Magazine article Management Today

Good Times Bad Times: Tough Gig

Magazine article Management Today

Good Times Bad Times: Tough Gig

Article excerpt

The economy is stagnant, customers are cash-strapped and new business is scarce. No surprise then that, from high street to high tech, from publishing to fashion, many firms are struggling.

So you might think there is not much fun to be had in business these days. But, from a leadership point of view, tough times present the greatest challenge, and those individuals and organisations that best rise to meet it can achieve the greatest things. To some, the lure of the turnaround is irresistible. Are these individuals the business equivalent of thrillseekers, never content unless they are facing an uphill struggle, regardless of how good a job they might be doing already? Or do they just find themselves on the proverbial burning platform and obliged to get on with it? To test the point, MT sought out three bosses from different walks of life - from the corporate world to the surfing counter-culture - who are facing just such challenges to discover how life wearing a tin helmet suits them.

THE UNDERDOG

IAN GRANT MD, ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA UK

At an industry conference in London earlier this year, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales pronounced that 'five-year-olds will never know what a Britannica is'. For Encyclopedia Britannica UK managing director Ian Grant, this was too much. 'He always needs to attempt to diminish us in public,' he says. So Grant stood up: 'The first question of the conference was me saying: we're in the top 30 in the Superbrands survey, sunshine,' he laughs. 'Your brand comes in at a creditable 92.'

And yet, after 244 years of publishing, the Chicago-based company announced in March that this year's 32-volume edition is to be its last. That's understandable: just 15% of the company's earnings come from publishing the books. For Grant, though, that means the final transition from a bookshelf-full of leather-bound volumes to the virtual library of the internet. And although he insists that he's not sad about the books' demise - 'it's responding to the way people want to receive their information' - a company like Britannica may find it hard to compete in the online world, particularly when you consider that an individual subscription costs dollars 70 (pounds 45) a year, compared with Wikipedia's dollars 0 (pounds 0).

Admittedly, Wikipedia is Britannica's strongest critic. In fact, Wales never seems to miss an opportunity to state his view that while his site's content is free and 'democratic', Britannica's financial wall has made knowledge into a commodity that only the elite can afford.

Grant's argument is that the two can co-exist: while Wikipedia meets the needs of casual Googlers, Britannica is aimed at serious researchers who don't want to have to double-check facts. 'We don't sell subscriptions, we supply confidence,' he says. The market for Britannica these days is largely academic - schools and universities - and it is present in 93% of UK libraries, according to Grant.

As a virtual offering, it isn't doing badly. Online subscriptions have grown by 'about 60%' in the five years since Grant joined. And as that Superbrands survey testifies, it's a recognisable, trusted brand. 'You can go up the headwaters of the Limpopo river and somebody will know what Encyclopedia Britannica is.'

So, for its UK MD, the challenge is to shed that image of ancient volumes languishing on shelves and convince users - chiefly students and academics - that it's as comprehensive and easy to access as Wikipedia, but more reliable. That's easier said than done. 'I think over the past five years, all of us globally have found it longer and slower to make that change,' he concedes. 'Overcoming the ancient perception, it's a challenge in hard economic circumstances.'

There's also a sense that the Converse-wearing technophilia of Wikipedia has been slower to manifest in the corridors of Britannica. 'I have an iPad and an iPhone because I publish for those media. …

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