More To Bezos Than Books Or Kindles

If you’re about my age you may remember when Bruce Springsteen appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek the very same week (Oct. 27, 1975). It was a pretty big deal. Outside of a president or other world political figure, simultaneous mutual admiration by multiple highly read national magazines is pretty rare. While history didn’t exactly repeat itself with multiple covers, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, came pretty darn close. He is featured in major articles in Wired (May 2008), BusinessWeek and Fortune (May 5, 2008). All the articles appeared within a week’s space.

When academic librarians talk about the conversation is mostly about their book business or, more recently, the Kindle. But we should perhaps spend more time directing our attention to the person that runs Amazon, Jeff Bezos. When people think of books I don’t doubt that many of them think of Amazon before they think of libraries – if they think of libraries at all. And Amazon is certainly far ahead of libraries in providing a platform that allows customers to add content to their website and engage in conversation with each other. I’m not suggesting that academic librarians should view Amazon as a competitor. After all, we’re not even in the same business. Amazon is an online retailer. Academic libraries are in the learning business. What we should be doing is studying how Bezos has turned Amazon into an innovation machine (although the Fortune article sees Amazon as an “iteration” machine – one that makes lots of small moves and learns quickly from its missteps).

For the last year or so there’s been a fair amount of chatter about innovation in the library world, on blogs and at conferences. That’s good because as a profession we need to drive innovation in our libraries. What sometimes concerns me is that some of what I hear about innovation sounds like a mixed bag of platitudes. Perhaps just understanding innovation is part of our challenge. I prefer a description of innovation from an article titled “Innovation in Organizations in Crisis” in the fall 2007 issue of Design Management Review. According to the authors, Cherkasky and Slobin, innovation is finding new ways of creating value and bringing them to life. Simple and elegant. It’s not about inventing something new and it’s not about making big changes at your library at a pace that makes heads spin. Here’s what Bezos has to say about innovation in the BusinessWeek article:

Companies get skills-focused, instead of customer-needs focused. When [companies] think about extending their business into some new area, the first question is “why should we do that—we don’t have any skills in that area.” That approach puts a finite lifetime on a company, because the world changes, and what used to be cutting-edge skills have turned into something your customers may not need anymore. A much more stable strategy is to start with “what do my customers need?” Then do an inventory of the gaps in your skills. Kindle is a great example. If we set our strategy by what our skills happen to be rather than by what our customers need, we never would have done it. We had to go out and hire people who know how to build hardware devices and create a whole new competency for the company.

I commend you to read these three articles; your libraries have them if you can’t find them online just yet. We can learn about innovation from the thought leaders of business. Some of our best successes – considerable innovations for academic libraries such virtual reference, cafes in the library and self-service automated operations – had their roots as innovative business products. Given that the ACRL conference is in Seattle (Amazon’s HQ) in 2009 I was hoping that Bezos would be an invited speaker. ACRL recently released the keynote and invited speakers, and while it looks like a great lineup, Bezos is not among them. Releasing the Kindle was a significant innovation for Amazon, and a major risk for Bezos. Innovation or iteration, there are lessons academic librarians can learn from Bezos about ways to lead in the learning business?

BTW, thanks for some good comments to some recent posts. While I still think some of you are misunderstanding me when I use “leaders” and “library directors” (or library deans or whatever you like to call it) interchangeably, I appreciate it when you share your views. But not everyone leaves a comment. Some bloggers prefer to put their response into their own posting. ACRLog readers may not catch those so here are two I recommend to you: “But What If I Don’t Want it All?” over at Academic Librarian and “Teaching Technology/ies” over at info-mational.