Newsletter #520 – Killing the Encyclopaedia Britannica – Relevance for You

Enclycopaedia BritannicaOK! The title of this post may be misleading. The 244-year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB) is not dead. In contrast it is viable and growing despite the publisher’s recent decision to kill production of the bound volumes. In 1990 a 2000 person door-to-door sales force sold 100,000 units but then sales began to fall. Decreasing numbers of potential buyers wanted a costly 32-volume book series that weighed 129 pounds filled with information that was losing up-to-date relevance every day. So EB reinvented itself in ways that are generating more profits and involving more on-line subscribers whose databank of information is updated every 20 minutes.

 How does this have broader relevance for educators, students, mental-health practitioners, churches, leaders and individuals like us? Consider what follows, adapted from an article by EB President Jorge Cruz writing in Harvard Business Review (March, 2013):

  • With the appearance of competing sources of up-to-date information available free, on line, EB could die or make radical change. EB determined to make changes.
  • The company determined to stay with their core purpose of providing content of impeccable editorial quality and accuracy. EB remained committed to their mission.
  • While the mission and brand recognition remained firm, the methods of delivering content changed radically. Door-to-door salespeople were gone, replaced by (currently 500,000) digital subscribers who pay for proven-quality content, updated continually with input from communities and proven experts. EB changed the way their services are delivered.
  • They learned from other information providers (like Wikipedia) who reach readers content with “good-enough” information that may be of unproven validity. EB focused on their strength of providing quality.
  • The company stopped thinking of themselves as encyclopedia producers and developed “a full-fledged learning business.” EB clarified their core business.

The article concludes with these words: “We don’t want to be like an old actor trying to hold on to his youth. You get on with the times and our times are digital…. We no longer have a stake in the old education model of textbooks and printed classroom curricula…. It makes no sense for us to print books. As an organization, we’re over it.”

Look at the above conclusions in italics. How might any of this apply to your work and business? Please comment.

One Comment

  1. Excellent, excellent start, Dr. Collins (from an old friend). As a pastor of a church and professor, the mission of both organizations that I work for must stay constant. The Church must be willing to sell all out for Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. Anything else is unChristian. The graduate school that I teach must stay connected to preparing leaders in their respective fields. The method, however, must not become the mission. In other words, representing Jesus Christ should not be so consumed with form (music, buildings, leadership structure), but focus on the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. And in a day and age of new technology, the classroom (both traditional AND virtual) must be willing to flex and morph with the times.

    I teach primarily online courses for graduate students as an adjunct professor, and as someone who finds my way around the educational system from time to time, I get the sense that there are two types of professors: those who embrace technology and online education and those who stick to their guns that the only REAL viable option to teach is face-to-face contact. What those people fail to realize is that they will become increasingly irrelevant to the world that many people live in now. And for people who teach online, the real question now is… how can we deliver the BEST online education that we can, a kind of education that surpasses even face-to-face options while fulfilling the school’s primary mission?

    I know that some graduate schools in particular will become the old encyclopedias on the shelf in decades to come. But for me, I see opportunities galore as we teach and help people from virtually anywhere in the world to receive top quality education. If we can have people from Thailand, Connecticut, Alabama, Illinois, Colorado, and Arkansas, and my home state of Pennsylvania in one class at the same time, what is that worth to a graduate school education? Much more than any face-to-face class can provide.

    So can we embrace this change? I personally hope that in the decades to come I can be a force for embracing and leading in this new and changing environment.

    God bless, Dr. Collins. Just a few more months to go for me. 🙂


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