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Magazines > Information Today > July/August 2004
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Information Today

Vol. 21 No. 7 — July/August 2004

New Ovid/LWW CEO Brings a Fresh Look
By Paula Hane

In early April, Wolters Kluwer Health announced that Gary Foster had joined the company as president and CEO of its global Medical Research division. This business unit includes Ovid, a provider of aggregated online medical and academic content for researchers, students, and practitioners, and Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (LWW), publisher of more than 200 print and online medical journals. Foster has more than 20 years of experience in the healthcare and IT sectors (with a focus on software and services), but no publishing experience. He talked with me at the end of May about the company's initiatives and some industry issues.

Q: The press release from Wolters Kluwer Health announcing your appointment stated that you bring "healthcare and IT experience to drive strategic direction." Talk first about your relevant experience and then about what you perceive that strategic direction to be.

A: I spent 8 1/2 years at GE Medical Systems in the diagnostic and imaging business. I started a number of new businesses for them, combined existing businesses, turned some around, drove tiered offerings in the marketplace, etc.—a lot of relevant experiences. During those Jack Welch years if you will, I participated with other senior executives in moving that culture into a world-class, process-oriented, customer-focused organization. Those were good years.

I got back into healthcare during the "bubble." I was president and CEO of PatientKeeper, Inc. It provided the server infrastructure to healthcare institutions to provide wireless hand-held devices to their clinicians for access to clinical and administrative information.

Q: Did it include access to reference content, such as medical texts or drug information?

A: Not at the stage that I was involved with it, but that's where it was going. We were pioneers. We were on the inpatient side. Most other wireless device initiatives were on the outpatient side. (Many of those companies are no longer around.) The technology and business models are different. We had to solve a number of problems while working within very heterogeneous IT infrastructures, like patient identification, platform integration, etc. We learned through experience to work effectively in that environment.

Translating my experiences to Ovid, there are some common themes. The online part of this business is a platform company. It is about how to leverage technology to create competitive advantage in the marketplace. It's about efficiently and effectively marketing offerings we create around the content that we provide. It's about bringing a new sense of urgency about efficiency in the business operations that I am used to. So you start to see how the profile fits.

Q: I suspect that what you've just articulated is the overall strategic direction that you are working toward.

A: Yes, it is. And I think that the officers in Ovid's parent organization felt that a fresh look would be a positive thing. I think that's why they were attracted to someone from outside the publishing industry.

What attracted you to this job?

A: I think there's a great foundation here as a business. There's a large medical component, a platform technology, world-class services, and sophisticated offerings for segments of the market. I saw in this company a very strong fit for leveraging all the things I've learned in my previous service, software, and technology companies. My conclusion was that I could add a lot of value here, and that's what gets me going in the morning.

Q: Speaking of platforms, Ovid offers both Ovid Online and SilverPlatter Online. I saw that a notice on the site states that "future product innovations will focus on the Ovid platform," with a pledge to continue to support SilverPlatter customers.

A: The company has actually had quite a few platforms and quietly, behind the scenes, we've been consolidating them into our primary Ovid platform. We've been working on the architecture and made a lot of progress. This means greater efficiency, speed, and flexibility for future development efforts—new features, new products, etc.

It's also important to distinguish between our server platforms and the user interfaces. We have been working more on the former lately—it's not as visible. But work on the underlying architecture makes interface changes easier to do. We'll be rolling out user interface improvements soon, based on efficiencies that have been ongoing in the last several years. You will see a convergence around those two user platforms. SilverPlatter users won't experience any big changes.

Q: What enhancements are customers requesting, and what would you like to see implemented?

A: Customers want very easy access to content from full-text journals, books, and bibliographic databases. They want it all linked. They want precise search capabilities in a system that's sensitive to their work flow, whether they are researchers or clinicians. We're getting a lot of good input from our customers. We just returned from the MLA (Medical Library Association) meeting and spent time with our advisory board. Customers are asking us for COUNTER-compliant statistics that work well in a consortial environment. We're currently finalizing our enhancements to our statistics package.

Q: What is your company's value proposition, and what are your advantages over competitors' products?

A: We think we have uniqueness in how we bring together information in the three categories I mentioned as well as our precise search capabilities. We have good brand recognition in the marketplace. We have invested heavily in creating good proprietary content and continue to be active as an aggregator to license complementary content that meets the needs of all of our market segments. Our proprietary content includes LWW books and journals and our society journals as well. We also feel our linking technology is a core competency.

Q: What about problems with loss of content, such as the CSA databases and publishers pulling content to offer it directly on their sites?

A: Market pressures are creating new challenges for aggregators and content owners alike. So we're seeing a lot of activity at both ends of the spectrum to meet these changing customer demands. We have to anticipate that there will continue to be a lot of flux. We have to set our business plan to target the right new content, to continually refresh what we have, and be responsive to customers' needs.

Q: I think "flux" is a good way to characterize what's happening. This is tough from the users' perspective: "Where can I find my content?"

A: Yes, it's tough for libraries. With multiple vendors and flat or declining budgets, they have a constant rebalancing act to optimize their purchasing decisions. End users want to get to the full text as quickly as possible, so one of the unique features in our Ovid databases will be to limit to all available full text—the text they have rights to, including not just their Ovid subscriptions but on other platforms that are URL-addressable. And one thing that information professionals will be able to do is to track statistics on full-text links that go outside Ovid to external sources.

Q: There are some new players that are providing access to scholarly content: Yahoo! with its Content Acquisition Program, Google, Microsoft, and others. Are these threats or new opportunities for traditional aggregators? What about a day when Google and Yahoo! find everything: stuff that's free and the stuff you need to pay for?

A: We have a partnership with Microsoft for linking to Ovid from within Office applications. Another point to be made is there are different types of researchers with different types of needs. For medical research, for example, it is critical to have the right results rather than just a large number of results (as you might get with a Google search), so our precise search capabilities and content repositories are very valuable. Ovid's powerful search tools that allow the user to limit search results to all available full text subscribed to by the institution, combined with a limit to evidence-based medicine reviews, will get a clinician right to the most respected full-text research on a topic. Right now, we're one of the few health resources available through the Microsoft Research Pane.

Q: Can you comment on the pressures on journal publishing in general and the open-access movement?

A: Admittedly, I'm still sorting it out. One thing I know is there's no free lunch. It costs money to publish and someone has to pay. I think [open access] is a fledgling model that is getting a lot of press right now. It remains to be seen whether there are legs under it. There are lots of issues, some of which I don't even understand yet, but I'd be happy to talk about it when I get further into this business. Ovid does support linking to other sources and lets customers define those links. We've also loaded the links in our MEDLINE to the free publications available on the Web. Customers have told us they want that, so we provide it.

Q: What are your goals for the company this year?

A: This year, we are getting back to investing in our core areas. One is finishing the architectural work on the platform that will allow us to be efficient and fast in the marketplace. We are investing in processes around all three of the companies to improve quality and make us more efficient. We are continuing to focus on the academic market and making sure our customers have the right content mixes. We are looking at our offerings in perhaps a little more sophisticated way than we have in the past and matching our customers' needs to the right packages.

In looking at the strategic directions of our companies, we're seeing many growth opportunities just in the 2 months that I've been here that I think need attention and resources. I'm excited about what I'm seeing. If we have a follow-up conversation later in the fall, I can talk more about this.

Q: What about international markets? I think it was mentioned in the company's 2003 Annual Report as an area for growth?

A: Yes, it certainly is. There's still a lot of untapped potential there. It's also a unique growth area for our society partners, who are seeking growth from international membership opportunities as the domestic market is relatively more penetrated.

As you may know, through our SilverPlatter acquisition, we gained significant international presence with our bibliographic offerings, so there's large growth opportunities for journals and books.

Q: What do you see as the primary business challenge for Wolters Kluwer Health and others vying for the same space?

A: I think it gets back to understanding customers' needs in an environment where there continues to be a lot of change. It's matching our technology and content to those needs—even while they change. I think that's the challenge for the whole industry.

Q: What about plans to leverage technology or content from across the Wolters Kluwer businesses? Are there any synergies that can be tapped, such as with education?

A: You're right on. Through our Portal Advantage Service, we support our society partners by hosting their Web sites and providing an array of services. Among the things we can provide are leveraging other Wolters Kluwer assets, such as e-learning platforms, continuing education for members, etc. I look at the rest of Wolters Kluwer and see a whole candy store of opportunity in terms of potential value-added services we can offer to our markets and partnerships.

Paula J. Hane is Information Today, Inc.'s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks. Her e-mail address is
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