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The bad example set by the Britannica online edition

This week, the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced that its most recent print run would be its last, ending a 244-year run of printing out giant tomes. The $1,395 print-bound sets were swooped up by libraries and embassies, but for those without the largess of government funding, the company offered a $70 annual fee for a Britannica online edition, which will be the company’s primary encyclopedia offering going forth.

As only 8,000 sets of the 2010 print edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica have been sold and another 4,000 are sitting in a warehouse, one has to wonder why the company took so long to devote itself to the Britannica online edition. Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, has been around for over a decade, has more than 16 million authors and is the sixth-most visited website in the world. Meanwhile, Britannica.com is ranked 6,509th most-visited website in the world. Ouch.

For more than 200 years, the Britannica was the trusted source for facts in the world. In the span of two decades, the world changed — and Britannica’s business model didn’t change fast enough. It may have gotten along with the $70 annual Britannica online edition in 1995, but once Wikipedia hit the scene as a free online encyclopedia, it was a wake-up call that the Britannica business model was being challenged.

While library lovers may moan for the loss of those beautiful gilded volumes on bookshelves, CIOs can take a reminder that innovation is not an option but a necessity. Obviously someone at Britannica had read the signs — the Britannica online edition was definitely a step in the right direction — but the corporate culture at Britannica is steeped in tradition. And every CIO knows — tradition can be the death by a million cuts.

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