Sitting through the summer months beside a misty inlet on the Nova Scotian coast it is all too easy to lose oneself in the high politics of OA and OER, of the negotiations between a country as large as California and a country as large as Elsevier. Or whether a power like Pearson can withstand a force as large as McGraw with added Cengage. I am in the midst of Churchill’s Marlborough: His Life and Times. There momentous events revolve around a backstairs word at Court. There great armies wheel in the Low Countries as Louis XIV and William of Orange contend for supremacy. Wonderful stuff, but the stiff of history? Nothing about peasants as soldiers, or about harvests and food supplies? Likewise, if we tell the story of the massive changes taking place in the way content is created and intermediated for re-use by scholars and teachers without starting with the foot-soldiers, by which I mean not just researchers and teachers but students and pupils as well, then I think we are in danger of mistaking the momentum as well as the impact of what is happening now. 

When our historians look back, hopefully a little more analytically than Churchill. I think they will be amazed by the slowness of it all. We are now 30 years beyond the Darpanet becoming the Internet. And over 20 of life in a Web-based world. Phone books are an historical curiosity and newspapers in print are about to follow. Business services have been transformed and the way most of us work and communicate and entertain ourselves is firmly digital. Yet nothing has been as conservative and loathe to change as  academic and educational establishments throughout the developed world, and they have maintained their success in imposing these constraints on the rest of the world. From examination systems to pre-publication peer review traditional quality markers have remained in place for the assurance, it is held, of governments, taxpayers and all participants in the process. And while the majority of inert content became digital very early in the the 30 year cycle of digitisation, workflow and process did not. Thus content providers were held in a hiatus. As change took place at the margins, you needed to supply learning systems as well as textbooks (who would have guessed that it would be 2019 before Pearson declared itself Digital First?). And by the same token, who could have imagined that we would be in 2019 before elife’s Reproducible Document Stack feasibly and technically allowed an “article” to contain video, moving graphics, manipulable graphs and evidential datasets?

It is not hard to identify the forces of conservatism that created  this content Cold War, when everyone had to keep things as they had always been, and as a result of which publishing consolidated – and is still consolidating into two or three big players in each sector, it is harder to detect the forces of change that are turning these markets into an arms race. These factors are mostly not to do with the digital revolution, much as commentators like me would like the opposite to be true. Mostly they are to do with the foot soldiers of Marlborough’s armies, those conscripted peasants, those end users. When we look back we shall see that it was the revolt of middle class American parents and their student children against textbook prices, the wish of the Chinese government to get its research recognised globally with out a pay wall, the wish of science researchers to demonstrate outcomes quicker in order to secure reliable forward funding and the wish of all foot soldiers to secure more interoperability of content in the device – dominated, data centric world in to which they have now emerged, that made change happen.

And how do we know that? You need an instrument of great sensitivity to measure change, or maybe change is a reflection of an image in the glass plate of some corporate office. Whatever else is said of them, I hold Elsevier to be a hugely knowledgeable reflection of the markets they serve. So I regard their purchase of Parity Computing as a highly significant move. When publishers and information providers buy their suppliers, not their competitors, it says to me that whatever tech development they are doing in their considerable in-house services, it is neither enough, or fast enough. It says that still more must be done to ensure that their content-as-data is ready for intelligent manipulation. It also says that the developments being created by that supplier are too important, and their investment value too great, to think of sharing them with a competitor using that supplier. 

Markets change when users change. But when the demand for change occurs, we usually have the technology – think of the 20 year migration from Expert systems and Neural Networks to machine learning and AI – to meet that new demand. The push is rarely the other way round. 

There is an undesirable tendency amongst old consultants to want to write ‘Finis’ after everything, as if to say “after me, the Flood”. I try to resist, but there are mornings, and this is one, when the cycles of a lifetime stand out in particularly sharp contrast. Rehearsing the full cycle would be a bore. Suffice it to say that anyone who emerged from the content ownership valuations of the late 1960s into the Content is King subscription and advertising markets of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when valuations were built around ‘have to have, need to know’ content ownership, now knows they are living on another planet. 

Yet while things change, things remain the same. In the content days in M&A some of us used to talk about ‘happy families’ values, meaning that we sought to sell to a strong player the one content section that would complete his critical content field, secure his vertical market dominance and induce him to pay over the odds to get card into his hand. I spent many years hunting for ‘Mr Bun the Baker’, usually in the ‘80s to satisfy the whim of a Robert Maxwell or similar, convinced that if you owned all the right content the market would be forced to your door. 

But these are not content markets. That form of B2B publishing really disappeared in the Great Dotcom Bust of 2001-3. But we were too busy to notice at the time. We were like the RoadRunner, off the edge of the canyon but going so fast that we somehow maintained momentum. Yet each year the subscript sank and the advertising diminished and Wile E Coyote got closer, until there was only one way out – Re-invention! And then I read this in the inestimableOutsell News:

“IHS Markit and Informa announced the exchange of the majority of the IHS Markit Technology, Media and Telecoms (TMT) intelligence business for Informa’s Agribusiness Intelligence group. The agreement values the two exchanged businesses at equivalent EBITDA multiples, with Informa contributing an additional $30 million cash to IHS Markit to reflect the larger EBITDA contribution from the TMT business.”

So are we going back to Happy Families, or what? I have three certainties about B2B and a few hunches. I am certain that there are powerful businesses to be built in workflow, whether you call it Robotic Process Automation or smart decision making solutions. I know that this is no longer a content market but primarily a software driven market. I know that when people like me talked about the Age of Data we kidded people that data and content were somehow the same. In fact, data, from IoT and elsewhere, is omnipresent. Ownership may prove impossible. All and any usage of it compromises and commoditises it. You can never have enough. I also think that news and information in B2B will be important as video and sound feeds, that the current trends to strong industrial training software will continue, and that the information businesses of B2B is largely inside Events, and sadly few of those really exploit the data that their market touch creates. 

OK, so what were IHS Markit and Informa about? In a word or two, consolidating and deflating. UK observers are well used to seeing companies like Top Right selling off piecemeal and slowly subsiding like a saggy balloon, or Centaur Media sadly diminish. This is a little different. The justification for consolidation is market requirement and access. Both players continue to hope that they can concentrate in a less competitive space to find the software solutions users require in these sectors. Neither have approached the regeneration issues yet in the thorough going way demonstrated by Mark Kelsey at RBI over a decade or more. But consolidation reduces risk and can enhance short term returns. We must never forget that this is now a software market, driven by licensing and maintenance agreements. It seems unlikely ever to produce the revenue size or margins of the content market it has replaced, duopoly if not de facto monopoly will be needed to encourage and justify investment, and when we wake up next a comprehensive recon extraction of this information marketplace will have taken place.

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