Magazine article Information Today

Culture Shock for the Product-Minded: Information Service Companies Must Change to Match Changing Realities

Magazine article Information Today

Culture Shock for the Product-Minded: Information Service Companies Must Change to Match Changing Realities

Article excerpt

To a born and bred Southern Californian like myself, one of the amazing things about the eastern United States (and that area starts just after you slide down the other side of the Rockies, somewhere to the right of Colorado) is the number of people you meet who cannot count the number of times they have ridden on a train. Naturally, I can recall in Proustian detail each and every time I have ridden the choo-choo. Once I even rode in my own "roomette" all night long from Washington, DC's Union Station to Boston's South Station. Talk about your romance of the rails! The first time I entered Grand Central Station in New York, the sense of deja vu almost overwhelmed me, given all the movies I had seen that used Grand Central as a set.

Passenger rail transportation exists in California, but mainly it's just one of those things San Franciscans do when they want to feel "citified." They have a new rail service here in L.A. called the "Blue Line." Unfortunately, they should probably rename it the "Crimson Line" because it keeps making the evening news with tales of blood and gore. Apparently citizens of this region--motorists by nature--do not comprehend the physics of railroads. They keep driving or walking on the tracks with tragic consequences that would not shock Easterners but still seem to surprise Californians ("But if it can't stop, why do they let it go so fast? And you say it can't swerve, either?").

Slowness in adjusting to changing reality characterizes more than just West Coast travelers. The decline of railroads from their clear dominance in 19th century America to their relatively minor role in passenger service today has become a classic tale taught in business schools. The big mistake the railroad executives made when faced by challenges from automobiles and airplanes, according to business school profs, was to believe they were in the railroad business instead of the transportation business. In other words, it's not the format but the function that should frame strategic planning for businesses.

Product to Service

So here we are in the Information Age with many nervous information company executives in the same position as the pre-Amtrak railroad czars. Many major vendors face the challenge of altering their operations and attitudes to suit a transition from a product to a service function, while others move from service to product. Regardless of the direction, the basic transformation process can put extraordinary pressure on staff, resources, and management policies and practices.

Stop me if you've heard this one before. I know I've told it before. My first encounter with an outfit facing the challenge of change--and responding slowly--came when I called Microsoft on a fact check for a product announcement. The incident occurred years ago when Microsoft launched its first CD-ROM product, Microsoft Bookshelf. The attractive product supplied (and still supplies) an electronic equivalent of a writer's favorite reference works, including Roget's Thesaurus, a dictionary, the Statistical Abstract of the United States, the World Almanac, et al. Nifty, huh? So I called to check on the complete contents and double check the price, concluding with an inquiry about the update policy for the two annual components of the package--Stat Abs and the World Almanac. The lady seemed to have some trouble understanding what I meant by update policy, so I reworded my inquiry, asking when they planned to issue a new CD-ROM with the next issue of the two annuals. She paused again and said, "I guess when we sell all these." Ouch! I sure hope the issues on the discs represent a very good year.

Clearly, Microsoft still saw itself in the disc-selling business instead of the information service or even publishing business. Even in a very bad sales year, I doubt that the publisher of the World Almanac would ever try to fill a customer's order with last year's almanac just because they had a lot left over. …

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