Magazine article Information Today

Harrington Speaks: Given the Choice of Discussing Recession, War, or Tasini, Thomson's CEO Discussed All Three. (IT Interview)

Magazine article Information Today

Harrington Speaks: Given the Choice of Discussing Recession, War, or Tasini, Thomson's CEO Discussed All Three. (IT Interview)

Article excerpt

Dick Harrington is a CEO. You can just tell it. He exudes upper-echelon confidence. Coming off a keynote address followed by an hour-long panel discussion at the Online Information meeting in London last month, he looked calm, cool, and none the worse for wear. But striding toward me, he confessed he could really use a cigar. That, too, spoke of self-assurance.

Harrington is not just any CEO. He's the top dog at one of the biggest enterprises there is, Thomson Corp., with annual revenues of $6 billion and over 40,000 people on staff. If you had the chance to interview such a man for 15 minutes, what is the one question you would ask?

Actionable Knowledge

Harrington's morning keynote had been given in the brief, staccato style of today's top-level executive correspondence. The script, which Harrington's press aide handed me, was 38 pages long, but it could not have contained more than 2,500 words, all set large. The draft was marked "Version 7," proving that though the text was sparse, every word had been well-considered and carefully chosen. And on close inspection, it contained a lot of insight into both the business of information and the profession.

He had told the information professionals assembled for the second day of the 25th anniversary meeting, "Not that long ago, your main job was to research huge volumes of information for your organization." But ...

He turned a page, and added, "Compared to 5 or 10 years ago, you now wear many more hats: You are the information guru, you are a business manager, you are a teacher, you are an information advocate, and you are also a systems designer.

"Today," he said, "your job is to make sure your organization has access to appropriate and timely information. And increasingly that means providing your customers with tools and technology on their desktops to convert that information into actionable knowledge."

His prepared remarks rang true, in these and many other respects. But what would he say off the cuff?

Content: No Longer King

Walking briskly, confidently, stridently toward me, Harrington arrived for this interview directly from a panel discussion with three other top executives. The panel had been about industry developments, specifically the efforts of vendors to reposition their organizations in today's marketplace. He was still hyped and, looking back over his shoulder, he was talking about it with his aide.

Of the session just ended, he said to me: "I didn't get into it, but two of the other panelists said content is king. We say content is key, OK. It's the marriage of the content with the technology that creates the value.

"Content no longer is king," he stated. "It's extremely important, obviously. But if you look at it, we've been able to move from content into technology. I bet you today we have more technologists in our organization than we have editorial people."

The aide concurred and told me the exact numbers.

But this isn't what we had met to talk about.

Given the CEO of Thomson, 15 minutes on the clock, and the desire to ask one good question, I made it a three-parter.

I asked Harrington: What's having the greater impact on your enterprise, the recession in the U.S., the war on terrorism, or recent court decisions related to copyrighted material on the Web?

I switched on the tape recorder and let him speak. The following is what he said.

Recession as Opportunity

"I think the bad thing about a recession is that it's a recession," Harrington said. "The good thing about a recession is that all competitors are in the same place. So no one wins or loses. We all have to deal with the same playing field.

"Like all businesses, we will basically watch our cost structure--and all that--to be good citizens. But the real opportunity we see during the recession is to make sure we continue the integration of the businesses. …

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