by Charlotte Trueman

Encyclopedia Britannica CEO Karthik Krishnan explains how he works with his CTO and CPO

Apr 29, 2019
CareersIT Leadership

Credit: IDG

When you think about Encyclopedia Britannica, the 250-year-old institution probably doesn’t conjure up thoughts of technological innovation. However, since its inception two and a half centuries ago, Britannica has always tried to be at the cutting edge of the latest thinking, a trait that its US-based CEO Karthik Krishnan extends to the setup of his executive team.

Instead of having a CIO, Britannica splits the responsibilities of the role between the Chief Product Officer (CPO) and the Chief Technology Officer (CTO).

“Our Chief Product Officer’s goal is to design products that delight customers. The Chief Technology Officer’s goal is to bring those products to life, using the best possible technology in the most efficient and scalable way,” Krishnan tells CIO UK.

“A good analogy for me is to think about the Chief Product Officer as the architect, and the Chief Technology Officer as the engineer who brings everything to life.”

Krishnan believes that allowing the CPO to focus on learning about customer and market trends and the CTO to consider emerging technologies as they evolve gives Britannica an advantage.

“It’s very difficult for somebody to spend a lot of time with both the customers and the technology. Those types of unicorns perhaps exist, but they’re very difficult to find,” he says.

Structure and strategy

It all comes back to structure following strategy. Krishnan wants to foster a company culture where everyone has a meaningful role to perform, an approach that has a rich history at Britannica.

“Britannica embraces technology,” he says. “In fact, when these people started Britannica in Scotland, they did not have access to capital. So, they actually created their own version of a Kickstarter crowdsourcing campaign, where the acquired money in advance to then produce a product for the people who paid in.”

Today, Britannica no longer crowdsources, but its customer-centric business and IT strategy continues to place learning at the centre of everything the company does.

“People will always need to consume information or knowledge, whether it’s in the classroom or outside the classroom and technology really helps us deliver that,” says Krishnan. “We decided to look at it from a different perspective, to say, why do we exist?

“We are here because we want to help people be successful and ultimately, our goal is to inspire curiosity and the joy of learning in new and engaging ways. So, for us, the overall customer strategy drives our technology strategy, because technology is a means to an end.”

Digital history

Britannica worked with LexisNexis in 1981 to create the first digital encyclopedia and in 1989, the company launched the first CD ROM, multimedia encyclopedia, four years before Microsoft released Encarta. Britannica’s offering was leather-bound and Krishnan explains that, because CD ROMs were still so new, they were accompanied by VHS tapes that would explain to customers how to use this cutting-edge technology.

To top it off, in 1993, Britannica was one of the first graphic browser sites on Marc Andreessen’s Mosaic.

Being part of a company that has routinely embraced technological change from as early as the 1970s has made Krishnan’s job of communicating the IT strategy to his employees and board members a lot easier.

“It’s not just about communicating the impact of digital technologies,” he explains. “It’s a question of how do we create value in a world where people expect a lot of things for free?

“People are inundated with information, how do you elevate better information, and do so in an engaging way? How do you insert yourself in meaningful ways to create value? And how do you ensure that the customers of today are willing to pay for that value that you’re providing?”

Having a customer-centric business strategy, allows Krishnan to focus on how Britannica can blend curriculum with curiosity to personalise learning and tackle the swathes of online misinformation across its global marketplace.

Thanks to Britannica’s technologically rich history, embracing things like IoT, natural language processing and artificial intelligence is not the daunting task you might assume it would be for a company founded in 1768. In fact, the company has already started to launch several products embedded with these emerging technologies, partnering with Samsung on the company’s voice assistant and IoT technology. And the Korean phone giants are not the only ones who have reached out to Britannica.

Fake News

“YouTube wanted to fight conspiracy theories on their video platform so, YouTube came to Britannica to say, ‘can you help us?’ What we created is an explainer format called ‘What’s Known’ to dispel myths about things like the moon landing, which is coming up again, thanks to the 50th anniversary of men landing on the moon,” Krishnan recalls.

Videos on YouTube that include content which has previously been targeted by conspiracy theorists now display information boxes underneath the viewing window, providing information from Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia articles to help cut down on the spread of misinformation.

And that’s where Britannica’s focus remains, partnering with companies, embracing emerging technologies to help promote education and learning on a global scale while not confining itself to a single medium.

“We’re not a print company,” says Krishnan. “We consider ourselves as medium agnostic. Our goal is to insert ourselves in meaningful ways into people’s lives, and serve them knowledge through different devices, whether it’s print, it’s online, it’s through mobile devices.

“Tomorrow, it’s going to be through the Internet of Things. And maybe 10 years from now, it’s going to be a membrane that you might have sticking onto your skin through which information is going to be consumed. We want to be that company that provides trusted and vetted information, no matter how you consume that information.”