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Can XML Help you Avoid a Disruptive Innovation?

This semester, I’m fortunate to spend my Wednesday nights teaching management to students who are part of NYU’s M.S. in publishing program. Although a significant share of the course is given over to management fundamentals, the students are for the most part already working in publishing, so they also look for connections between lessons learned and their real-world application.

One recent class was given over to “managing in periods of change” (always relevant, seemingly more so this semester). Part of the lesson includes a discussion of disruptive innovation, a term coined in the mid-1990s by Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen to describe upstart innovations that grow to disrupt or destroy the business you are in.

Disruptive innovations typically start out as inferior ways to meet the needs of customers who are currently not served at all or who are over-served by existing options and are open to a simpler or cheaper option. Walking through this description, I was asked for a content-related example.

Maybe I do my best work on my feet (you’d have to ask the class), but I started to describe travel books. “People visit France,” I said, “but not all of it. Maybe they want information on just the area around their hotel in Paris … What’s a good restaurant, a trendy bar, a place where you won’t pay an arm and a leg for show tickets …

“Today, you could get this information, but you might have to buy all of three or four different books to combine it. After that, you might go to the Web to get current information on the shows that are scheduled for the day you are in Paris. And then, you’d probably try to print maps to get you from your hotel to wherever you decided was interesting.

“Suppose instead, we created a travel database that you could search using criteria that mattered to you — proximity to a hotel, a particular neighborhood, a time of year, your preference for trendy bars … Zagats does this for its database, after all, and still makes printed guides. And maybe you’d buy just the parts you want, download them to your laptop or handheld and head to Paris, lighter, greener and better informed.”

A structured approach to content development and management — XML — makes it possible to create and serve relevant searchable content.

Someone said, rightly, “But that would hurt (print) book sales.” I had to agree. Disruptive innovations fundamentally disrupt the old model. If you’re in a market that will be disrupted, the choice isn’t whether you get disrupted; it’s whether you are one of the firms that disrupts.

Ultimately, XML won’t help you avoid a disruptive innovation. Depending on the type of book you publish, XML could provide the vehicle that sponsors the disruption. The choice you make in considering XML (or, to pre-empt my friend bowerbird, some form of structured content) may be between staying with your existing business model until it runs out, or hastening its demise in pursuit of a blended mix of new revenue opportunities.

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Comments: 5

  1. ah, the old dale-carnegie tactic of
    converting someone into “a friend”
    by calling him “friend”. i’m hip to
    that trick, brian, but well-played… :+)

    but yes, you made my point for me.
    if you keep doing that (and it’s not
    necessary to credit me every time),
    there will be no need for me to speak.


  2. LOL… at least I didn’t refer to you as “that one”!

    You’ve made the good point that XML is “an” answer, not necessarily “the” answer. I’m hoping that this post extends your argument to say that “doing nothing” is also an option, albeit one that carries with it the risk of eventual disruption (depending on your beliefs about the future of content).

    That said, a small pitch for “why XML?” Publishers are notoriously idiosyncratic when it comes to process. The degree to which content processes are customized to imprints as well as individuals far exceeds their value.

    This customization costs publishers money. The answer to the age-old question, “How do you make a small fortune in the book business?” is… “Start with a large fortune.” XML is not the only way to make a messy process standard, but this we are probably past the time when publishers should have been thinking about making things more predictable and uniform. Our debate about XML shouldn’t be taken to mean that change isn’t needed.

  3. it’s true that no one was ever fired for recommending x.m.l. :+)

    you’re a good sport, brian. good luck with your conference…


  4. >The choice you make in considering XML may be between staying
    >with your existing business model until it runs out, or hastening
    >its demise in pursuit of a blended mix of new revenue opportunities.

    “May be,” but probably not, because this confuses the means with the end. An implemented business model is an end, and XML is a means. Just because XML opens up new possibilities in business models to consider doesn’t mean that it forces you to switch one of those new models, which is what this posting implies.

    Many publishers convert to an XML-based system to add efficiencies to their processes for creating their existing product line, which may be purely print based, and because they can then use it to take advantage of new delivery media when they feel that the time is right. You should tell your students that it’s important to think through their business models, to think through their technology strategy, and to think through the connections, but to be careful about jumping to conclusions when considering those connections.

    Bob DuCharme
    (MS, Computer Science, NYU, 1996)

  5. With respect to Bob’s comment – wholly agreed. My initial post was written to say that your beliefs about the future of content use (something that I think informs a business model) will influence how heavily you want to commit to using XML throughout your content value chain.

    More directly, if publishers don’t believe the example I used applies to them, I’d argue (as bowerbird has) that shifting to the use of XML may be the wrong decision. That’s why I answered bowerbird with the comment that said “doing nothing is also an option”.

    A publisher can use XML to drive efficiencies, and some of those we have interviewed serve as good examples of that. Those publishers are probably set up to take advantage of new delivery media for existing content, but they probably are not ready to deliver recombinant or heavily tagged content for new uses.

    If you buy the model, those new uses offer the oportunity to grow revenues. While remaking the value chain to include writers and editors is generally not needed to drive efficiencies, it would be required if you wanted an XML document that captured editorial thinking. That’s a larger decision that (agreeing with Bob) depends on your business model.