Innovative Courage: Are You Kodak, Britanica, or FujiFilm, Wikipedia?

This mornings Independent brings the story that Britanica is publishing its last set of encyclopaedias – after 244 years of continuous editions. The story strikes a chord. My family invested in those glorious leatherette tomes when I was a boy and I spent many hours delving into those books. This was of course before the Internet — which, by the way, is going to be big.

It’s a story of a lack of innovative courage. A hesitancy to ask themselves big, bold, brave, questions (see KILN for how).

Britanica is going the way of Kodak. They are being bypassed by a world that is simply doing things differently. A world that is no longer using film to make memories, and no longer relying on a shelf of books for information.

Britanica and Kodak saw this iceberg coming for years. This isn’t exactly Silicon Valley paced change is it? The Titanic sunk because it couldn’t turn fast enough but Britanica and Kodak had plenty of time. Britanica still survives for the moment, but they are in complete denial, their Global President Jorge Cauz said just yesterday that they are unaffected by Wikipedia.

Do some executives live in a secret walled garden? I suspect Mr. Cauz knows better, he may have been misquoted.

In the last ten years I’ve actually had brushes with both of these organizations. With Kodak I was advising a qualitative research supplier who was consistently suggesting (“iceberg ahead!”) to Kodak that consumers were going towards digital. I did some research for a competitor of Britanica in the USA and consumers were already talking about not needing hard copy books, and this was over 8 years ago.

So, we ask, why in the name of all that is rational didn’t Kodak or Britanica adjust their strategy? And how did FujiFilm survive?

It isn’t because Kodak or Britanica don’t have resources or technology. Both companies could have reinvented their products, in fact, both companies made efforts in that direction. Britanica has an online service, now (never used it until this morning), and Kodak has digital cameras. Heck, Kodak invented digital cameras!

I think Kodak and Britanica have failed because they lacked the courage to take the risk of radical reinvention. Kodak might have kept in mind that they were not in the film business, they were in the memories business. Britanica was not in the book business, they were in the education business. Plenty of opportunities for both companies in memories and education right? Their efforts to change were, and are, half-hearted. How does Britanica compete with Wikipedia’s soulful mission? They don’t at this point, they create other educational products. There is some indication they are doing this with their mobile apps — keep pushing!

How did FujiFilm stay profitable? Essentially, they had the courage to redefine themselves. They saw the iceberg and asked themselves a brave question: What else can we do with our technology? Answer: courage and cosmetics. See this excellent analysis in the Economist for more detail on why Fujifilm is thriving.

It’s about asking yourself big, bold, brave, not lazy questions isn’t it?  This takes courage. But if they had, if they’d asked themselves the bold, brave question years ago: “How might we create memories online?” Might they have become Facebook?

Kodak, really, should have done Facebook. What question should Britanica be asking?

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