Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Business Information Databases: Going Through the Motions or Really Innovating?

IT Week offers an article by Tim Buckley Owen of Information World Review that is a bit of a hatchet job on LexisNexis, Thomson and other business information providers. Owen quotes anonymous sources who paint a picture of subscription database services providers defending pricey offerings against users more adept at finding their own sources online. The criticisms are not so different from what we at Shore have heard in our private research but it is interesting to see some of these in print for the world at large to consider.

Some of the key quotes include:
“Although the sector boasts a lot about listening to customers, this is largely not so,” says one independent business information consultant. “Customer consultation is often just going through the motions because it’s expected or it looks good.”
"Even the shortfalls in the content would not be so unpalatable if we were informed about them in advance, understood the rationale or had clearer information on what the content includes," a librarian at a leading law firm adds.
LexisNexis adds that it does face competitive pressures: "Content that was previously impossible to access without a premium subscription is now often available for free on the web. New open solutions have been developed and consumer expectations have risen dramatically."
While this is hardly stuff that should shock the typical business information company executive it's indicative of the frankness that many of their customers are expressing to them - and of their own recognition that the business information industry is changing rapidly. Where a few years ago some usability enhancements on a search interface and a few new subscription sources could be touted as major enhancements by subscription database providers today these same improvements ring rather hollow in the ears of enterprise customers learning how to leverage Web technologies to get smarter faster than ever before. It's not even a matter of the bloom being off the rose: the rose of business information services is in danger of being uprooted altogether by enterprises in search of competitive advantages.

This is not all bad news for business information providers. In many instances companies like LexisNexis and Thomson are already all over this trend and moving aggressively into software services that can help to enable productivity and revenue generation for their clients. But the greater truth revealed by this rantish article and our own research is that the efficiencies of relational databases are being overcome quickly by the dominance of I.T. cultures in business information companies built around inflexible relational database technologies and the equally inflexible product design and support that results from these technologies. The result is cultures ill adapted to shed antiquated product concepts and to work more flexibly in Web-centric environment to deliver the products that users really want to use in ways that they want to use them.

You can do all the user interviews, surveys and focus groups that you want but if you're applying those insights to an outdated platform your ability to leverage those insights is not going to pay back the dividends that they should. Business information providers will continue to leverage existing relational databases profitably for some time to come, but at some point in the not too distant future they're likely to face the same crises faced by information giants such as Reuters as they realized that their allegiance to profitable but outdated platforms meant costly catch-ups in both product design and corporate culture in order to survive. It's time for business information companies to embrace user-driven content aggregation and generation technologies and to start enabling productivity benefits that may have little to do with how existing platforms are configured. There are many interesting trends in business information that hold out promise that this is going to happen, but timing will be everything.
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