Crisis: Mother of Reinvention

The EContent 100 judging team is a busy crew. Read their bios and you'll see that this is a group of people with some very demanding day jobs. For them to devote so much of their valuable time to compiling the list is remarkable. Certainly, it is their diversity and their deep day-to-day connection with the digital content industry that makes them qualified to undertake this task. Yet it does make the process even more challenging-as if trying to evaluate the merits of hundreds of companies weren't difficult enough.

Without web-enabled collaboration, there's no way these individuals could work together on this project. This group covers almost as many time zones as areas of expertise ... suffice it to say that there's no way we could all "get together and chat" about the industry in any one office space. This year, however, I noticed that it was even harder for our judges to find time to get into the wiki and vote. For some, it was a story familiar to many of us lucky enough to have kept our jobs during these trying times: The trade-off for remaining employed is taking on the work of others who were not so lucky.

However, many of the EC100 judging team are consultants-masters of their own destinies. That sounds very cool until times get hard and companies slash budgets and "retrench" ... at which point being in the business of helping organizations maximize technology investments sounds downright scary. Yet, as I mentioned, the team was particularly hard to wrangle this year. It turns out that these same individuals I've tapped for their expertise have been remarkably busy providing this expertise to smart companies via consulting gigs, even in this economy. I spoke with one judge (who was en route from Geneva to Washington, D.C., at the time) who confirmed that he's been busier than ever. He told me he's found that some organizations view economic downturns as a time to invest in solutions that will position them to leap out ahead of the pack when spending levels resume normal levels.

"Competitive executives should welcome recessions. In the heat of a downturn, superior companies pull away from the competition and aspiring companies can dart ahead," according to Diamond Management & Technology Consultants. This group studied more than 400 companies and their performances (relative and absolute) before, during, and after the last recession (1998-2004). While Diamond found that everyone cuts costs during a recession, only some benefit. Certain businesses cut judiciously and used the recession as motivation to improve the design of their business-the configuration of people, assets, capital, and information. The central lesson of Diamond's research is that "at the very time when a leader is tempted to ... make simple across-the-board cuts, superior performers dig into the data and act more intelligently than the competition."

Businesses that can turn an economic crisis into an opportunity to brutally re-evaluate spending, productivity, efficiency and then wisely invest in solutions that help them cut costs while improving workflow and customer experiences will be the fastest to rebound as spending increases.

Today, organizations are in a position to re-evaluate every business process in an effort to improve it-and technology solutions are there to help them achieve these objectives. Given increasingly robust SaaS offerings, strides in cloud computing, and a proliferation of Web 2.0 tools (which are often free-at least to try on a small scale), there is no shortage of tools that may be worth investigating in an effort to improve the way business is done.

In his OnDesign blog, Bruce Nussbaum points out that during a recession, it is important for companies to also continue to focus on innovation: "Disruptive innovation that is inexpensive, easy to use and in great demand that makes life better, more manageable and less costly is the kind of innovation you do in a recession." He cites Flip, Amazon, Apple, and IBM as examples of companies that continue to innovate even during a recession.

When I consider many of the companies on the EC100 list, I see continued innovation-yes, in terms of product offerings as well as in business models, licensing, and thought leadership. I also see a great many tools that can be put to work to not only streamline business processes but also to inform better decision making and improve collaboration, which should, in turn, support innovation.

Stanford University economist Paul Romer said it best in 2004: "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste." As we begin to see signs of economic recovery, I hope that those of you reading EContent are part of the companies who recognize that now is the perfect time to infuse your organization with strategic investments that will help drive innovation and position you to come out of the recession stronger than ever.