UNDERSTANDING THE WORLD WE LIVE IN. Jorge Cauz is the Chief Executive of the Britannica Group since May 2021. The global knowledge leader has a mission to inspire curiosity and the joy of learning. The Britannica Group serves the needs of students, educators, lifelong learners and professionals by providing curriculum products, language-study courses and digital encyclopedias through its extensive product line. It is headquartered in Chicago.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Jorge Cauz, Encyclopaedia Britannica used to be a classical encyclopedia sold door-to-door, but since March 2012 wasn’t published on paper anymore. Why have you changed it into an internet encyclopedia?
Britannica not only went from print to digital. The main transformation is from a company that would only inform people to a company that is very active in the learning process in the schools. We have unique skills to create learning solutions in the vast and growing K-12 market. You can prefer to go online or flip through the pages of an encyclopedia book, but when it comes to education it is tough for the curriculum book to compete with a personalised and adaptive digital learning solution, where remedial content comes into play if the students are not learning and where you can have direct access to the teacher, or an assessment as part of the solution that communicates back to the teacher and the student about where things need to be improved.
Is this a very big transition?
Yes, and we saw a unique opening for Britannica. Today we have more than 120 million people visiting our sites to be informed, but we are also in about 60% of the school market. There our solutions are more a companion of the teacher and a companion of the student, with which they learn maths or science or social studies. The path of Britannica is not only from print to digital, but also from informing to educating.
Encyclopaedia Britannica is one of the oldest encyclopedias in the English language, and having this iconic object in your home was a status symbol. Now it has become something else. Was there a complete revolution in the Britannica Group when Jacob Safra, a Swiss man, became its owner?
It’s a completely different change for Britannica, which is a great platform of information that you can trust. The traditional path and vision of Britannica from the very beginning was helping people understand themselves and the universe in which we live: all of the sciences and psychology and the liberal arts. Britannica had two things that are impossible today. One was as an object – not dissimilar to many of the other objects that we like to be attached to – an object that represented trust, authority, and many other aspirational values. On the other side, it was also a compendium, and you expected everything in it to be linked together. Today, the iconic object is not there because it’s all digital, and people look at information in bits and pieces. We live in an ocean of content and a diversity of possibilities for people to go to. Britannica comes into play when looking for general background information, and there we continue to have to deliver trust. We believe that we are the most trustworthy place that you can learn from, because we have a very rigorous editorial process. A very large group of contributors come to Britannica, and we fact check every single article that we create.
“The path of Britannica is not only from print to digital, but also from informing to educating.”
The First Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica is celebrated in this 250th Anniversary Edition
Jorge Cauz, the first instinct for many people nowadays is to click on Wikipedia. Why should we click on Britannica and what is the difference between the two of them?
In the school market, students come to Britannica most of the time. They are recommended to come to Britannica by their teachers and schools. Most people in their homes or offices don’t go to Wikipedia, they go to Google. They ask a query and see what the results are, and based on that then they click on Wikipedia, or Britannica, or whatnot. Close to 90% of the traffic of Wikipedia is not direct, but traffic that comes from Google. One of the major concerns, and a key challenge that we have, is how we can make the Britannica content visible in the places where people like to look for content. We have different paywalls, so a certain amount of content is available free for everyone, and whenever Britannica appears on Google as part of the search results a lot of people select our content.
What is the difference between your content and other content?
As I mentioned, Britannica is more than anything else a platform of trust. This is not a trust based on an ephemeral hope that the last person that came in had some good input, like it could be in the case of Wikipedia. The trust in the case of Britannica is that it is well written, factually correct, balanced and updated, and we aim to write content that’s enjoyable to read. A thorough editorial process is the only way in which we can deliver on those five variables, so we have a large editorial team here in Chicago.
We have 17 subject area experts, and many more fact checkers, copy editors, and media specialists and we have numerous outside contributors. It could be sometimes 2,000 and sometimes 500, it varies depending on what type of revision we have. We have an additional team of editors in India. We have a significant amount of freelancers, and we’re expanding that team. Today, one of the most important things is that we have a lot of data. We know for a fact how many people are asking specific queries out there on the web, and we know which questions the large majority of the people have that are complying with the Britannica brand. So we are actually set up to really understand the opportunities to create content that fits the brand profile. Traffic growth at Britannica has been significant over the last few years, 50% or more, and our pages per visit are increasing. All of the metrics from a business perspective are growing, because we’re really focused on what questions the general public has.
Don’t the people of India ask different questions from Americans, and Europeans ask different questions from Asian people, Africans another thing again? How do you deal with these differences?
We map that. We’re agnostic of where the content comes from, and we look at what people are querying and try to understand how we create the content to meet the learning needs of our users. In the past, it was mostly white men that were learned, and they were also writing the encyclopedia. Today we have to have a completely different perspective. Scholarship has no nationality, race, or gender. We also find that people may be looking for different aspects of what they are querying, and we try to understand that. We have much more sensitivity, and we’re much more careful about how to deal with these specific topics.
I or anyone should consult Britannica because your information is more accurate, more precise, more double checked, and therefore I can trust it?
That’s correct. And it is balanced. Wikipedia has as an objective neutral point of view. For us it’s a bit more nuanced, because for certain aspects there are controversies around it, and at Britannica we approach and explain the controversies when this is required. We try to strike a balance. Our content is well-written, factually correct, balanced, updated, and authoritative. Authors are involved in it.
“At Britannica there are three things that we want to do with our students. We want them to be well-informed. We want them to be engaged. And we want them to be critical thinkers.”
Jorge Cauz, how do you handle the educational learning side?
First of all, the organization of the content is very different. When you are teaching the landing of the pilgrims in the states, or how water boils or buoyancy or any of the other physical aspects, or maths, you need to really put a structure around the content. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. You put a pedagogical approach in front of the student. You start by trying to engage the student with a question about the subject that you’re approaching. You start explaining it from the very beginning. You try to assess the understanding of the student while you are teaching the different aspects. You try to make sure that all of the content that you’re putting in front of the student is linked to the curriculum, because a very important part in the learning process is that we need to teach the curriculum. We need to comply with the curriculum in the state of Illinois, the curriculum in the state of New York and the curriculum in Egypt. That’s what it’s all about.
Who determines the curriculum?
The curriculum is what the government mandates, that each and every one of the individuals have to learn a specific if they go to school in order to graduate from that grade. For example, when you are on third grade in elementary school and taking your history classes, these are the different things that you must learn according to the state – whether it be a federal state or a local state, or the central government. In the US, it is the state that determines the curriculum, not the federal government. In other countries it is the federal government. Based on subject areas, there’s a specific learning outcome, and the kid must learn to do this, this and that. This is a completely different way of perceiving content, and the main role of Britannica is to be a companion of the teacher and the student in the classroom. It’s not the same as in the consumer space, where you just search and there’s a bunch of content. In the classroom we approach these with a very different framework, the critical thinking framework that is very close to Britannica, where we engage with the student, and are not asking the student whether he or she memorized, but what is it that the student is learning and how do we make the student be critical about the findings. The things that he or she needs to question to understand the differences, to understand the cause and effect.
Do you have professors or specialist teachers who organise all that with governments and schools?
As I explained, the main strategic pivot for Britannica is that in addition to the traditional role of informing we’re now into learning. For that, the way that you create content and the way that you create experiences online is completely different. We have instructional designers. We have teachers, pedagogs. We consult with governments, asking them what they would like us to do for them. We are working with the government in Japan, with the government in Brazil….
Are your people all in Chicago or do you have people all over?
Our instructional teams are mostly in Chicago, in London and in Japan.
Is that because you teach mostly in America, the United Kingdom and Japan?
No, because we have new teaching solutions for Brazil, and we have been working in Egypt for a long time, where we have created a curriculum for high schools. We’re making STEAM, which is Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics, for the Japanese high school market. We have different partners and what we provide is not only a rich amount of content, but also a very robust area of expertise in the pedagogical approach to digital instructional design.
Is digital education a fast growing field?
The opportunity is immense. 85% of the young elementary students are in the developing world, and in this market it is a lot easier and faster to improve the digital infrastructure than just wait until the teachers are proficient in the skills that they need to be learning. It has been proven time and time again that it’s a lot easier to get to very distant places and to teach the students with the help of the teacher through a digital solution than it is through the traditional book. The key factor is to have a teacher that is willing to experiment. We’re working so much in Latin America, Africa, Asia, because there is huge brand awareness. People understand our Britannica brand, and we talk to all the ministers of education about how we can help them out, bridging the gap between the skills that they need to build compared to the skills that we are building in other countries. Every single educator worldwide understands the benefits of digital instruction.
Is there a huge difference between education in richer and poorer countries?
It’s absolutely the case that the educational infrastructure and the educational quality of the materials in poorer countries is very different. The number of schools is lower, they’re more remote, there are fewer roads, kids need to work at the same time that they need to go to school. Their parents sometimes lack the education to be able to support the kids with their homework, or tell them how to do an additional narrative structure. All those things are absent in many of these places. I’m from Mexico, and the disparity between the rich and the poor is there, but what is not there is the disparity of talent. The amount of talent and ambition that is in all of the childhood globally is the same.
Do you feel an obligation as a global citizen is to tap into that?
Yes. We are obviously making a living at Britannica, but we see a lot of benefit to be able to lower the gap between what happens in the developed world and what happens in the developing world. It is unforgivable that we don’t allow all of this talent in the world – for the benefit of everyone in the world – to be instructed, to be learned, to be critical thinkers. At Britannica there are three things that we want to do with our students. We want them to be well-informed. We want them to be engaged. And we want them to be critical thinkers. If we were to have that citizenry globally it would be very important. The world is not the same as it was 100 years ago.
Or even 10 years ago.
And it will never be the same in the future. One of the key things is that the amount of technology that we have in our hands will potentially change our destiny in ways that we never were capable of, and we have a first mover advantage here. As we make these very important and consequential decisions for the rest of humanity, it’s very good for all of us, as many of us as possible, to be engaged in that future, as opposed to letting a few people make decisions for the rest of us.
The iconic set of Encyclopaedia Britannica has not been published on paper since March 2012.
A fact checker working at Britannica in the 1950s.
Printing each set would cost you about $370. Then you had to direct sell it, so you needed to have lead generations from national advertising. By the time you sold the book at around $2,000 you were basically breaking even on the cost of the paper, printing, binding, advertising and selling.
As the digital age dawned the Encyclopaedia was delivered on CD-ROM.
Britannica is a global brand with a unique proposition for the education market.
Britannica is now in a multi-model world.
“Britannica has a vision, wanting to help our readers to understand themselves and the world in which we live. It is universal.”
Jorge Cauz, is the Britannica brand also a guarantee of trust for schools?
From a business perspective, one of the uniqueness of Britannica is that it is a globally known trust platform. Our brand awareness in the younger crowds is ballooning because of our penetration into the school market. Even so, the brand that we have is immense compared to the footprint that we have today. There is a huge amount of opportunity for growth, and we’re looking at two symbiotic markets: the casual learner, and the learner in the learning institution who has to learn a specific subject area mandated by the school.
People will go back to physical schools, but are they now also used to working in another way?
The way that students learn at school today is completely different from when I went to school. People talk about flipped classrooms. A flipped classroom is where you go to the classroom to ask about doubts, the things that you didn’t learn at home. The classroom becomes more of a discussion group, because the teaching has happened outside of the classroom, mostly through these instructional solutions. You learn in your home, not necessarily doing homework or exercises like before, but learning the introduction and the main areas of the subject at home. Then you come back to the classroom and do group work, socialize and work with the teacher, having doubts and questions and being more critical about it. It’s a completely different way in which the students are being taught.
At the end of the day, your role as CEO of Britannica Group is as a businessperson and you are in the business of education?
Globally, about 110 billion dollars in educational instructional material is spent every year. We have a global brand. We have a unique proposition for that market. At the same time, we see a significant amount of opportunity in the other market of casual learning that is even larger and more atomized. As a business, it’s a very good business. It is growing and it is profitable, but we also have this mandate from 250 years ago. Britannica has a vision, wanting to help our readers, and in this case our users, to understand themselves and the world in which we live. It is key, and continues to be as valid today as it was before. It is universal.
Was it another kind of business when Encyclopaedia Britannica was printed on paper and there was no internet?
It was, but with that specific vision. We use technology as it becomes available. In 1768, the best technology to deliver this was paper and print. For many years that was the way that we did it and we had a business model. When the internet came – and even before you would see CD ROMS and computers – it really was a big splinter of the business model. In all of publishing and media, the first segment that was affected by the coming of the internet was the encyclopedia business, in which printing each set would cost you about $370. Then you had to direct sell it, so you needed to have lead generations from national advertising. By the time you sold the book at around $2,000 you were basically breaking even on the cost of the paper, printing, binding, advertising and selling. The way that you made business back then was through the yearbook, which was updated every year. That was the business model for a long time. When the CD ROM came, that print set, that icon that you saw in your home that was so beautiful, vanished immediately, and you’re back to the moment of truth. You’re selling trust. You’re selling a process. You need to communicate that. The quality of the content is that unique value proposition. We hope that in the future that icon will return, but we’re not banking on it. We’re fully profitable and we’re growing without it, but we do also make books, and magazines for younger adults, so people can have a Britannica experience early on.
What kind of books and magazines?
We just launched a one volume encyclopedia, and we have a few series of books for kids with the Britannica name that are with the same qualities of Britannica. Kids love books. Kids like having that sensual feeling of having a book in their hands and being able to explore things. A new one that we just launched is called “How to teach grownups”, and it’s about teaching kids things that have happened in science or have happened lately that perhaps the parents do not know, so that they can surprise their parents. We have a Britannica magazine that we just launched for kids in their homes to be able to have a monthly magazine – fully illustrated and that really tries to engage the kid in a physical environment. We don’t see ourselves as being limited to digital. We don’t see ourselves as limited to education. We don’t see ourselves being limited to print. We are in this multi-model world. The world is never going to be what it was, and it’s good that we always go forward.
What is your future goal for yourselves and Britannica?
From a business perspective, which is a consequence of the vision of the company, I want the company to grow significantly and even be more relevant in the future, to be able to inform and help educate as many people as possible. That translates into a much larger company that is embedded in many educational systems, a company that is more popular as an information provider, a company that is also more and more multi-modal by delivering text, video, or audio-based engaging informative and educational experiences. The imagination is the limit. I see a possibility of doing more educational video and more documentaries. I see that there is really a very large scope of Britannica going forward which we are just beginning.
Do you have a lot of competition?
In the information area, whether it be edutainment or whether it be informing, whether it be in video and text – it doesn’t really matter which media – or in the educational space, the markets are huge, growing and fragmented. That is a fact, and when you have those three things, as a businessperson with a brand like ours, you want to bet on the future of that company, and that’s what I’m doing. I like to tell my chairman, who is much involved and in love with the brand and its future, that we see a significant amount of future growth, and possibilities to be relevant in a very socially conscious way, and that makes everyone in this company really excited. You do not know how rewarding it is to be able to have a really good business where your main role is informing and educating. There’s probably no more laudable task that you can do as a business.
Good luck for your encyclopedia and your business. Thank you very much for being with us today.
Thank you, Alain.
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