Thursday, December 11, 2008

Is a Green Ocean Strategy Needed for Libraries?

Our medical center leadership has embraced the Blue Ocean Strategy as introduced by  W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. As a result, our library has also begun to use the metaphor presented in the book in our planning processes. 

Red oceans represent all the products and services in existence today - the known market space. In red oceans, boundaries are defined and accepted, and the competitive rules of the game are well understood. Organizations try to outperform their competition in order to grab a greater share of existing demand. As the space gets more and more crowded, products turn into commodities, and increasing competition turns the water bloody. Picture sharks in the water.

Blue oceans represent all the products and services not in existence today - the unknown market space. In blue oceans, demand is created rather than fought over. There are two ways to create blue oceans. In a few cases, organizations can give rise to completely new products and services. But in most cases, a blue ocean is created from within a red ocean when a company alters the boundaries of an existing product or service. Blue ocean strategy is all about doing business where there is no competitor. 

For generations, libraries existed in blue ocean space. I would argue that many of the services that libraries provide now exist in the red ocean.

Let's say that a library creates a product or service in blue ocean space. For example, traditional reference services. For generations, reference librarians were alone in this information space. Along came the Internet. The tides shifted this service from the blue ocean into the red ocean. Traditional reference services now have to compete with Google in this space. The Blue Ocean Strategy suggests that organizations need move away from red oceans and should identify new service and product spaces. This approach is also consistent with Clayton Christensen's disruptive technology theory.

However, I believe that the greatest challenge facing libraries may not be in identifying new blue ocean strategies. Yes, that is a difficult task in itself. The much more difficult task may be the ability to identify when a product and service that was in blue ocean space is starting to drift into the red ocean. The problem is that while the red ocean is easy to enter, it is hard to survive. What an organization needs to either avoid, or knowingly enter, the red ocean is what I call the Green Ocean Strategy.

(NOTE 1: OK. Yes, I know. Red and blue make purple. I went with green to conjure up an image of murky, algae infested waters. This color wheel inconsistency aside, I have never seen naturally occurring purple waterways, but have seen green. NOTE 2: This concept is not even half-baked, so I am interested in feedback. NOTE 3: This is a different concept than the similarly named environmental approach also derived from the book) 

Perhaps the hardest thing an organization can do is to spot when the tidal shift between the blue and red oceans is underway. The ability to navigate through these waters requires the organization to make hard decisions. Does it complete in the red ocean, pull out of the waterway, or does it modify the product or service so that it is back in the blue ocean?

Making such decisions is complicated by the fact that significant resources and investments have been made to get into the blue ocean space.The decision to reallocate resources or eliminating products and services after significant investments have been made becomes extremely difficult to do. However, a Green Ocean Strategy would appear to be required to help guide the transition and prepared the organization to make those very hard decisions about whether when a service/product is ready to jump the shark.  

A complicating factor is that the Green Ocean has relatively calm waters. There are no rapids to alert the organization that a tidal shift has begun. The service or product simply drifts slowly into the red ocean until the organization wakes up one day, surprised, and surrounded by sharks. The organization may become paralyzed and unable to make a quick enough decision to get them back into the blue ocean.   

Lastly, sometimes an organization wears colored glasses which tricks itself into believing that they are still in the blue ocean when they are really in the red. They become so emotionally attached to the service or product they they do not see, or simply ignore the sharks. The auto industry is learning this nautical lesson the hard way. When you look at their situation, what they lacked was an effective Green Ocean Strategy.

Are libraries simply allowing too many services to drift into the red ocean and land up spending too many resources fighting off the sharks?  Instead, should we be spending more time coming up with a Green Ocean Strategy that includes concepts such as planned obsolescence or service life-cycles that acknowledges the perils of living in the red ocean? 
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Greg Krauska said...

Eric, virtually all organizations drift into red oceans. Either by neglect, or because someone else decides to move into their space.

Pick a piece of the library portfolio of product/service offerings and decide which areas,given a bit of attention, could be blue or green ocean opportunities.

From there, go through the steps. And especially, get "into the field" interacting with customers and noncustomers. What obstacles do people encounter? What surprises them? What delights them? How do they choose among alternatives?

Nene said...

Hello Eric,

I'm writing a paper about barriers of participation to web 2.0 among librarians. I'm using as an example and I found you there. I'm wondering if you'd share your thoughts on the matter with me or alternatively have already written about it/given talks on the subject and would like to share it with me?

My questions would be

1) What are the reasons librarians give for not wanting to use/participate in web 2.0?
2) What could be done to overcome these barriers? (What have you done, if you have had colleagues like that?)

Thanks in advance,

Eric Schnell said...


I will respond to your questions after the holidays...

Eric Schnell said...


Agreed. Virtually all library organizations will drift into the red. My thought is that they need to be more aware that they are drifting there, more strategic on why they remain there, and more willing to abandon a service space when it becomes crowded.