Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Stuck In A Rut – The Story of Encyclopedia Britannica

Last week Microsoft announced a tie up with Encyclopedia Britannica.  Now, if you search on Microsoft’s search engine Bing, along with the usual Wikipedia search result, up will pop an Encyclopedia Britannica result. 

For all those who are still wary of Wikipedia it sounds like a good idea but hardly a life-saver for the beleaguered Britannica and not as innovative or audacious as Google’s Knowledge Graph.  The Encyclopedia Britannica story, like those of Kodak, Blockbuster and many more we can all name is a harsh reminder of that most basic of innovation rules: People buy benefits not products.

So I’m not interested in buying, say, detergent, but I love that feeling of putting on that crisp white shirt in the morning.  Detergent innovators know that there are many ways to deliver me that crispy white start to the day (laundry delivery at work?) that lie beyond the physical format they have invested so much in over the years.

We all know this ‘river of thinking’ stuff don't we?  Leaping out of that river is at the heart of innovation isn’t it?  But this is something that’s easy to comment on and, when you’re deep in it – so hard to do.

First sold in 1768 in Scotland and then from 1901 headquartered in the US, sales of the 32 volume Encyclopedia Britannica to me had dwindled from a peak of 120,000 in 1990 to only 4000 ten years later.  Sales of the printed set ceased in early 2012. 

Just as Kodak weren’t blind to the digital revolution nor were Encyclopedia Britannica.  They launched EBlast, a curated web directory of sites when no one knew what a web directory was.  They experimented with linking their content to current news stories on the net.  Just click from the news article through to Encyclopedia Britannica for more content, was the idea. 

The problem was that Encyclopedia Britannica was stuck in a ‘river of thinking’.  They had such an authoritative editorial board and such August contributors (Nobel prize winners amongst others) and so much history in diligently collecting and editing the facts that they couldn’t see that it was access and not the quality of the content providers that had become the main thing. 

Encyclopedia Britannica was always an aspirational purchase, mainly by working class parents who wanted a better life for their kids – opportunities they never had.  They switched to buying PCs (about the same price as the 32 volume set) that came with free Encarta encyclopedia software.  Still Encyclopedia Britannica clung to the notion that content was king despite the fact that many of the weighty books were never taken off the shelves.  Today Wikipedia has the power of vast numbers of editors and the ability to immediately update.  Clearly these are huge benefits compared to rarely edited paper books but it wasn't technology that killed Encyclopedia Britannica, it was their failure to recognize the voice of a thousand ‘Joe Publics’ is as important as a single Nobel laureate.

To read more stories from the front line of innovation check out my new book ‘The Science of Serendipity’ which will be published by Wiley in November 2012