The death of the report?

New technologies are changing how information is generated, distributed and consumed, with implications for some staple products of many VCOs, publications and reports

The web has become central to our lives and therefore providing web-based information is now a core part of the strategy of many voluntary and community organisations (VCOs). But the online world is developing fast, providing new opportunities to improve how we distribute information and new challenges as patterns of consumption change. These changes reflect the growth of audio and video, tailored content, selective consumption, and expectations that information will be provided quickly and for free.

Text is no longer the only feasible way of conveying information. Online video and audio provide powerful new ways to communicate and are becoming more widespread as broadband usage grows (just observe the popularity of BBC iPlayer). To respond, organisations will need to develop new skills – for example in using video, interviewing and audio or video editing – alongside traditional writing skills.

The internet has made it possible to provide personalised or tailored information reasonably easily, as the process can now be mechanised.

We are becoming more used to telling organisations about our preferences through online ‘profiles’ and, as a result, expect organisations to respond by providing us with information that is appropriate.

Linked to this is the habit of selective consumption. Just as music fans can download individual songs from iTunes instead of buying an entire album, we will increasingly only want to pay for the parts of a publication that we want to read. In this context, providing only full reports may be perceived as being inflexible, just as buying a full album seems unnecessary when we only want to hear the number one single.

The internet has also driven demand for immediate and up-to date information, which is at odds with the usual production timescales for a report. For Third Sector Foresight this was one of the key factors for the development of our online drivers bank which is complemented by our annually published report, Voluntary Sector Strategic Analysis.

For organisations dealing in facts, responding to this trend requires them to channel resources to the continuous updating of online information sources. However, when dealing in ideas or positions this has a more complex implication; it requires us to be comfortable with publishing thoughts that are still ‘under development’. In the future we may never reach a ‘final text’ that is then ‘published’, but instead publish information and ideas in a state of what software developers call ‘perpetual beta’.

The web has also driven an expectation that information will be free, which is challenging for organisations that charge for publications. One response is to mimic new private sector income generation models by shifting from selling ‘products’ like one off  publications to ‘services’.

For example, organisations charge subscriptions for access to the tailored, up-to-date information that the web now allows them to provide. The ease with which online payments can be collected facilitates this and allows for tiered charging according to ability to pay.

All of these drivers suggest that the publication or report may be on its way out. The successful organisations of the future will be those developing their responses now. As JG Ballard said in the 1970s,

Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of Engage magazine.

Last updated at 15:08 Mon 18/May/09.
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Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

What are the other implications of changing information and communications technology, of changing IT for the sector? We think it's vital that organisations put some time aside to think this through so we're holding our next (free) seminar to do just that.

Changing ICT and what it might mean for your organisation is an interactive session where you'll get be able to share ideas and experiences, and come away with some concrete thoughts to feed into your organisational plans. Read more about the seminar.

Join the discussion!

How will this affect your organisation? Have you considered it during your strategic planning? Can you share any interesting relevant links?

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