Entrepreneurial skills are not given out with grant letters

Lorcan 4 min read

Ithaka produced a report last year – Sustainability and revenue models for online academic resources PDF – for the Strategic Content Alliance (SCA), a UK collaboration of cultural and educational organizations. They followed up with a series of case studies (scroll down the list of SCA publications to the sustainability section) which were discussed at a recent SCA workshop, for which the materials are also available. More complete materials will appear in June.
The context for this work is the large cumulative investment by various funding agencies in making academically relevant content available on the web through grants to projects in the education, cultural and related areas. How does one create the circumstances in which effective ongoing management and use of such materials is secured?
I have not digested the case study material and will look at the final materials with interest when they appear. This is likely to be useful work, given the experience and contacts of the authors.
In the interim, here is a brief note on last year’s report. I was drawn to this telling paragraph in the summary:

Acting as the principal investigator of a research grant project is a very different responsibility from operating as the organisational leader of a sustainable enterprise. The issue of ‘impact’ is just one example. In our opinion, delivering impact is the key factor in the potential for achieving long-term sustainability; only high impact and highly useful materials will draw the financial support from beneficiaries needed for long-term success. Yet the importance of impact is often underestimated by leaders of not-for-profit digital resource projects. Much attention is given to making material available and very little attention is given to doing the work to make sure that people will become aware of it, that they can find it, and if they do find it that they will actually use it. We find that few digital resource projects have devoted substantial financial or intellectual resources to understanding user needs, preferences and behaviours. Nor, often, have they invested in understanding the environment of other resources that compete for those users’ attention and support. The absence of focused effort on use, impact, and competition among these types of projects has deep implications for their potential long-term success. [Sustainability and revenue models for online academic resources: an Ithaka report PDF]

I was struck by three further issues. First was the discussion of scale. Funded projects cannot generate the economies of scale that larger enterprises exhibit. “Scale” the authors suggest “is required to support the technology platform and the staff to manage that infrastrucutre, as well as staff for tasks such as user support, marketing, and fundraising.” They argue that it is a “kind of paradox” that publishing a single item on the web may “cost next to nothing”, but that “publishing aggregated content in an effective and sustainable way favours massive scale”.
Second was the contention that much project work is supply-driven rather than demand-driven. Project leaders, they suggest, tend to focus on the inherent values of their work rather than on what might be of most importance to their intended users. Examples of such values are: “the quality or uniqueness of the content, the novelty of their approach, the elegance of their technology, or the degree to which it satisfies their own research needs”.
Third was the acknowledgement that projects may not naturally think of ‘value’ in business or commercial terms, and indeed there may sometimes be an antipathy to commercial enterprise. (This is not the only measure of ‘value’.)
The larger part of the report is a description of various revenue models.
As noted above, this is the first part in an ongoing programme of work. In some ways, the detail of the case studies and lessons drawn from those will be of more interest. However, I think that the arguments in this report are interesting and important. In some ways, they are more important for the funding agencies than for they individual projects. The current project based approach, in which each project stands on its own, may have been appropriate for an earlier phase where local experiment was apt. As a general development approach it is limited – as I have argued elsewhere:

But project-based funding is not the way to go to introduce much of the systemic change that is now again required. Projects tend to be institutional or consortial: it is difficult for these to operate at the level of the system. Of course, their results may be transferable, but this does not always happen. And it does not happen for good reason: a project will develop its own requirements and deliverables, which may not transfer easily into a production environment somewhere else. There is often a large gap between a project output and a ‘product’ in the sense that something is ready to meet broader objectives. Projects may not produce portable solutions. Widescale project working also has another interesting dynamic. It disperses rather than concentrates expertise, and given that expertise is a finite resource it means that many individual projects may achieve less than fewer larger ones would. There is also an opportunity cost, as expertise is devoted to projects, and it may be difficult to align project goals and institutional needs. Of course, this is to state the extreme case: there may be some institutional benefit.

The absence of systemic attention, the dispersal of expertise, and the lack of a ‘product’ focus can be seen as issues in several recent programmes. Think of the range of digitisation projects in recent years in the UK [34]. This is not to say that there should not be support for R&D. Or that we should not find ways to reward and sustain creativity and innovation. Clearly we should. But we should realise what a programme of projects can produce. This should not be confused with designing, building and sustaining the library services that will effectively support research and learning into the future. [The (Digital) Library Environment: Ten Years After]

It would be good if this work led to some serious thinking about how to structure such programmatic investment so that its impact is maximized. Asking individual projects to measure outcomes or think about sustainability is only part of the issue.
May 4: slight edits for style and emphasis.

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