Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Library and Blue Ocean strategies (II) - Reconstruct Market boundaries for academic libraries

In my last post, I mused about blue ocean strategies and how libraries should consider spending time focusing more on blue ocean strategies.

I gave the example from the book of the declining Circus industry and how Cirque du Soleil changed the rules of the games. Instead of competing along the usual circus industry factors, they innovated by blending classic theater and reaching out to new markets drawing in the more intellectual crowd while reducing other elements like animal acts.

I think like most industries, libraries have always focused on red ocean strategies , basically how to make existing processes better. We are good at tracking our input and output statistics, at doing process improvement processes. Increasingly, we do bench-marking studies which focuses more on what other libraries are doing and making sure we do the same.

Red Ocean strategies are important no doubt and they will be always be the bulk of our strategies. But they won't suffice alone.

This is particularly so since our industry arguably shares characteristics similar to that of the circus industry, where the industry market demand is falling as users start to prefer other alternatives to our services.

Traditionally, libraries are also conservative and it's always a safer bet to try to improve some existing process incrementally then to strike out to try a new radical initiative.

Brian Mathews of Virginia Tech library (a library I think that leads the way with many new ideas) wrote a whitepaper : Think like a startup - A white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism and talked about the need for true innovators.

He wrote

"Many library strategic plans read more like to-do lists rather than entrepreneurial visions. With all the effort that goes into these documents I’m not sure that we’re getting a good return"

and then goes on to say

"They don’t say: we’re going to develop three big ideas that will shift the way we operate. They don’t say: we’re going delight our patrons by anticipating their needs. They don’t say: we’re going to transform how scholarship happens. They don’t attempt to dent the universe." [emphasis mine]

Blue ocean strategies I think are exactly the type of strategies that are designed I think to help produce the kind of thinking that can "develop three big ideas that will shift the way we operate". 

Two chapters in the book in particular I found fairly interesting to help promote thinking to find such big ideas, are Chapter 3 - "Reconstructing Market Boundaries" and Chapter 5 - "Reach beyond existing demand".

Chapter 3 introduces the six path framework that help promote thinking to break out of the fundamental assumptions that underlie most industries traditional strategies.

I am going to try to use them in the academic library context. Sadly, I don't have any ground-breaking ideas (at least not ones I wish to share). What I will try to do instead is to try to examine the current "innovative" or "Radical" innovations academic libraries are trying circa 2014, and show how they could be seen as an attempt to find new blue ocean spaces of demand.

Look across complementary product and service offerings

This is probably the easiest idea to apply and it seems to me the bulk of new library ideas seem to come from here.

The idea here is to look at what happens before and after your service or product is used. Can you combine/absorb complimentary services under one roof making things a lot easier?

A toy example would be cinema operators making it easy for married couples to put their child at the baby sitters while they go out to have fun at the movies.

The academic library example of this could be summed up typically as  "support the lifecycle of scholarly communication"

Source : http://www.publishing.monash.edu/assets/images/about-research-cycle-print.jpg

This leads to a host of things beyond merely supporting searching for articles and books including
  • Reference management
  • Grant searching/ proposal writing
  • Research Data support
  • Operating Institutional repositories
  • Library as open access publisher
  • Support of research assessment and bench-marking (e.g Bibliometrics ) 
  • Providing technical expertise for pretty much anything the researcher might need help with to do his research

Arguably one could also fit the trend of combining IT with library support desks as well as  provision of computer workstations and other authoring tools in the library (the next logical thing after finding a book for your paper is to write on a pc!) as a way to combine complementary services under one roof.

Look across alternative industries

The book points out that "Alternatives are broader than substitutes... Alternatives including different products or services that have different functions and forms but serve the same purpose".

On the other hand, substitutes tend to have the same core functionality but may have different forms.

It's a subtle point, but the authors gives as an example , a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) and accounting software as substitutes because they have the same function but different form ie getting accounting done.

On the other hand, visiting a restaurant or cinema can be seen to be alternatives, they have different forms and functions (enjoying a good meal vs watching a good movie) but they arguably serve the same purpose ie enjoying the night out.

The idea here is to expand the market by embracing characteristics of alternatives and not just close substitutes.

It seems to me these definitions are a bit grey but let's see what I can do with them.

Patron driven Acquisition (PDA)  could arguably be one example. With PDA, users can look at a ebook in  a library catalogue and if they want it can get access with one click (and the library is charged), mimicking the ease of access of Amazon, iTunes etc.

Hence this combines the best of ebook buying industry with  traditional library cost, ($0 to the user).

But perhaps amazon ebook buying and borrowing books from the library are substitutes not alternatives.

In which case, the rise of maker spaces in libraries  in both academic and public libraries could perhaps be a even better example of looking across alternative industries and taking in the characteristics if not functions of alternatives.

An older example, could be the conversion of spaces in libraries to support collaborative learning and discussions. While this may vary from the traditional purposes of libraries of providing access to books and information, they do help draw usage of libraries by pulling in attributes and values of alternatives to visit libraries.

Of course such strategies run the risk of "mission creep", Hugh Rundle's "Mission creep - a 3D printer will not save your library" is a well known response to this,\

Yet another example could be web scale discovery services that marry the ease of use of web search engines with the academic content of databases.

The idea of  embedded librarianship where librarians leave the library and setup shop at offices of faculty/teaching hospitals can arguably also be seen as librarianship taking on characteristics of service industries like doctors making house calls.

Look across strategic groups within industries

This one is tricky, it involves trying to carve out new spaces across segments (typically segmented on price and performance) in a given industry. One example given was Sony Walkman in the 70s where it combined "the high fidelity of boom boxes with the low price and transistor radios within the audio equipment industry"

I am having problems coming up with examples for this, basically because libraries generally don't compete with one another, nor do we segment markets based on price and performance.

It could be I simply don't understand this one.

Look across chain of buyers

This simply points out that the purchasers who pay for the product might be different from the actual users.

Each group may value different things, so for example the person who purchases for a corporation might be more concerned about price and may be more willing to trade off functionality than the actual users.

The idea here is to see if one could target a different set of buyers than the traditional set.

The example given was Bloomberg in the 80s which started targeting individual analysts as opposed to IT managers. They added features that appealed to analysts, even including purchasing services for traders to buy gifts, book for holidays because while traders were wealthy they were also time poor.

Another example given was how a company shifted from targeting doctors, to targets patents to allow them to administer insulin themselves.

For libraries, I can think of the following examples.

Targeting faculty to influence students to "buy" reference and information services - this is pretty old hat.

A somewhat more unconventional idea was in "The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester" an ethnographic study of students.

They found "Students told us that their parents often edit their papers and advise them about assignments, so we decided to get to know parents through the library's sponsorship of the parent breakfast held during the class of 2010 orientation." (pg 12)

The other thing I can think of is how librarians through work on advocating for Open Access Mandates or citation/ Bibliometrics standards for promotion and tenure system can arguably influence "purchasing" of such related services from librarians.

I say arguably because cause and effect could be argued here.

Look across functional or emotional appeal to buyers

This refers to how most industries have either

a) Functional orientation


b) Emotional orientation

Companies that manage to challenge these orientations may unlock new oceans.

Examples given are Swatch, which added a emotional component and QB House which went the other direction to more functional based services where extras were stripped away and the focus was on speed.

I guess few would disagree with me that library services are strongly on the functional orientation.

One good example, I think is what Mal Booth's University of Technology, Sydney Libraries is trying to achieve.

UTS Library Spectrogram 

There is also increased focus on "user experience" with user experience librarians jobs and recently the establishment of Weave - Journal of Library Experience. 

And of course libraries are now also spending a lot of effort on how library spaces make people feel....

Look across time

This is pretty obvious, look at some trend and try to project how it will ultimately affect your business and move to that point first!

In some ways you could say libraries are not too bad at this, at least in terms of technology trends (or are we?). We are pretty early on most IT trends at least, trying everything from 24/7 chat services, web conferencing for classes to SecondLife (which didn't work out well), though arguably we dropped the ball on search.

We see the writing on the wall for library space to house print materials and many libraries are slowly preparing for the day where print is not as dominant.

The author states that the trends you are looking at needs to be

i) Decisive to your business
ii) Irreversible
iii) Clear trajectory

Besides the slow shift towards electronic away from print (completed for journals, and slowly moving for most monographs) and the trend towards increased access from remote areas, another trend I think that fits these three criteria is the rise of open Access.

Others may disagree of course, but if Open Access is going to be the norm, academic libraries should prepare for the day where a lot of their services will be disrupted and start to think how would an academic library look like if most articles were open Access?

Or alternatively as  Ithaka S+R Senior Anthropologist Nancy Fried Foster asks "what it would be like to design academic libraries based not on precedent, but rather on everything we can learn right now about the work practices of the people who already use them".


So here was my attempt to apply blue ocean strategies to find new markets. Not sure how successful it was, particularly since I concentrated on fitting in examples I knew about rather than thinking of new ideas which obviously made thinking new ideas nearly impossible.

Perhaps you can do better?

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