Digital Transformation of
History of Britannica Encyclopaedia
The Britannica Encyclopaedia
started in 1768 in Edinburgh, Scotland. In that year it printed its first part
of its 1st edition on Dec 10 in three volumes.1
The 1st edition was issued in parts from 1768 to 1771. It used to operate in United Kingdom from
1768 to 1901. After 1901 it shifted to United States of America because of the
acquisition by an American firm.2
It had been owned by various individuals in the past.
Till now, there have been 15
editions. The history of Britannica can be divided into 5 eras.
In this era 6 editions were published. It was a Scottish enterprise. It moved
from being a three volume set to a 20 volume set. The number of contributing
editors also changed from one to numerous scholars.
In this era it was controlled by a firm from Edinburgh known as “A & C
Black”. In it 7th to 9th editions were published. A
general index of all the articles was introduced. Scholars from all around the
world were getting attracted towards Britannica as its reputation increased.
Britannica was taken over by American businessmen in this era. The editions
from 11th to 14th were published in it. Salesmen were
hired to sell the encyclopaedia by going to every household. The articles were
simplified for increasing sales.
The 15th edition was started in this era. Britannica sought to
include entire human knowledge in it. The 15th was re-introduced
with index which was removed in the previous version. The digitisation process
The print version has been stopped in this era. Instead, all their
resources are now available online. The last print edition was in 2010.
Britannica in the Digital Era
The last era that we discussed,
which is the era from 1994 to present, is when Britannica had to adopt itself
to the changing business environment. Though, the process of digitisation was
started in 1981 when Britannica developed a digital version of Britannica
Encyclopaedia for a research company called LexisNexis.3
In the 1990 the rise of personal
computers caused a disruption in the education market. The sales of the print
version had dropped from 100,000 units 1990 to 51,000 in 1994 and then to just
3000 in 1996. Within just six years the decrease in sales was 97%.4
Britannica had been aware of the possible
threats which could be caused by the rise of technologies. In the early
nineties, Britannica started delivering various products on CD-ROMs along with
dictionary on a single disc. In 1995, a two disc CD was released which had
photographs and multimedia such as videos, audios and animations were added in
Is it actually a case of Digital Transformation?
Yes, we can say that it is a true
case of digital transformation. The following arguments have been presented to
According to the article by Mary K. Pratt in Computerworld,
digital transformation doesn’t happen overnight. It is a gradual process and it
involves fixing various parts of the business by continuing to remove legacy
technologies and explore new ways expand the business.5
If we look at
Britannica, this is what exactly it has done. It has transformed itself
gradually by taking various steps through a planned action. This process has
been going on from the 80s and it is still an on-going process. It started with
CD-ROM, then launching the website to building new Customer Relationship
Management systems by aligning with other companies such as Salesforce.
The business relationships of a digital firm are
managed with the help of technology. With the rise in technology, Britannica
changed the way how they managed their core business relationships. In Dec 2015
they partnered with world’s No. 1 CRM company Salesforce to evolve their
business model to cater the needs of digital customers. Salesforce helped them
in increasing employee collaboration and improving customer engagement.6
Britannica also tries to connect with their customers in new ways with the help
of services like Community Cloud, App cloud, Service cloud and Pardot.
Another point given by Mary K. Pratt is that
firms shouldn’t just use technology for increasing efficiency but also for
exploring and using new opportunities for growing their business. In an
interview given to Harvard Business Review in 2013, Britannica’s President
Jorge Cauz said that after 1998 Britannica started seeing a lot of
opportunities with people using more and more internet.7
According to him it was a better channel as they could have direct contact with
the customer. Using this channel Britannica provided supplemental materials
which provided a different learning experience. Foreseeing the opportunities
ahead, Britannica started investing heavily in this area. This shows that
Britannica seized the opportunities that digitisation created for it.
Gerald C. Kane, in his article “Digital
Maturity, Not Digital Transformation” emphasised the importance of other
non-technical issues in Digital transformation such as strategy, talent
management, organisational structures and leadership.8
At the later part of the interview at HBR, Jorge Cauz explained how bringing
the right kind of talent into the company was vital for them. New talent which was
relevant in the next phase was brought in. The employees in Britannica were
willing to digitally transform the company. Jorge Cuaz showed good leadership
skills to elevate the company’s status in the changing environment.
A company may just start transforming itself
digitally following the trend of digital transformation
In the early 1990s Britannica couldn’t foresee a
shift in the market and the disruptions caused by CD ROMs and were heavily
affected by it as the sales dwindled.
According to Michael Ross, Britannica’s senior
vice president and general educational manager, profits are growing by approximately
15 per cent after 2012. The company is able
to maintain a 95 percent customer renewal rate.9
In the 1980s Microsoft approached Britannica for
collaboration for a CD -ROM encyclopedia but the senior managers in Britannica
were confident in their control over the market. They did not consider the fact
that this innovation would benefit the organization in many ways. Firstly it
would reduce cost of production, secondly it would have been easy to carry and
would have been accessible to a vast portion of the society because of the
reduced price because of the reduction in cost which would have benefited them
in accessing inaccessible parts of the market and could have lead the expansion
of Britannica as a brand and could have helped it to cement itself as the
market leader but instead they were comfortable and overlooked the future and
ignored the dynamism of the market.
Microsoft responded by introducing Encarta which resulted in
the plummet in the shares of Britannica. It pressurized Britannica to enter in
to this new realm of information technology to sustain its position in the
minds of the costumer. They although have entered the market of electronic
encyclopedia, their entry was late and they shut their doors to the opportunity
provided by Microsoft for digitally transforming the organization way before
anyone could have done. Their failure in the early adoption of the innovation
made them pay a huge price. The outlook of the senior management team of
Britannica should have considered the changing scenario and digital transformation
of the market.
So, in an effort to compete in the digital age Britannica
has stopped printing its leather-bound encyclopedia from 2012 and evolved
itself into a leader in the online education market by collaborating with
salesforce. Salesforce is a cloud computing company which is the costumer
success platform and the world’s number one in customer relationship management.
By incorporating cloud computing in its arsenal with the help of salesforce it
has once again got an edge in the digital encyclopedia market and undid they
mistakes of the past by going one step further. With this Britannica
encyclopedia is available to its customers with the click of a mouse button. We
can say that Britannica has transformed digitally from where it was before. Its
journey towards digital transformation is ongoing and continuing. Its journey
was not a short one but was a long one with ups and downs. The transforming scenario
of the digital world and the dynamic nature of the uncertainties are
furthermore complicating the competitive landscape. Advancement in technology
and innovations should be selected, incorporated or used with care after
analyzing the relevance and by making tradeoffs between the advantages and
disadvantages of the innovation but all of these should be done quickly before
other competitors could take advantage. The expansion and growth of Britannica
could be considered as an example of digital transformation but the journey of
digital transformation is not quite over.