The 'burning platform' idea hit the news in February 2011 when a memo written by the Nokia CEO Stephen Elop used the metaphor as an 'inspiration' to his staff to be decisive about necessary changes. He wrote about a man standing on a burning oil rig who was faced with choosing between a fiery death and a jump into the freezing sea. Elop was trying to impress on his staff that people will only make a painful change when it is absolutely necessary to do so (and, perhaps, to frighten them into placidly accepting the subsequent deal he made with his former employers, Microsoft).
A related story claims that a frog gently heated in a pan of water will remain there complacently until it succumbs to the rising heat – the boiled frog – whereas a frog thrown into hot water will save itself by jumping out immediately.
The message we get from these stories is that complacency is bad, that an unpleasant stimulus is good, and that a dramatic leap will save the day.
You could argue that publishers are currently facing their 'boiled frog' moment, as digital media and digital delivery are gradually yet comprehensively transforming the processes, business models, technologies, supply chains and economics of their worlds. This is a profound change, but is happening slowly enough to permit some complacency. Most publishers (unlike some retailers) have not experienced the sort of 'burning platform' moment that demands immediate (and painful) change.
But maybe the absence of a 'burning platform' is a good thing. The 'revolution' mentality was behind many of the overdramatic excesses of the dot-com boom, when a retailer like Toys"R"Us was advised to close its stores as the only way to 'truly commit' to the online world (fortunately, it did not), and Webvan burned through $830 million trying to automate online grocery shopping (Tesco simply picks online orders in-store).
Yet revolution is in the air, and complacency is definitely not the way to go. Publishers that do not leap toward transformation immediately will probably still be around next year, but they may not be around five years from now.
So the new metaphor we are going to introduce is the 'rusting platform'. The corrosion in the old structures is plain to see, and we know that there will be a collapse fairly soon if nothing is done. But the answer is not a panicky leap into the ocean. What is needed is a carefully-laid plan, starting promptly but intended to deliver results in an affordable and controlled process over the next few years. This is what will get publishers where they need to be in addressing the challenges and opportunities that digital media and digital delivery are presenting. Start today, but don't rush it. Look around for a suitable lifeboat before you jump into the sea.