That quiet sob you’re hearing in libraries around the world is likely for the end of an auspicious era.

For 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has been the source of all we could want to know – for school projects, settling arguments, and experiencing a world outside our immediate community.

Pictures of exotic animals, descriptions of events and phenomena were the Britannica’s stock in trade and the reason we loved it. The changes it saw come and go – and that it documented – were awe-inspiring in scale and speed. It has fallen victim to one of those changes.

Slowly at first, and then with increasing pace, the Britannica has lost its hold over our lives as the source of anything worth knowing.

The King is dead, long live the King

In what is bad news for encyclopaedia salesmen (and good news for those of us who have encountered them), the granddaddy of them all has announced that it will no longer produce a printed version of the august, 32-volume, publication.

Instead, the company is now moving its focus to a purely digital product, in a (somewhat belated) acknowledgement that the internet, with its myriad sources and opinions, has become the world’s favourite resource library.

Many who’ve spent time with their noses in the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s printed pages will mourn its passing, but none will be able to blame the company for simply recognising the inexorable shift in information gathering that is well underway.

We have so many places to source our information, from expert publications, to the much-loved and –loathed Wikipedia and the simple question-and-answer forums that have sprung up online.

Is your business next?

The experience of the Britannica is instructive for business people and investors. Sometimes, even being the top dog in your game isn’t enough protection when your category – in this case printed reference material – simply ceases to exist.

The best business people – and Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) is a case in point – keep innovating and driving forward. It’s natural to circle the wagons in the face of potential threats, but Amazon did the exact opposite. When the advent of eBooks looked to threaten the printed book distribution of Amazon, Bezos could have cut prices, bought out competitors and tried to outlast eBooks.

Rather than fear the onslaught, he met it head-on – by aggressively developing the Kindle eReader, and in the process setting up another category-leading business for Amazon.

Foolish take-away

We’d all be well served by looking at our own portfolios and asking two questions:

  1. Which companies in my portfolio might be the next Encyclopaedia Britannica; and
  2. Are the managers of my companies embracing new opportunities or clinging on to the old world for dear life

Companies in the latter group should be watched like a hawk, and potentially sold before it’s too late.

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Scott Phillips is a Motley Fool investment analyst. Scott owns shares in Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @TMFGilla. The Motley Fool’s purpose is to educate, amuse and enrich investors. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691).

 

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