Can XML Help you Avoid a Disruptive Innovation?

This semester, I’m fortunate to spend my Wednesday nights teaching management to students who are part of NYU’s M.S. in publishing program. Although a significant share of the course is given over to management fundamentals, the students are for the most part already working in publishing, so they also look for connections between lessons learned and their real-world application.

One recent class was given over to “managing in periods of change” (always relevant, seemingly more so this semester). Part of the lesson includes a discussion of disruptive innovation, a term coined in the mid-1990s by Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen to describe upstart innovations that grow to disrupt or destroy the business you are in.

Disruptive innovations typically start out as inferior ways to meet the needs of customers who are currently not served at all or who are over-served by existing options and are open to a simpler or cheaper option. Walking through this description, I was asked for a content-related example.

Maybe I do my best work on my feet (you’d have to ask the class), but I started to describe travel books. “People visit France,” I said, “but not all of it. Maybe they want information on just the area around their hotel in Paris … What’s a good restaurant, a trendy bar, a place where you won’t pay an arm and a leg for show tickets …

“Today, you could get this information, but you might have to buy all of three or four different books to combine it. After that, you might go to the Web to get current information on the shows that are scheduled for the day you are in Paris. And then, you’d probably try to print maps to get you from your hotel to wherever you decided was interesting.

“Suppose instead, we created a travel database that you could search using criteria that mattered to you — proximity to a hotel, a particular neighborhood, a time of year, your preference for trendy bars … Zagats does this for its database, after all, and still makes printed guides. And maybe you’d buy just the parts you want, download them to your laptop or handheld and head to Paris, lighter, greener and better informed.”

A structured approach to content development and management — XML — makes it possible to create and serve relevant searchable content.

Someone said, rightly, “But that would hurt (print) book sales.” I had to agree. Disruptive innovations fundamentally disrupt the old model. If you’re in a market that will be disrupted, the choice isn’t whether you get disrupted; it’s whether you are one of the firms that disrupts.

Ultimately, XML won’t help you avoid a disruptive innovation. Depending on the type of book you publish, XML could provide the vehicle that sponsors the disruption. The choice you make in considering XML (or, to pre-empt my friend bowerbird, some form of structured content) may be between staying with your existing business model until it runs out, or hastening its demise in pursuit of a blended mix of new revenue opportunities.

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