Cengage is one of the three major publishers of educational texts and materials. In this interview, we explore a range of trends in higher education with Jim Donohue, their Chief Product Officer.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start, Jim, with an introduction for our audience to Cengage and yourself so that we know whom we are talking to and the context of the conversation.
Jim Donohue: Cengage is the world’s second largest educational text and materials company. We are primarily a book company and in our educational division for higher education, we’re still about 70% print based. The goal has been, obviously, to make a rapid change as the industries change.
I think higher education is an interesting animal in that it has been, in the last couple of years, pretty resistant to the kind of technology that other related industries have caught up with. As a result, it’s still very much focused on print and I think that’s going to continue for a few more years. I think, the challenge for this industry is to offer must-have products that will really encourage professors to make that move because their students are demanding it. I think it’s a really interesting dichotomy as I look at it through the Cengage lens.
Cengage was once called Thompson Learning, which was owned by Thompson. They sold it in 2007 to a private-equity firm. We’ve had a tough road in the last four or five years. I came in February from Elsevier where I was running the Clinical Medicine group, which was about 60% digital and everything we were developing was totally digital. We were building pretty sophisticated algorithms in Oncology that allowed for really rapid search of clinical information. We were measured by how we are dealing with care outcomes. How did we improve patient care? Could our information get a patient out of the hospital faster? Could it improve his prognosis? Could it make diagnostics easier?
I came to an industry that really, until recently, hasn’t been very interested or concerned about outcome. They talk a lot about learning but there haven’t been any real measurable ways in the higher education industry, particularly, to measure that learning. So that’s Cengage. It’s a large company, has published a lot of world-class content written by some of the most famous and most respected professors, instructors, and teachers in the world. Probably, pretty much until about a year ago, very print-focused.
My task in coming here was to really make that shift to the digital space. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at our product and understanding what we have … people keep asking what my digital strategy is, and not what our product strategy is. As a result, I think there’s been lots of movement in Cengage and my industry, in general, to create digital products whether the market wants to learn or not, or whether the customers are interested in them or not.