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A Place in the Middle Kingdom: Publisher Case Studies from China

Not all conferences are exhilarating, but the GIIS certainly was, and in unexpected ways. That’s the serendipity effect, I guess, which came up a couple of times in relation to online searching. We seemed to agree that things you aren’t looking for and don’t expect are sometimes just what you want, or need. I’ve always thought of this in terms of library stacks or flipping through a book or browsing an encyclopedia rather than in terms of Google results, because the serendipity of the stacks strikes me as a lot more relevant and fruitful than what I find through surfing.

Yet I know I often find things online through serendipity. Why, I wonder, doesn’t this leave me with the positive feeling I get from other forms of discovery? I think it’s because I feel I’ve had to wade through so much junk to get to the good links. I catch the train, but end up hating the station I left from. Instead of searches getting better, I’m just getting better at scanning the results and (mentally) deleting all the results that are the equivalent of spam in my Inbox. And isn’t this the inherent problem with the Google model, balancing the needs of advertisers with the needs and desires of users?

My second GIIS panel, “A Place in the Middle Kingdom: Publisher Case Studies from China,” seemed quite easy because I had such experienced, thoughtful participants: Lou Celi from the Economist Intelligence Unit, Paul Evans from Elsevier, and Duncan McCampbell, from Thomson. They had great anecdotes and real insight, and after a number of planning calls with them it was easy to frame a discussion – which could have gone on for hours. We agreed to discuss tough issues and talk about real life experiences. No company pitches, no PowerPoint. Their stories enabled us to have a discussion that moved from government relations to various approaches to setting up business in China to the challenges of building a local management team. Lou reminded us that China has enormous regional variation, Duncan explained how dynamic and challenging China is for a legal publisher, especially compared to countries like Germany, where the legal system is settled and fixed. Paul told us about the breathtaking expansion of scientific research and explained some of the special issues that arise in contract negotiation. Here’s how we described the panel:

Companies large and small are gaining a foothold in the world’s most populous and economically dynamic country. Developing successful partnerships is essential, especially for media organizations, and changing regulations provide both threat and opportunity. Companies that aren’t in China yet want to know what it takes, and to have answers to basic questions like when, where, and how? In this session, experienced Western and Chinese experts present diverse case studies: from companies (1) expanding in China, (2) just entering the Chinese market, and (3) scaling back on Chinese operations. The session will wrap up with an overview of the issues-and the pitfalls-common to all these situations, ensuring that attendees get information and advice they can act on as they develop China strategies or expand their existing business in China.

I’m all for takeaways, from falafels to jiaozi, and understand that people who attend conferences want to leave with information and ideas, as well as contacts. That’s why conference organizers like PowerPoint: it’s a great way to force panelists to organize their thoughts in advance. What I wonder, though, is how we can start to capture what develops in the course of an event. I spent over an hour diagramming new ideas I’d got from the programs at GIIS, which ranged from long-term planning for content mashups (more to come on that) to practical ideas about improving our editorial processes. SIIA will upload the PPs and other documents, and I might even have a podcast to include – I ran my recorder as a test, and only realized afterwards that it might, if the participants approve, be something we can edit and provide online. But wouldn’t it be great to have a way to exchange information and questions after the event, as we all digest what we heard and learned?

Ed Keating, VP of the SIIA Content Division, introduced the China panel and, ever vigilant, had already read the blog post I’d dashed off before lunch. It shouldn’t have surprised me that he’d tell the audience that I was a blogger and also planning to start a Down With PP Community, a comment that led to various requests that I not be unkind here about other speakers’ PPs. I guess I need to assure my colleagues that I’m not hardcore – I love illustrations and examples, and PP makes it so easy to enliven a discussion. But it is so often deadly. People who would be fascinating to listen to if they’d just lighten up and loosen up are mind-numbingly dull with PowerPoint. When I go to a conference I want to hear expert speakers convey what they know, what they’ve learned, and what they believe. It’s hard to convey nuance in a bullet point, and PowerPoint seems to strip people of their native humor and wit.

To show that I’m not a zealot, I have uploaded a PP I used in April for a “Doing Business in China” program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It looks amateurish compared to some of the presentations I saw in Berlin but you can see the way I incorporated a lot of different photos to convey some of the variety of life in China today.

Finally, Edward Tufte, author of a remarkable series of books on the visual display of information, wrote a well-known article called “PowerPoint Does Rocket Science.” An article about Tufte and his criticism of PowerPoint in Wired magazine was entitled, “PowerPoint Is Evil. Power Corrupts. PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely.”

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