Apr 26

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

What Job Does a Book Do?

In a number of my recent talks on publishing, such as at The Buying and Selling eContent conference I spoke at last week, I've focused on asymmetric competition, the fact that publishers aren't just competing with other publishers, but with other types of services that do the same job.

I start this section of my talk with a couple of examples:

Harry Potter and World of Warcraft both do the job of creating an imaginative world into which people can escape (and perhaps even find themselves); Brittanica and Google both provide access to a comprehensive source of information. Harry Potter has far more in common with WoW than it does with Brittanica, and Brittanica has far more in common with Google (or Wikipedia) than it does with Harry Potter.

The failure to think about what job your product does for the customer, rather than the tools or approach you've historically used to do that job, is the reason why many established companies fail to make the transition when there is a technological change. Hence the old saw, "If the railroads had realized they were transportation companies, they'd be airlines today." (Well, maybe yesterday, as the airlines are suffering their own business transition. Maybe they'd be Fedex/Kinko's today. Or Google/Skype.)

At O'Reilly, we think a lot about the job we do. Our core mission is "Changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators," and that's why we publish both in print and online, do face to face conferences, and practice technology activism.

Our products themselves do three primary jobs: teaching, reference, and entertainment. A book like Head First Java or an online course from Learning Labs is primarily a teaching tool; a book like Java in a Nutshell is primarily for reference; a book like HTML: The Definitive Guide might do a mix of teaching and reference; and books like our popular Hacks series or Make: magazine offer a mix of tutorial and entertainment.

When you think about it this way, the competitive landscape appears very different. Reference books are challenged more by Google (and in fact, sales of reference books have declined the most in recent years, while more tutorial books like the Head First series or entertainment-infused books like the Hacks series and Make: now represent the bulk of our bestsellers.)

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Comments: 4

  Alex Osterwalder [04.26.06 07:54 AM]

This is an extremely interesting observation and important lessons that many executives still have to learn. It makes less and less sense to use an "industry" as the focus of business analysis. Today it is "business models" acros industry borders, with a set of value propositions, channels, target customers and capabilities, that are competing against each other. That O'Reilly Publishing doesn't use the "publishing industry" as their focus of business analysis is a very interesting insight!

Cheers from a "springly warm" Lausanne, Switzerland, Alex

  Brad Mazurek [04.26.06 10:11 PM]

Excellent post, Tim.

Was the jobs-to-be-done focus something that has always existed for you (even if perhaps not formally crystallized in your mind), or is this something that has come about as a result of the work of Clayton Christensen?

  Tim O'Reilly [04.27.06 12:14 AM]

Brad -- this line of thinking is definitely a result of hearing Clayton Christensen talk about this idea in other contexts. I should have made that clear in the original posting.

I haven't heard Christensen use the idea of what job a product does in terms of asymmetric competition. The story I heard him tell a few years ago at OSBC was about an HBS study for McDonalds on milkshakes. When they studied the purchase patterns, they noted a peak in the morning and the afternoon, but on closer inspection, the peaks were very different. In the morning, a milkshake was bought by a solitary commuter; in the afternoon by a soccer mom with a group of kids. In the morning, the milkshake's job was to while away the commute, and should be as thick as possible, they concluded. In the afternoon, it was to reward kids, and since the attending parent(s) were always nagging the kids to finish, Harvard argued that the milkshakes should be thinner. It shouldn't be thought of as one product, but rather as two, because it did a different job.

I've reversed the sense in which Christensen talked about it in the talk I heard from him. He talked about one product doing two jobs; I'm talking about dissimilar products that do the same job.

If you have pointers to anywhere he's written about this, I'd appreciate it.

  Brad Mazurek [04.27.06 07:33 AM]

I think he argues innovator's should look at the market from a jobs-to-be-done perspective, giving them the insight to pursue markets that are non-obvious, but resonate with consumers that are trying to accomplish particular tasks in a given context. (As opposed to the easily measured market attributes that management usually loves.)

This allows the entrant an opportunity to establish themselves by entering the market using what he terms the "asymmetric shield of disruptive motivations". They are flying under the radar in a new (or lower tier) market context while they establish their foothold. By the time the incumbents notices them and chooses to fight, the entrant has honed what he calls the "sword of asymmetric skills". (Pages 38-42 of "Seeing What's Next")

I believe he also uses the Blackberry in a similar example. He argues that the Blackberry competes against the New York Times and other mechanisms for busy executives to use small snippets of time effectively. In "The Innovator's Solution" he presents a Product View, Market View and Jobs-To-Be-Done View of the marketplace from RIMs perspective.

You're right that Christensen may not have linked many of these ideas explicitly. Perhaps I'm not thinking about his ideas right. But this is one thing I sometimes find difficult about his work: there are many shockingly simple, yet powerful ideas, but they have not been linked together in a single, cohesive framework. It seems in every book, his theory becomes more polished, so much so that the summary at the start of a given book is better than the content of the previous book!

I expect that's because it really is still a work in evolving theory. But I think he's definitely reshaping business.

Thanks again.

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