Lamplighter Honors

2009: Michael N. Ross

2009: Michael N. Ross

Michael N. Ross
Senior VP, Education General Manager
Encyclopaedia Britannica
2009: Hall of Fame

BioAcceptance Speech

Read Michael Ross' AEP Blog entries about his career in educational publishing.

  • Part 1: His greatest influence and the advice he would give to those choosing educational publishing
  • Part 2: His greatest challenge and his proudest accomplishment
  • Part 3: The greatest challenge facing our industry in the next five years

Michael N. Ross is the Senior Vice President, worldwide product development and technology, as well as General Manager of Education, at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. He is responsible for the development of Britannica’s digital and print products and the sales and marketing activities for North American schools and libraries.

Prior to joining Britannica in 2002, Michael held executive positions at several publishing companies. He began his career as an editor for Time-Life Books, and worked for three years in their Tokyo bureau.

Michael served on the board of directors of the Association of Educational Publishers, including a term as president from 2002 to 2003. He is a member of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the Chicago Book Clinic and serves on the boards of several companies and associations. In 2002 he was inducted intoPrintmedia’s Production Executives’ Hall of Fame.

Michael has contributed to many industry publications. His latest book on digital and international publishing, Publishing Without Boundaries: How to Think, Work, and Win in the International Marketplace, was published by AEP in January, 2007. He is frequently invited to speak at international publishing and education conferences.

He has a B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Minnesota, an M.A. from Brandeis University, and a certificate from Stanford University’s Advanced Management College.

Acceptance speech by Michael Ross, Encyclopaedia Britannica

Thanks to all of you for coming this morning, for taking time off from your busy schedules. It's an honor to be with you today in this terrific venue and in NYC-the city so nice they named it twice-to remind ourselves of the rewarding work we do together. And special thanks to our sponsors who help make this and other AEP events possible.

I'd like to congratulate Pleasant Rowland and Nelson Heller, with whom I'm proud to share the podium this morning, and to especially thank the AEP Board of Directors and its CEO, Charlene Gaynor, and her staff-Jo Ann M., Doug F., Stacey P., Colleen Q, Dave Gladney-I know how hard all of you work on behalf of the organization and all of us.

I remember when Charlene felt that leading this organization was like plowing the ocean; ten years ago her modest goal-she would say often during board meetings-was to create a position that someone else might possibly want some day. Well, Charlene, we all owe you a great deal of gratitude for not only being willing to plow the ocean over the years, but to swim with the sharks, and for making AEP the center of advocacy for educational publishing. You are a passionate ambassador for our collective mission and have expertly nudged (sometimes nudjed) AEP to address the really hard issues that the industry faces today.

Thank you, Jorge, for that humbling introduction-I think it's clear to everyone how your values reflect so positively on the Britannica culture and our common goals, and why it's been a daily pleasure to work with you through all of the challenges of this business.

Many thanks to those of you-colleagues and associates alike-who have traveled many miles to be here; my brother Marshall, also a resident Chicagoan, who has been the creative force behind the most memorable advertising of the last two decades; those of you who have traveled coast to coast; and of course my wife, Kathleen, who is not only the best editor in our house but the best in the industry, which is why I had to find something else to do in publishing if I wanted to remain in both the business and my marriage at the same time.

It is appropriate that this event falls between Thanksgiving and Christmas/Hanukah/Kwanza, because we can be thankful that we are in an industry where we can earn a living while working with dedicated and innovative people and by making products and providing services that make a difference in young people's lives. Education is a gift that keeps on giving-once given it can't be taken away, stolen, or lost, and it grows in value over time. There will always be an immeasurable benefit to knowledge and truth, whatever they cost, yet I think we have left a record of excellent returns in both for a relatively small investment.

There are three major forces that have made a big difference in our ability to grow, and will continue to have an even larger impact on our industry in the future: Technology, globalization, and talent.
Most of us in this room have been doing this long enough to have been part of the dramatic and sometimes disruptive change that publishing has undergone, especially in the last 20 years. And although we have had to adapt our business models as well as the skills to compete and succeed, we have embraced new technologies and new ways of doing things in order to add value to our customers.

Sometimes we have jumped on early-stage technologies too quickly (especially if you recall those laser discs of the '80s and early '90s and the awkward attempts we made to combine them with kluge software; or the stacks of floppies it took to make a simple branching exercise). But mostly we have been more cautious and waited for technology to clearly demonstrate value before applying it broadly.

Although educational publishing has rarely been the initial cause of great leaps in technology, it may be its most loyal and lasting partner-a better husband or wife (or significant other) than a dalliance-since it demands excellence, consistency, and results over time rather than short-term and fleeting pleasures.

We are generally not trendsetters in, or early adopters of, emerging technologies, and probably shouldn't be. But we must understand the trends of our time and continue to seek better ways to make our products easier to use, more relevant, and more consonant with the needs and expectations of an audience that is intrigued and engaged in an increasingly interactive and connected world.

Early on we used production technologies to improve our efficiencies, and as a result, today we have workflows and outputs that would not have been possible without them. We are now using Web technologies to create better user experiences, and we are making our customers more productive and efficient. We are on the right path, even if we have been slow to get there. Today, each of us can probably cite at least one example of how a technology application of our products or services has made a difference in someone's life.

I'll give you one. Every October I participate in Mayor Daley's "Principal for a Day" program, where hundreds of Chicago business people spend a day playing principal at an inner city school. This year, I was in a 7th grade science class helping a group of kids of varying abilities find a way to test their own hypotheses. I was working with a girl whose hypothesis was that gender made a difference in the type of fingerprints.

And I had a sudden sinking feeling: how is this going to turn out? Like snowflakes, all fingerprints are unique, so how can she show any kind of grouping based on gender? But we dove in together-and logged in to my favorite reference source of choice, Britannica, of course-and we quickly found a graphic that showed that there are actually six distinct patterns of fingerprints, with names, like "loop," "double loop," "central pocket loop," "plain whorl," "plain arch," and "tented arch." We both looked at each other and smiled-now she could collect data from the boys and girls in her class and see if either gender showed more of one of these patterns than another.

Of course, the results might reveal no consistent difference at all, but at least she now had something to measure against. We both felt great. This kind of result wouldn't have been possible to achieve-so quickly-10 years ago, without the combination of the right content and the technology that delivers it.

I am now quite hopeful that before too long our children's classrooms will no longer resemble the ones we were in and that the materials that students use will be able to teach critical thinking, advance knowledge, and entertain simultaneously.

Thanks to years of exchanging content and services with partners from other nations, we no longer create and market our products from a provincial point of view. But it's not just because we have gone outside our borders that we have gained a global sensitivity. We have opened our own doors to the talents of a multicultural workforce, which now better reflects the world around us and has created a world that is better for us.

An increasing number of our co-workers and partners come from diverse backgrounds and distant places. Multicultural inclusion is no longer merely a human resource or state-adoption slogan. In our office, for example, in editorial, technology, production, marketing, and management, we have first-generation immigrants from more than 15 countries, including: China, France, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Nepal, the Philippines, Pakistan, Romania, Russia, Spain, Thailand, and Vietnam. And, of course, our overseas offices and partners add to the diversity and our expanded horizons.

Today, it is a natural act for us to think and work more internationally. This is not only good for our customers, who benefit from the variety of perspectives and problem-solving approaches, but for business as well, since the reflected worldviews make our products and services more marketable on a world stage, and internally we more readily accept outside solutions and find better and more efficient ways to get things done.

Finally, we have to work harder to bring young, talented, passionate people into the business, not only to create a succession plan, but to understand better what we must do today to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving market.

Although mastery in any business comes with experience, intuitive knowledge of the market is best understood by our youngest members. Bring them in early on projects, and often; give them important roles to play; listen to their ideas, and put them in charge of implementing them. This is the best way to harness the forces of change-giving the market-movers the lead in identifying new opportunities-and then taking advantage of those opportunities before someone else does.

Educational publishing is a reflection of who we are, how we think, and what we care about, yet it's not often considered a vehicle of social change. But in fact, it has been a steady current for human progress. By increasing our use of technology we are not only creating efficiencies and providing more compelling products, we are also reducing our carbon footprint; by sharing knowledge across borders and boundaries we are not only opening markets, we are creating greater understanding among cultures and countries; and by bringing in talented young people we are not only identifying successors, we are cultivating renewable sources of energy.

It's not a bad legacy and it's an essential foundation for a viable future.

Thank you again for this honor, thank you for your contributions to the industry and for your support of AEP- and have a great holiday season.