By any means necessary

After posting a summary of Johanna Vondeling's "top ten trends shaping the future of publishing", I am returning to each of the trends in separate posts appearing on Mondays for the balance of the summer.

Vondeling is Berrett-Koehler's vice president for international sales and business development. The sixth trend on her list, "The internet is the classroom", offers a powerful example of how disruption in publishing can challenge and energize the old order:

The education industry is experiencing dramatic disruption. Profits and enrollment at for-profit colleges and universities in the United States are growing at a staggering rate. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are proliferating. Education startups are creating and offering online study groups, flash cards, lecture notes, and a wealth of other tools for free. Investment in education technology companies increased from less than $100 million in 2007 to nearly $400 million last year. And while digital textbooks have been slow to gain adoption, many education providers are turning away from print textbooks in favor of digital devices in classrooms and lecture halls. In response, some publishers are diving into the growing business of online education.

The disruptive power of information technology may be our best hope for containing the soaring costs that are driving a growing number of students into ruinous debt or out of higher education altogether. It is also a potential boon to displaced workers under pressure to become “lifelong learners.” But this disruptive power also poses a potential existential threat to many physical universities and traditional textbook publishers.

The second part of Vondeling's argument is particularly important for publishers looking to compete in an evolving landscape. Disruptive innovations don't immediately replace existing markets; they serve new audiences. Writing about scholarly publishing in 2010, I observed:

In [Clayton] Christensen’s estimation, disruptive technologies start by addressing smaller markets that are either over-served or not served at all by existing products.  Those opportunities are typically unattractive to firms serving market leaders.

Over time, the small firms that embrace disruptive technologies grow larger by serving niche or previously unattended customers.  Robustness of the new technology improves quickly, often at lower margins than the traditional businesses.  In time, these technologies don’t necessarily replace the standard model, but they do replace the traditional market leaders in the new models.

Vondeling's examples point to the potential opportunity in serving new audiences. Delivering education to a remote student looking for continuing education in a narrow field, offering non-degree courses at manageable prices, and supporting peer-to-peer connections in a learning environment: these all meet the needs of new or underserved markets.

These opportunities are not limited to the educational market, nor are they available only for established players. To find them, we start by identifying unmet needs we can serve through the delivery of content, by any means necessary.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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