wedded to the idea of cross-selling and cross-solutioning financial services, law and tax professionals, and then moving outwards to the clients of those professionals. It uses the word “platform” both in a technology and marketing sense, and the word becomes a metaphor that suggests that when all the content and all of the customer knowledge is in one place, T-R can use its skills to quickly generate agile services that fit local needs in a global context. To do this you need to eliminate the turf wars which have been such a feature of these great corporations: in my Thomson years it was easier to partner a complete stranger than share a venture with another Thomson division. Mr Smith has indicated that the politicking must stop, and be replaced by an ethic that is mindful of the overall gain, but changing cultures is one of the toughest elements of transformation, and there are few records of success to use for guidance.

But some things are swinging in Mr Smith’s direction. Sluggish early sales of Eikon are now moving forward and have passed the 100,000 installations mark. Job losses will enable the re-organization of skills and assets needed to permit the transformation, as well as improve margins. The share price has risen by a third in the last year, a welcome sign that markets see what is happening and support it, and the latest results seem to underline that. But problems remain. The platform technology architecture is far from in place, and indeed the historical divisions seem locked on historical technological solutions that have real problems in talking to each other. This is surely a frontline issue for a Chief Transformation Officer.

Over at Pearson, John Fallon, chief executive, said: “In trading terms, 2013 has begun much as we expected. In general, good growth in our digital, services and developing-market businesses continues to offset tough conditions for traditional publishing. Our strategy is to transform Pearson into a single operating company that is sharply focussed on the biggest needs in global education and on measurable learning outcomes. With our restructuring programme on track and the reorganisation of the company under way, we are making significant progress towards that goal.”

In other words, investors are invited to see a picture of a new CEO trying to get a global strategy in place (as against a big US core of 10 years ago, plus some good but small geographically dispersed education assets). Today the balance is much more equal, the US is clearly much less influential in the revenues and margins analysis, and the company i.e. recognized as the sector global market leader. Yet every one still gets worried when college textbook sales are described as “soft”. The share price goes off by 6%, even though Pearson is a company that makes most progress in the second half of its financial year. But this year sets challenging targets if they are to end up within reach of their goal.

The big investor question at Pearson was always “can all this globalization, re-platforming and occupancy of the whole education services and solutions niche, not just the learning content bit, be done without a huge debt burden?” So far, this miracle has happened, and with more non-core assets yet to be sold there is great scope for further acquisition-led growth. And education markets in some sectors outside of US College are picking up, so there is a warm reception to the idea of restructuring the company managerially, reducing duplication and unnecessary cost and getting the right technology in place to re -platform for rapid product development.

Nothing in the managerial changes was a surprise except that technology leadership seems to have been dissipated. Investors expect that when markets give Pearson the signal the tech environment will allow product developers anywhere to have access to the whole corpus of Pearson data/content/knowledge to produce very rapid iterations of innovative services and solutions which can be redeveloped and re-iterated in flight. As with Thomson, the fluent use of the whole data environment, of data analytics and of what we might have called Big Data six months ago becomes crucial to the way in which both players relate to their major customers. Does the Pearson divisional structure allow for this, and does the tech unity and architecture exist to permit it? We do not know yet because markets are not quite warm enough to try out a lot of things, but having been sold the idea of Pearson as a global growth vehicle by John Fallon, there will be an expectation of performance over the next 18 months, and a greater degree of immunity to old sectors like college textbooks giving everyone the shivers.

The important fact that investors must now reluctantly accept is that repeat order, edition-based, price-elastic textbook markets have gone forever, and that Pearson are clearing the decks for what comes next even if no one is always quite sure what that is! But for both companies there is a certainty that it is not just change, but “transformation”. And that the market and technology philosophy around “platform” lies at the heart of it. Markets will of course exercise a great deal of concern at the periphery of these momentous changes. They will want to know what assets are core and what are non-core? John Fallon is obviously fed up with being asked when he is going to sell the FT to Bloomberg/Thomson Reuters, even while the MergerMarket side of the FT Group is being broken out and prepared for sale. Jim Smith and his Chief Transformer will no doubt get the same treatment around Thomson Reuters IP and Science activities. But the future of both players is not decided there and for them this is no longer a portfolio game.

Are we sitting comfortably? Then lets begin on a story of determination matched by delay, obstinacy about the exercise of rights matched by obfuscation in public office. Here, in my view you see the dandruff of bureaucracy, the manipulation of regulatory documentation, used to demonstrate the passive aggression of civil servants forced to maintain and defend their jobs by doing the opposite of what government and society have asked them to do. And in this instance, it affects the very ground beneath you feet – and the very foundations of your home.

The Coal Authority (TCA) is a very English institution. While it is designated as a part of the Department of Energy, it is in tortured fact a “non-departmental” body, subject to the Treasury, but not covered by regulations that affect departments of state. Its function is to license mining operations in the UK. Its residual power comes from its data – it holds records on every mine in the UK and can tell you where and when shafts were drilled. It sells this data to a licensed distributor who resells them to lawyers doing property searches. Tidy little earner, nice little data monopoly.

But then the world changed. We now know about the value of data. Memorably Gordon Brown had dinner with Tim Berners Lee and the beginnings of a release government information for commercial re-use turned from a dribble to a flood to a European regulation. A new regulator (sans teeth) was created from the ashes of HMSO (Her Majesty’s Stationery Office) and thus the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI) was born. I served on its Advisory Panel (APPSI) for the first five years of its existence, so I was not too surprized when I interviewed a private sector data player having difficulty with TCA this week. If his evidence is typical though we need an urgent review of OPSI whose limited powers are clearly insufficient, and someone needs to call TCA to account.

But back to the story. What my interviewee wanted to do was to license TCA data and put it with other data to create a value-added service. Not content with finding out whether there was a mine shaft under the house you were about to buy, he wanted to be able to tell you whether the soil around your foundations made a flooded shaft and tunnels a risk. In other words he wanted to link the TCA data to third party data and increase its value and get a return on that effort. A man then in the spirit of the age, who should get a medal from the ODI (Open Data Institute). And how has he done? Well, less than impressively. First there was a great hassle about getting a licence to use TCA content. But TCA subscribe to the OPSI Fair Trader scheme (IFTS) so he was eventually able to do this, and his intended service was duly written into his licence agreement. Then at the end of last year 80% of the data arrived. So far so good, and work began on building the new service. But then Data delivery stopped and a letter arrived saying that TCA had reviewed its position and had now decided that further supply contravened its public task. But its public task is to license mining, not sell data at a profit. I smell budget cuts, job uncertainty and an agency seeking to augment what it gets from the taxpayer via government with what it can squeeze from a data monopoly. But am I right?

My patient interviewee was less suspicious. He went to OPSI and asked for his agreement to be fulfilled. Nine months have passed and no satisfactory action has taken place to regulate the matter. Rather than a regulatory enquiry on the breach of the agreement they have insisted that a formal complaint to TCA be made before any review can take place. A formal complaint that could take years to process and, in my own view, effectively allows the regulator to avoid regulating. Rather than asking for the TCA’s CEO to account for their actions, they seem to have passively accepted the fact that a “non-departmental” agency is a rogue elephant who can ignore them with impunity. There the matter rests.

But my informant is a man of determination, as I have said. So what does he do next to implement license agreements he has already with a data supplier who fears a fall in revenues if a better service which enhances the usability of the data for public use is allowed to intrude on the monopoly? Well, he can complain to his MP, or invoke the European Parliament and the Commission, whose original directive bringing public sector data rights of access for private sector re-use is at the base of all of this. But I was there on the Advisory Panel when the Directive became UK law, and saw how the intentions of the European legislators were softened and undermined by a statutory instrument which allowed government to load the dice in its own favour (“We have not included a right of appeal,” said the Civil Servant driving the legislation “since it is hardly likely tour own government will act against your interests!”).

So who knows what will happen next? In the US , where rights of access are much clearer, this sorry tale would be in the courts already. In the UK, with Sir Humphrey at work, we move through a fog of legal uncertainty in which the amounts that need to be deposited with the court before action can take place effectively deter SMEs from complaining, even if they could afford the legal fees. As we talked I went to the TCA website. Goodness me, it has a policy for relationships with data re-users:
Lets click it: I have tried several times today: “We’re Sorry – this page is not available!”. If you have read this far, have a go yourself. My hunch is that Sir Humphrey has fixed it for his own side, and as a result we have a case study of how the public will for better value data services for all of us is being frustrated. We will never build the information society this way!

PS. I have removed my informant’s name to avoid other data relationships that he has with government departments from being affected – though of course your own Government would never act prejudicially against you! But OPSI will know – and must act if the interests of SMEs are to be protected.

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