Dave Michels
Dave Michels is a Principal Analyst at TalkingPointz. His unique perspective on unified communications comes from a career involving telecommunications...
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Dave Michels | March 16, 2012 |


How Collaboration Drove Britannica Out of Print

How Collaboration Drove Britannica Out of Print Hard-bound encyclopedias faced many challenges in the digital age, but it was bottom-up collaboration, not technology per se, that finally killed them off.

Hard-bound encyclopedias faced many challenges in the digital age, but it was bottom-up collaboration, not technology per se, that finally killed them off.

If there were going to be another printed edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, they might consider updating the section about the Earth being round. Perhaps as with networks, planets also require different descriptions for physical and logical attributes. The Earth is flat (in Thomas Friedman's formulation), and as proof there will not be another printed edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

This seismic shift is just as much about attitudes as technologies. In the communications sector, the term in-favor is "collaboration." To collaborate is nothing new really, it simply means to work together toward common goal(s). What is new is the fact that we don't really work together as much as we once did--at least not physically. Collaboration now requires some assistance from technology.

Encyclopedia Britannica announced on March 13 that it would no longer print its iconic books. It is the end of a long distinguished practice. The company actually dates back to 1768. In 1920, Sears, Roebuck and Company brought Britannica to Chicago. It has changed ownership several times since. In 1990, sales reached $650 million, it held dominant market share, had experienced steady growth, and possessed over two centuries of experience in the business. What could possibly go wrong?

It actually looked like Britannica was doomed around 2000--the CD ROM was the culprit. Parents buy their kids encyclopedias to aid in their education, but the PC also promised to prepare a generation for the future. The PC was about the same price, and often came with an (inferior) encyclopedia. The CD encyclopedia didn't have the same costs associated with production, distribution, and sales. Encarta, Grolier, and Compton retailed around $50, but were most commonly acquired through a new PC bundle.

Britannica considered its own CD product, but that was a threat to its core book business and distribution channel (encyclopedia sales commissions were about $600). Besides, its content was far too rich to fit on a CD. Britannica had almost seven times the text of Encarta plus associated illustrations and photos. The compromise was a text-only CD provided to book customers that also sold separately for $1,000. It failed.

The company changed ownership again (fire sale valuation in 1999), and embarked on a new strategy to leverage the burgeoning The Internet was the future--that period is referred to as the dot-com boom--the company would leverage its brand, library of content, and the flattening of the world that Friedman wrote about in his bestselling book describing how broadband connectivity eliminates geographic barriers and thus creates a huge market. Britannica was poised to become the dot-com destination of choice for knowledge. All it had to do was transform its centralized and controlled assets from paper to web. What could possibly go wrong?

Over the past few decades, the rules changed. A flat world offered no boundaries organizationally as well as geographically. There were lots of knowledgeable people happy to share their expertise. Wikipedia was born in 2001 with the mission "to give freely the sum of the world's knowledge to every single person on the planet in the language of their choice, under a free license, so they can modify, adopt, reuse, or redistribute it at will." That's a pretty threatening mission to an encyclopedia company, However, Britannica had over two hundred years of content as a head start.

Wikipedia became the example of the power of open collaboration. Wikipedia brought openness to a new level. In cases of highly charged subjects, it was determined the best route was to acknowledge and document different perspectives rather than insist on a single view.

Not all contributors were there to build the community. Wikipedia calls them trolls or vandals and it's been a problem from the beginning. Along with other mistakes from well intentioned contributors, the facts at Wikipedia were questioned by many. Michael Gorman, former president of the American Library Association famously said Wikipedia was "fundamentally flawed" and that "a professor that encourages its use is the intellectual equivalent of a dietitian who recommends Big Macs."

Ironically, it was the trolls that caused Wikipedia to become the respected source of information it is considered today. Trolls resulted in an increased insistence on references and verifications that resulted, in some cases, in brilliant articles. Wikipedia flourished with content being provided by experts. The online encyclopedia has matured over the years. As examples, there is a hierarchy and process for resolving conflicts, and some sections require updates to be approved before they go live. Wikipedia is an amazing study in collaboration--best summarized by the anonymously-sourced quote: "Wikipedia only works in practice. In theory, it can never work."

There are lots of lessons in the tale of Britannica--disruptive technologies, channel imprisonment, innovator's dilemmas, and so on. However, it is the journey of collaboration that's critical to note here. The web has changed collaboration and there is no shortage of examples--The Huffington Post was built on citizen journalists. Linux and Asterisk both exist and evolve based on their collaborative communities. Such sites exist in a wide variety of sectors and invites scientific collaboration. Collaboration is increasingly seen as the key to productivity and innovation.

For decades, IT was vertically focused--mainframes and client server systems optimized business processes within an organization. An example might be sales collaborating with manufacturing to reduce inventory costs. More recently, as a result of downsizing and outsourcing, collaborating with manufacturing could mean crossing the corporate firewall. Reduced headcounts meant remaining employees became more critical and harder to replace. Organizations had to become more tolerant and flexible with old attitudes such as the requirement to work at the office.

Organizations are learning to embrace collaboration--internally and externally as well as horizontally with customers and partners. It may sound simple, but it isn't. The core enabling technologies are evolving quickly--wideband audio, screen-sharing, video conferencing, mobile solutions, presence, wireless coverage, text, etc. The technology is moving more quickly than depreciation schedules. Attitudes are changing more quickly than organizational policies. Mobility is the big one right now, introducing tough subjects like who owns the data on a personal device used for business.

Organizations are working to embrace and adapt. Many organizations are having their own disruptive challenges, as the Internet has changed many more industries than just book publishing. Technology has not solved all the problems, and attitudes are still adjusting.

We are becoming numb to how technologies are disrupting industries. Retail, publishing, broadcasting, recording.... But this is a new twist on disruption--it isn't just the technology, but the approach. How businesses innovate is the next big disruption. It was the power of collaboration, not the PC, CD-ROM, or even the Web that killed the 32 volume encyclopedia set.

Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and independent analyst at


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