Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Tracking the Technical Velocity of Publishing Software



One of the interesting aspects of the review I am engaged in for my annual publishing technology forecast, relates to the transition publishing industry software providers are undergoing with respect to their technology architecture.   Companies in this segment may be slow to the service oriented architecture (SOA) dance but, be that as it may, we are seeing important and significant redevelopment undertaken by the leading players.  In my report, I’ve tried to represent this as a reflection of ‘velocity’ by suggesting that those companies which are faster to adopt SOA and API driven architectures will accelerate their revenue growth and market share at the expense of other providers.

This chart represents my estimate of where some of these companies are in their development (names removed in this version).  Based on my interviews and interactions with these companies, there is a clear inflection point where companies are beginning to re-architect their platforms.  For any company, this would not be an inconsequential effort but it is especially risky for relatively small, low capitalized software development companies which characterizes this segment.  The investment effort therefore needs to be deliberate and controlled.




To reflect their development paths, I’ve estimated where I see each company’s starting point and how I expect them to move through my (self-defined) velocity funnel over the next few years.  Several segment leaders, which are advanced in their development, will move further and faster through the funnel as they convert older clients to their new solution and bring on new customers from competitors.   Those companies which are slower to invest may see customers defect and may not be able to fund further advancement through the funnel.

There will be more details on these and other market dynamics in my technology report which will be published at the end of January.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Price is Right for Cengage


Cengage CEO Michael Hansen discussed the launch of their single price subscription at the recent Bank of Montreal Back to School Conference.

Cengage announced this week that they have extended their “all you can eat” digital subscription package to the Amazon.com store.   Since the company launched this subscription model, students have been able to gain digital access to everything the company publishes, all for $119.99 a semester and $179.99 for the full year (Corrected).   Other publishers are watching carefully from the sidelines – perhaps half hoping this experiment fails miserably – to see how this program does in the market.  This expansion into the Amazon store could be an act of desperation or inspiration.  Either way, I believe it represents a fundamental shift in the way educational materials will be sold and will accelerate the disappearance of the textbook.

At a recent conference, I heard Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage, discuss his new program and the “affordability crisis” in higher education.  He noted that the industry has long heard that their products are too expensive and that not one person would say that college textbooks represent ‘good value’ for money’.  Pretty damning comments from the head of a college publisher.  But his company is tackling this issue by choosing a “radical change in the model and pricing”.  He went on to say that the notion that “taking the old print model and transferring it to digital, expecting everything to be fine. is simply not viable”.  Cengage proposes a model whereby the student can get everything for $120 per year – forget individual pricing, codes, complicated discount schedules, etc.  It is one simple solution for the student and, under this model, they get hundreds of dollars’ worth of content.

There are many publishers in the college market whose answer to stagnant or declining print textbook sales has been to add more complication: Unintelligible discount models, multiple and conflicting channel relationships, rental programs with demand driven pricing and other models, all designed to prop up a format – print – that is increasingly irrelevant in most other publishing segments.  Most effective will be simple pricing models, supporting an easy to understand value proposition which seems to be the road Cengage is traveling.

Interestingly, Hansen also discussed how their business arrived at this strategy.  Naturally, they did research and found a few things of interest.  Some were obvious, such as the process to deliver student materials is expensive, inefficient and often painful (in a shopping sense) for the student.  They also questioned the idea that ‘faculty don’t care about price’ which I’ve heard a lot and had some experience with at SharedBook.com.  Cengage research showed that faculty did care when they were shown that this subscription option could be available for students because they are concerned about drop-out rates and unprepared students who can’t or won’t buy the textbooks.  (The ‘performance’ of faculty and schools in delivering a quality education was a recurring theme noted in other sessions as increasingly important and educational materials, to the extent they affect faculty performance, are a component of this evaluation).  Another key research finding was that subscription models and different concepts of ownership are already familiar to students and students wouldn’t resist applying those to education content.  In some cases, students may welcome it.  For example, in certain situations, the student may want to subscribe for a set period, drop the subscription and then pick it up later.  This is exactly their experience with other subscription programs like Netflix and Spotify.

Hansen went on to suggest that the educational market and products need to move away from the “expensive” textbook and ‘inadequate’ materials to focus on what publishers are really good at and that is to produce effective course materials.  Hansen believes the top publishers have some inherent strength including ‘franchise’ authors and products and the opportunity and capability to address much wider markets (see my last blog post).  If Cengage can combine affordability and strong branded content Hansen believes, as a company, they have long-term advantages.

During the question-and-answer session, Hansen was asked why other publishers haven’t followed suit.   This is, in my view, inevitable.  But he did note some of the infrastructure and administrative obstacles that were overcome in their own transition to this model.  Real change requires answering the difficult questions and, he noted, their relationship with authors which have been problematic:  At a basic level, does the publisher have the right to include the content in this form?  Cengage believes their author contracts support their online model.  Can the publisher’s infrastructure handle it?  This online subscription model can produce a massive increase in usage and the company better make sure their platforms are saleable and that the user interface (UI) is simple and intuitive to use.

The final point he made was to emphasize that all primary stakeholders need to be aligned and he specifically mentioned his management team and board directors.  The Cengage model really is a case of ‘making it up in volume’ since a massive decrease in pricing has to be made up in higher (subscription) units.   Many scholarly and academic publishers know this ‘valley of death’ from their digital transformations during the late 1990s and 2000s; it can look dire when high-priced print volumes free fall and web subscriptions haven’t caught up yet.   If not well messaged and anticipated this journey can make for some very difficult management and board meetings.  Hansen is not surprised that his competitors have not followed because Cengage is clearly accepting significant risk.  

It is worth noting that Hansen spent time at Elsevier Health and does have a deep awareness of the business benefit of online versus print access to content and the potential upside this transition will have on Cengage’s prospects.   This will be particularly true as students gain access to online materials and the efficacy of the materials becomes transparent creating more accountability and market power in understanding what works and what doesn’t.  Together with the enhanced ability to rapidly deploy more expansive and interesting products, Cengage is positioning itself to move ahead of the field in delivering more effective educational materials for students. Watch this space as other publishers begin to test their own single price models, and I believe we will finally see real change in how we think about the textbook: It will finally disappear completely.

Note: Cengage reached out to me and asked me to correct the pricing above and they also let me know that on their recent investor call they announced over 500,000 Cengage Unlimited subscribers in the first 8 weeks since the Aug. 1 launch. They expect Cengage Unlimited will save students up to $60 million this academic year.

Michael Cairns is a business strategy consultant and executive. He can be reached at michael.cairns@infomediapartners.com or (908) 938 4889 for project work or executive roles.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Newsletter Update. Hot Articles and Happy Holidays!

https://mailchi.mp/infomediapartners.com/200-million-students-await

Periodically and irregularly I circulate a collection of recent articles via my email newsletter.  In case you missed it, take a look at a selection of my articles from this year which generated a lot of traffic.  

Take a look at some of my recent projects and let's talk if you are looking for strategy consulting expertise or you have a C-Level search or board role I can help support.  - 

Michael Cairns

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Publishing Technology Software Market Report 2019

My annual publishing software report for 2019 is currently being produced and among a few changes compared with the version last year, I have changed the format of the market map.  As you see below it is now spread over two pages (and I have temporarily dropped some of the membership & association software providers).

For the 2019 edition, I have met in person with many of the companies profiled and I am still completing those interviews.  I expect to complete at least 20 meetings which compares with only a few in 2018.  Last year, I relied on existing market reports, web pages and marketing materials.  In the 2019 report I hope to gain a deeper understanding of the vendors market expectations and business strategy.  This process is going well and I anticipate the final report will be ready by mid-late January.

Vendors covered: Klopotek, Virtusales, Fadel, Real, Lumina, Knk, AdvantageCS, Filmtrack, ScholarStor, Aries and many others.


Analysis Areas Covers: Technology platform, business strategy, marketing and sales positioning, market feedback.

Pricing:  Pre-pub price $990.00  Publication Price $1500.00

Purchased product will be delivered on or around January 31 in pdf format and will include up to 2 hours consulting time (via phone or in person if local).


If you would like to pre-order the 2019 report for $990.00 (versus the publication price of $1,500.00) use this button to purchase and I will also provide you with a copy of the 2018 version.

PURCHASE NOW 2019 Report

Here are the draft versions of the market maps for the 2019 version of my report:



Monday, November 12, 2018

The Opportunity in 200 Million Students: Education Publishers Must Retool


Three macro-economic changes facing traditional publishers will help open up a market of 200 million potential students far beyond their existing markets.  Expanding their reach beyond college level students to employer-based education, certification and life long learning programs relies on existing competencies but also presents significant operational and strategic challenges.  The rewards will be considerable. 

Textbook publishers have but a fleeting opportunity to sell their books to students.  Each student for that Psych 101 textbook is replaced from one semester to another.  Despite owning “franchise” titles which hold high value for the purchase decision makers – administrators, board members and faculty – the student is generally indifferent, exerts little control over the selection of this content and frequently they don’t even buy it.  In the best of cases, the publisher has a ‘one-off’ relationship with the student and over the past 15 years the only thing making this a sustainable model for publishers has been the constant raising of textbook prices.

Looking forward, sustainability for textbooks publishers will be defined by the significant macro-economic changes which are forcing them to reexamine every aspect of their business – no longer just the price, but their addressable market, the concept of ‘product’ and their delivery options.  Some publishers, such as Cengage, are showing flexibility and creativity as these challenges manifest, but many will find it difficult or impossible.   My consulting work with publishing company executives provides me with a unique opportunity to evaluate how publishers are addressing these changes.  Success is far from certain as more focused and nimble competitors present themselves.

Market expansion: The order breaks down.

The paradigm for delivering education content is largely the same as it was 100 years ago:  Top down, prescriptive and generic.  In today’s environment, as technology and culture change at an ever-faster rate, it becomes increasingly clear that not only do our skills not match basic job requirements, but they fall short at an ever-increasing rate.   So, education needs to do two things: Provide a solid basis for students entering the workforce and supply a mechanism to further develop and expand skills to meet new and changing job requirements across their career.   The good news for publishers is that their addressable market has expanded significantly: There are 200 million people of working age in the US.

One particular issue facing college students concerns the relevancy of their education program.  The bottom line is will it provide them with meaningful employment when they graduate?  (43% of college graduates are underemployed in their first job). Evidence shows that students (and their parents) are becoming more discriminating about education choices based on desired outcomes, and prospective students are forcing schools to provide real data that proves the ability of the school to graduate employable students.  Additionally, these students are also exerting influence over the career management advice and skills guidance they receive during their schooling. 

As students question the practicality and relevancy of their educational choices and concern themselves more deeply with the outcome of their education programs, we will see a breakdown of the traditional four- year degree program.  Students will increasingly want to ‘drop in and drop out’ of structured education as they make early career choices, adopt new interests and seek fresh skills.  This doesn’t mean they won’t graduate with BAs and MBAs but they may also get certifications, credits, badges and other credentials.  Collectively these awards establish core foundations and will contribute credits toward traditional degree programs and give employers confidence in the abilities of the student.  Parchment as one example is helping students in this space.

So education will not end with the “traditional” degree.  Recent research shows that a newly graduated engineer will hit a career roadblock within 10 years of graduation.  That exerts tremendous costs on the employer not least because many workers exit their chosen career at this point.  Businesses also suffer as they must continually find and train brand new employees.  A far better and more cost-effective outcome would be for employers to develop proactive continuing education programs to help employees maintain and develop their skills.  We are beginning to see publishers, educational institutions and businesses partner to create a broader market for their content, materials and programs.  Education and life-long learning programs tied to continued employment success will eventually play a far larger role in our lives from ‘cradle to first job’ to ‘cradle to retirement’.  Increasingly the greater market opportunity for education is not in the delivery of foundational skills (K-16) but in the delivery of life skills, career-based programs and personal fulfillment.  As noted, this market is several orders of magnitude larger than the market for traditional education.

Concept of product: Decoupling content and the separation between knowledge and proficiency

Traditional textbook publishers are adapting and changing to address the larger market opportunities springing up and some have made acquisitions to broaden their product lines.  But more fundamental changes are in play.  When education needs to be delivered ‘on demand’, the content must be decoupled from traditional “containers” and processes.  This is happening fastest around the edges of the traditional education marketplace which is developing into a vibrant and expanding marketplace, of ‘alternative’ education services and providers.  These encompass skills-based training (such as code academies) as well as companies like UConnet which help students pass assessment and accreditation tests.  Additionally, traditional modes of education delivery are being expanded as colleges and universities leverage their brands and educational reputations to wider regional and global markets.  Companies such as Embanet, 2U and Wiley offer Online Program Manager (OPM) solutions to universities to do just this and Wiley recently paid $200mm to acquire Learning House an OPM provider.

Textbook content can be expensive to produce, franchise product market share can be hard to break down and direct connection to students hard to establish.  In a decoupled world, business cases, problem sets, test prep and other similar components can attain more value than a full textbook especially when those component items are tied directly to achievement and/or certifications.  This environment provides new market entrants the opportunity to think differently about the competitive environment and dispense with old assumptions about content development, marketing and sales. 

Perhaps creating a whole educational program is not the right approach to entering the market.  I met a company recently named UConnect.  They are not an ‘educational publisher’ in the traditional sense, yet they have been able to draw a direct connection between the 'publishing' content they produce and student achievement.  UConnect is building a highly profitable and expanding business based on creating problem sets, test prep and achievement tests tied to established test programs such as MCAT, LSAT, NCLEX and even SAT and AP.  Not only is their approach to “content” creation (building test modules) different from traditional publishers but their subscription model for students is easy and simple to understand.  Proof of their different approach and their aspirations can be seen in the types of employees they are seeking to hire.  UConnect understands that in a decoupled content environment they can draw a distinct line between the students skills and knowledge – which their products help assess – and the students’ ability to pass a critical achievement test. 

Delivery options - Certifications, job training and lifelong learning: “Think differently about the diploma”

Delivery isn’t only about the method of delivery, but also about the form and function of the delivery.  If education occurs increasingly throughout a person’s life and career, the delivery can’t (only) be via a structured program.  Those companies and institutions which benefited from the old paradigm where methods were tightly prescribed, and outcomes hazily defined (or completely ignored) will need to adapt or die.  Partnerships between traditional publishers and corporations as well as investment by large companies like Oracle in learning platforms indicate how important the post-college education market has become.  Employers have a lot at stake: They want to retain employees who have basic skills when hired to easily source new skills over their career to match the company’s changed priorities.  HR policies will not only become oriented around career development but should also become competitive advantages.  Publishers which maintain large content libraries have advantages if they can de-couple that content from traditional packaging (as do legacy education institutions, which still retain significant market brand power).   UConnect’s product offering genesis evolved out of a medical student’s specific problem:  How to better prepare for the MCAT test.  By placing a relentless focus on the goal of the student (acing a test) the company has expanded their products significantly and grown dramatically. 

All traditional publishers have test banks, but they don’t necessarily think of them as foundational or standalone products (or product platforms in and of themselves).  Their publishing activities are still tied to the limited textbook ‘container,’ which is a liability in a decoupled world.  Another advantage UConnect (and companies like them) have established is a direct sales relationship with the student and they use this access to seek their advice during their product development cycles.  This is very different from the model of traditional publishers who rarely dealt directly with students and certainly would not allow them an active role in the product development as UConnect does.

The dynamics of the education market are changing rapidly, in part due to macro-economic changes in the way education supports career development, corporate objectives and student fulfillment.  We all want to feel valued and fulfilled in our personal and work lives and how we interact with learning sources will become more dynamic and more evenly distributed over our lives.  Current and future generations of K-16 students will expect to be continually educated over their lifetimes and traditional publishers, institutions and employers will need to position themselves to support those expectations. And if that is not enough change, the direction of education on a global level will be even more profound as globalization creates large middle-class populations in developing nations who will demand education programs to support their personal and professional objects.

Publishers and institutions which fail to understand the relevance of the macro changes impacting education and fail to position themselves to participate in the market for career and life long learning will be pushed aside.  The bigger market opportunity will dwarf traditional education markets and will produce larger, more aggressive competitors and, if traditional education players aren’t ready, they will fail their biggest test.

Michael Cairns is a business strategy consultant and executive.  He can be reached at mcairns@infomediapartners.com or (908) 938 4889 for project work or executive roles.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

McKinsey Article - Digital strategy: The four fights you have to win.

Interesting article from McKinsey about how to address challenges in executing a digital strategy:
Leaders in many organizations lack clarity on what “digital” means for strategy. They underestimate the degree to which digital is disrupting the economic underpinnings of their businesses. They also overlook the speed with which digital ecosystems are blurring industry boundaries and shifting the competitive balance. (For more on why companies often fall short, see “Why digital strategies fail.”) What’s more, responding to digital by building new businesses and shifting resources away from old ones can be threatening to individual executives, who may therefore be slow to embrace (much less drive) the needed change.
https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/digital-strategy-the-four-fights-you-have-to-win

Saturday, October 20, 2018

K-12 Education Market Survey Report for Publishers

I completed this overview of the education market dynamics with publishers and content owners as the intended audience for a recent client. Also of interest to private equity and other investors.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Paywall: The Business of Scholarship (CC BY 4.0)

Paywall: The Business of Scholarship, produced by Jason Schmitt, provides focus on the need for open access to research and science, questions the rationale behind the $25.2 billion a year that flows into for-profit academic publishers, examines the 35-40% profit margin associated with the top academic publisher Elsevier and looks at how that profit margin is often greater than some of the most profitable tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. This film is free to view both in personal and public venues.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Publishing Industry’s Blindspot: Technology Spending

I wrote the following for the BISG newsletter this month:
Sharing operational data and information does not come easily for publishing companies. Many other industries benefit from benchmarking data that enables business improvement but, as an industry, publishing seems uninterested in this philosophy of continuous improvement.
Seeking detailed information about technology spending for a series of investor presentations, I found that this information doesn’t exist. While the Association of American Publishers (AAP) has long collected high-level sales and operating data, this effort is of marginal value if a business is truly committed to benchmarking and measuring their performance across a set of key performance measures.
The AAP numbers do have value, but they lack the specificity and detail needed for true and close comparisons of operating data that can drive performance improvement. Based on my experience, the way that publishing thinks about data has not changed even as the industry migrates from legacy-based technology and operating environments (where “fixed” models rule) to one where flexibility drives everything from content packages to cloud-based applications. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

AP Report: New ways for publishers to capture digital revenue

The AP has released a report on ways publishers can generate digital revenues:
Converting audiences into paying customers is core to building a sustainable future for journalism. To provide a broad view of capturing digital revenue — from industry standard paywalls to emerging alternative methods of capturing digital revenue — we spoke with experts and practitioners from news organizations, related startups in the space and the big tech platforms.
In this report, we look at many of the models being implemented and explored, breaking out best practices where available, highlighting ideas that are still looking for a foothold in the marketplace, and evaluating what experiments haven’t borne fruit and why.
Report:  https://insights.ap.org/industry-trends/new-ways-to-capture-digital-revenue

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

M&A Activity in Digital Services H1/18 is Very Active

Some interesting observations from boutique M/A advisor Pharus Advisors on the state of play for transactions in the digital services sector:

From their report:

Acquirer appetites for digitally-focused services firms are becoming increasingly voracious
  • There have been 147 digital and innovation services transactions in H1 2018, up 58% from H1 2017
  • Dentsu and Accenture remain very active in 2018
  • Consultancies such as EY, Deloitte, KPMG, and smaller agencies such as M&C Saatchi have been active acquirers
  • PE acquirers have doubled their digital services platform acquisitions from a year ago - a trend we predicted in our 2017 report
Buyers seek subject matter and technical expertise, as well as impressive client lists and local market leadership
  • Sought-after specialties include digital design, as well as cloud consulting and cloud migration services capabilities
  • Subject matter expertise within financial services, healthcare, cyber and retail has also been in high demand
  • Leadership in a particular geography (e.g. ANZ, Benelux) has been particularly attractive to large global buyers
  • Data-focused and tech-enabled services firms remain in high demand
A diminishing supply of targets with highly-valued capabilities are pushing multiples higher
  • When coupled with buyer competition, higher multiples and better terms for sellers of the most unique firms are more attainable
Unique differentiators include top-tier management and industry leadership, as well as scalable business and service delivery models
 Pharus.com

Monday, July 23, 2018

Blockchain Discussion Document

Recently developed this short discussion document to start discussions about blockchain and the possible development of 'proof of concept' ideas. Get in touch if you are interested in a similar discussion.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Thomson Reuters Up in the Clouds


Almost 10 years ago, Thomson Reuters embarked on the development of their Elektron Data Platform and sold it as a mechanism to get faster as a data provider and closer to their customers.  As part of this effort they built data centers around the world to support their objectives and the efforts were highly successful.  That said, the rapidity by which technology advances is now encouraging the company to place their financial data into the cloud supported not by their own technology but by Amazon and the AWS products.

Financial data is highly transacted and Thomson Reuters counts as clients most financial companies of any consequence.   As a result of this implementation to AWS, their clients will gain increased flexibility in how they use data and how clients can develop new products based on this data.   Not only do clients not have to build and maintain their own data centers (obviously they can if they want) but they can build their own applications on AWS which in turn will allow them to be more flexible in how they service their customers.  The model Thomson Reuters is establishing could be revolutionary in the manner in which users manage financial data and service customers. 
"The enhancement to the Elektron Data Platform will initially provide access to real-time data on the secure and scalable Amazon Web Service (AWS) Cloud in North America, with plans to expand to Europe and Asia later this year. With the cloud API, data can be consumed natively on AWS, directed to applications based in other cloud environments, or to an on-premise environment.
As a simplified, conflated real-time service, the real-time in the cloud service can power up to three client applications at three updates per second across 50,000 instruments at the same time, which can be selected from the full universe of over 70 million instruments covered by the Elektron Data Platform."

No less important from this announcement is that by using AWS, Thomson Reuters will be buying in to a set of standards and protocols which will encourage application development, experimentation and likely broader usage.  This will lower the barriers to entry for many existing and new customers.

As the sheer amount of data increases and complexity grows, Thomson Reuters have taken the view that making data accessible can reduce complexity and help companies focus more on the delivery of analytics, machine learning applications and other innovations.   Enabling this without a cumbersome back end technical architecture will be the strategy all data managers will begin to execute.

(Press Release)

Michael Cairns is a business strategy consultant and executive.  He can be reached at michael.cairns@infomediapartners.com for project work or executive roles.  See here for examples of recent work.

Friday, July 13, 2018

From Awareness to Funding Summary Report Voter Perceptions and Support of Public Libraries in 2018

A report from OCLC takes a look at voter perceptions of public libraries.
In 2008, OCLC published From Awareness to Funding: A Study of Library Support in America, a national study of the awareness, attitudes, and underlying motivations among US voters for supporting library funding. The research, which was led by OCLC with funding by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by Leo Burnett USA, dispelled long-held assumptions and provided eye-opening insights about who supports public library funding and for what reasons.
A decade later, OCLC has partnered with the American Library Association (ALA) and its Public Library Association (PLA) division to investigate current perceptions and support among US voters and how they may have shifted in the intervening years. The partners re-engaged Leo Burnett USA and revisited the survey instrument used in the original research

Full Report

Monday, July 09, 2018

Every Consultant must Engage


“Understand the business strategy” is frequently one of the first tasks on my project workplans, usually undertaken in the first week or weeks of an engagement.   But this essential exercise can also be one item that generates push-back from clients, who see it as something a consultant should undertake on their own.  Obviously, embarking on a consulting project without an understanding of the business you are engaged to help is unprofessional and displays disinterest (both of which are justifications for dismissal in my view).  However, no amount of a consultant’s second- and third-party research can substitute for first-hand insight (on business challenges and strategies) from senior members of the management team.  These inputs are critical to the development of a baseline understanding of the business, which is often one of my first deliverables and also serves to record clearly what management told the consultant.

Depending on the scope of the engagement, it may only take two or three days during the engagement’s first week to conduct senior management team interviews, review strategy documents and other proprietary materials.  But I’ve also conducted engagements where almost the entire project scope consisted of examining the business strategy and its relationship with business execution and took several months to complete.

This first phase also yields other benefits that will inform the rest of the project.  (At PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC), this phase of our methodology was termed ‘Engage’ for obvious reasons and I logged many hours with new consultants as a certified instructor in the PWC project management methodology).   As a consultant, you will have researched the business before delivering your proposal and that research will give rise to a set of initial questions for the senior team.  During these interviews, you will have the opportunity to validate your research and note any changes and/or differences.  You will also have a chance to ‘test’ your next stage interview questions and assess if you are focusing on the right issues and business drivers.  Compiling a set of relevant questions for the detailed interviews you will undertake in the next phase is (obviously) critical to the eventual success of the project. 

Most importantly, during these meetings with the senior management team, you will have the opportunity to define the ‘success criteria’ for the project on which you are about to embark.  I have often found that the objectives of one or two executive team members are opposed to or prioritized differently from other executive members which, as a consultant, you need to manage from the early interview stages to the final report.  It can also be the case that the CEO may be unaware of some of these project priorities and/or differences of opinion, which is why I try to arrange the CEO meeting last.  During that meeting, it is important to address these conflicts head on to avoid any future project problems.   As an aside, if you are told you do not need to speak to the CEO (or business unit head) at this stage it is wise to push back on this ‘advice’ to get that meeting.

While it is incumbent on the consultant to do their company research and digest what they hear during the proposal process, there is no substitute for detailed discussions with management about the business strategy and project objectives.  Without exception, this team will be more receptive to you (and more open one-on-one) once you are officially retained and their input will inform how you organize the rest of the project.  Ultimately, the creation of the interview guide and/or the workshop program(s) for the detailed interview phase can sabotage the whole project if it’s not on point.  That’s why I tell every client that the initial ‘engage’ phase should not be eliminated or truncated because it’s an investment in the success of the project.  And it’s also an opportunity for the CEO to understand how effectively he or she has communicated the project priorities to the team: The consultant represents a ‘trusted third-party’ who often has the ability gather intelligence often not shared with the CEO.

However you term it, the initial stage of a project can frequently define the success or failure of an engagement.  Economizing here can prove detrimental to the later phases of a consulting project and my advice is to push back hard if your project sponsor believes this activity to be unnecessary.  As they say, penny wise and pound foolish.


Michael Cairns is a business strategy consultant and executive.  He can be reached at michael.cairns@infomediapartners.com for project work or executive roles.  See here for examples of recent work.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Does Barnes & Noble recall the Borders Books and More?




Image result for barnes and nobleNews of yet more executive turn-over at Barnes & Noble reminded me of similar CEO musical chairs at Borders as they were on their gradual and then precipitous decline.  A series of non-book experienced executives tried to reinvigorate and rebuild the chain but a combination of the speed of digital change and the basic lack of real book and publishing knowledge resulted in these executives only making the situation at Borders worse than when each arrived.

In 2007, somewhat new CEO George Jones outlined his strategy to shareholders.  I thought his effort was vapid and penned a version of my own. 

While more than 10 years have transpired there are still some points here that B&N might think about.  Read the whole post here.
No telling what the new management of Borders has in mind.

Last week George Jones, the recently appointed CEO of Borders Stores, Inc. released his strategic vision for the next three years. There was little in the document to inspire, and it was replete with suggestions that the route to success for Borders was to travel the road already trod by their stronger competitors rather than develop a set of bold new ideas. Coupled with this mediocre set of objectives was a time frame that seems embarrassing given the critical issues Borders and the retail book industry are facing. Borders sales per store and per square foot which lag their competition are declining, they have embarked on a diversification program that continues to draw attention away for the core products and they propose to withdraw from the international market that appears to produce 50% more revenue per store than the domestic business. What then might George Jones have said.....
Read the whole post here.