Case Detail

Case Summary

The Crisis at Encyclopaedia Britannica

Case Number: 5-306-504, Year Published: 2006, Revision Date: July 28, 2009

HBS Number: KEL251

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Authors: Michelle Devereux

Key Concepts

Technological Waves, Technological Disruption, Attacker's Advantage, Obsolescence, Skunk Works


Encyclopedia Britannica was the leading provider of encyclopedias in the English language, but after sales declined rapidly in the early 1990s the company was forced to file for bankruptcy. Many different organizational and market factors contributed to this crisis, such as the diffusion of the PC, the invention of Encarta, the technical challenges of moving text to electronic formats, and the difficulties of inventing a new format while also operating the leading seller of books. Looking back, what could the company have done differently? The case illustrates important themes in the literature on a leading firm’s response to technical opportunities and threats. The case teaches students about technological waves, technological disruption, and different concepts of obsolescence. It illustrates strategic concepts, such as attacker’s advantages and skunk works.

Number of Pages: 18

Extended Case Information

Teaching Areas: Strategy

Teaching Note Available: Yes

Geographic: United States

Industry: Encyclopedia Publishing

Organization Name: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Organization Department: Management

Organization Size: Medium

Decision Maker Position: CEO

Decision Maker Gender: Male

Year of Case: 1996