What Higher Ed Can Learn from Encyclopaedia Britannica

Encyclopaedia Britannica announced today that it will cease publication of the 32-volume print edition. Going forward, the focus will be on Britannica's digital properties.

March 14, 2012

Encyclopaedia Britannica announced today that it will cease publication of the 32-volume print edition. Going forward, the focus will be on Britannica's digital properties.

I worked for Britannica.com, the Encyclopaedia Britannica spinoff, from 1998 to 2001. This job gave me a close-up seat to witness the promise of the first dot-com gold rush (1999 and 2000), and the just as rapid crash when the bubble deflated (2001).  I think that the story of Britannica, including this latest chapter to cease print publication, has some things to teach us in higher ed.  

To understand today's Britannica announcement, it is necessary to recall the recent history of the company. Britannica has had a digital presence for many years, with early access to LexisNexis uses in 1981, a CD-ROM product in 1989, and a web based subscription encyclopedia available in 1994. In 1999 Encyclopaedia Britannica spun-off the Britannica.com division (which was later folded back into the parent company). Britannica.com was revolutionary because it was conceived of as a free, advertising based service which would make the full content of the encyclopedia available to everyone in the world who had a web connection. (Does this remind anyone of our current open education movement?)

The original idea for Britannica.com was a great one. Open up the full encyclopedia as a free, advertising supported website. Bolster the articles with multimedia, a curated Internet guide, community and discussion features, and fresh content. Advertisers would love Britannica.com because people would spend lots of time with the immersive and rich content, and the site would draw educated readers that would be likely to purchase goods online. Complement the consumer Britannica.com with subscription properties that did not have advertising, and that offered education specific products (such as standard correlated content), and the result would be a diversified set of lucrative revenue streams.

These ideas all made sense to me. They still make sense 13 years later. What happened was that Britannica.com was launched in 1999, and immediately got so much traffic that the site crashed (and stayed crashed for weeks). While the technology was eventually sorted out, the revenue model was not. Britannica.com could never figure out how to get enough compelling additional content into the site at costs that made any sense in relationship to the dollars that could be generated from advertising. Producing quality new content, and licensing multimedia materials, is very expensive - and the advertising market was not robust enough in 1999 or 2000 to support this plan.   

I think that the lesson for higher ed is not that we should stick with what we know, and be hesitant to change. Britannica was smart back in 1999 to understand that an open digital model, with a diverse revenue source, had great potential to go beyond both print based and pure subscription options. What we were not able to do at Britannica was execute on this vision.  We didn't know how to deliver a high quality product that had development and delivery costs that aligned with the revenues available from advertising. The skills necessary to run a print publication, or a subscription based digital publication, turned out to be very different from those required to run an advertising based business.

Those of us who work in higher ed will need to make many transitions to stay relevant in an increasingly global and digital economy. We will have good ideas about how to evolve traditional higher education away from the bundled, place-based, discipline centric institutions that we ourselves were educated in, have spent our lives working for, and that we love. Our success in evolving our institutions, however, will not be determined solely by our ideas for change - but instead by our abilities to execute on these ideas. Will we have the wisdom and skills necessary to evolve our institutions in a global, digital economy?

Of course the other development that we completely misunderstood when I worked at Britannica was Wikipedia. When Wikipedia was launched in 2001 I remember many of my colleagues at Britannica completely dismissing the whole idea of a user generated and user editable encyclopedia. This went against everything many Britannica people thought an encyclopedia should be, namely an authoritatively authored, edited, and curated publication. The lesson here is that we should acknowledge that us higher ed people are perhaps unprepared to recognize and understand models of higher education that are truly different from our own.  There may be an analogue to Wikipedia for our traditional colleges and universities, and we are likely to underestimate the impact that this new entrant will have on our core business models.

I want to stress is that my colleagues at Britannica were some of the smartest and most dedicated people I have ever worked with.  These were incredibly dedicated professionals, motivated by the desire to create the highest quality knowledge and make this knowledge available to as much of the world as possible.   The missteps that I witnessed (and participated in) at  Britannica were not the result of a lack of intelligence, creativity, passion, or hard work.  We in higher ed should not assume that the fact that we have the best of intentions, and lots of experience, will make us any more immune to new models and new competitors than Encyclopaedia Britannica has been since the coming of the web.

Perhaps today's announcement of the end of Britannica's print publications signals that the company has figured out how to manage the transition into the digital age. The press release reports that Britannica is moving "beyond reference and into the $10 billion school curriculum and digital-learning markets." This seems like a smart move. I know, first hand, how difficult the transition has been for Britannica from a bundled print based product to a set of digital services. I don't anticipate that our transitions in higher ed (whatever form these transitions end up taking) will be any less difficult.

What do you think the story of Encyclopaedia Britannica has to teach us in higher ed?


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