Up Front with Barbara Quint
Disintermediation Marches On
by Barbara Quint
All automation is considered to be “disintermediation.” Instead of having processes repeated by humans in distinct, repetitive acts, the analyst or programmer identifies the decision points in the process and translates them into machine instructions. Once learned, the machine can repeat the function endlessly (sometimes even annoyingly when poor analysis traps users in loops with no escape).
General usage, however, applies the term disintermediation to much larger scale situations, where the links removed from the chain may be corporate departments, entire professions, or even economic categories (wholesale or retail). These days, online operations continue to put pressure on traditional structures and seek to eliminate the distance between producer and consumer or between author and reader. Of course, problems may arise—and new traps emerge—when the online process ignores some of the finer, even hidden, points in the creative process. For example, in the traditional publishing system, the author has pride of place, name even above the title, but there are still editors, fact-checkers, reviewers, layout artists, indexers, abstractors, and catalogers (or are they called metadata-ers now?). And that doesn’t cover all the other possible handlers: printers, jobbers, outlets, etc. And, oh, yes—I almost forgot—publishers and librarians.
Not all of these people could properly be called creators—though I personally have a vested interest in editors (ahem) getting some creative credit, particularly when they originated the ideas for the material in the first place (double ahem). Most of these people, however, add value to the final product. While smart design of online processes can probably replace a number of traditional functions, only careful attention to the entire existing process can ensure smart design. Often those who design online processes glory in the efficiencies and advantages their systems offer over traditional services so that they can ignore the diminished quality caused by the loss of some traditional functions. The problems can worsen if the diminutions take time to emerge, while the improvements leap forward immediately. For example, advocates and designers working for the open access movement in scholarly communication—a movement for which I and probably most other librarians kneel in prayer—sometimes follow paths that leave structured peer review, editorial evaluation and emendation, integration with the historical flow of science, verifiable integrity of content, and preservation itself as “also-rans” in their design work.
Building Effective Systems
When this kind of disintermediation occurs and puts content quality at risk, all too often traditional suppliers use the problems to urge reactionary returns to the ancient ways. Well, that’s not going to happen. That fleet has sailed. That fleet has sunk. We must work to make the new systems effective, to build systems that incorporate the efficiencies and user-appeal of new online processes but that transform and translate missing or overlooked quality elements into the new processes.
The information industry is not alone in facing this challenge. As we went to press, news sources and trade presses were discussing internal memos leaking out of Mighty Microsoft. Bill Gates wants the entire company geared up for Internet-focused innovation. He said, “The next sea change is upon us. We must recognize this change as an opportunity and take our offerings to the next level, compete in a manner commensurate with our industry responsibilities, and utilize our assets and our broad reach to reshape our business for the benefit of the users of our products, our customers, our partners and ourselves.” These are words to live by. But just how does one achieve these goals?
Ray Ozzie, the new CTO at Microsoft, pointed to one route: “Most challenging and promising to our business, though, is that a new business model has emerged in the form of advertising-supported services and software. The model has the potential to fundamentally impact how we and other developers build, deliver and monetize innovations. … In some cases, it may be possible for one to obtain more [software] revenue through the advertising model than through a traditional licensing model.”
Once again, the specter of the “information wants to be free” rises to threaten life as we’ve known it, and, once again, when we look under the ghostly sheet, we find that information doesn’t really want to be free; it just wants to look free. So how do we make that happen and still ensure quality content? No one can say for sure, but then “sure” is no longer a word to live by.
The Value of Relationships
If you want to make a good bet, try relationships. When sea changes occur, good relationships can operate like good lifeboats and poor relationships like concrete galoshes. Most information industry firms these days cling to enterprise marketing strategies that attempt to build solid, integrated ties to big money clients. Factiva’s taxonomy consulting services have squads of metadata-ers ready to spring into action and analyze, compartmentalize, and solve the information needs of clients—needs that may extend well beyond Factiva’s own content and into the internal content of the clients.
But what about relationships with creators? Scholarly society publishers have one major edge over commercial scholarly publishers: The authors—and the readers—are often members of the society. These publishers know where their members live and how they can reach them. They stay in touch with them through society communication programs—both print and electronic. Commercial publishers would do well to create their own channels of communication that run both ways (e.g., author blogs that reach readers). Monetizing the transactions may require allying with other services, e.g., “read this article,” “buy this book,” “discounts available.” Or, if commercial publishers are still focused on libraries as a market channel, “read this article,” “read a footnoted article,” “borrow a book.”
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Barbara Quint is editor of Searcher magazine. Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Send your comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.