Exclusive Interview: Encyclopædia Britannica CEO Karthik Krishnan

Founded in 1768, Encyclopædia Britannica has reached a milestone very few companies alive today can claim.

“Utility ought to be the principle intention of every publication. Wherever this intention does not plainly appear, neither the books nor their authors have the smallest claim to the approbation of mankind.”

Company mottos often evolve to remain relevant in the present day. As technology advances, globalisation intensifies and consumer habits change, so too do the ways in which businesses approach their work.

In 1768 Encyclopædia Britannica published the first sections of its inaugural edition in Edinburgh, Scotland. These opening words on utility, cited from its preface, have formed the basis of Britannica’s existence ever since.

The complete first edition, made up of three volumes, was released in 1771 at a time when scientific intrigue exploded and learning became a commodity, all set during the heart of a period commonly referred to as the Enlightenment.

Fast-forward through the ages and Encyclopædia Britannica continues to stand at the side of innovation and advancement after 250 years.

Heading up the now digital publishing enterprise is Karthik Krishnan, 20-year veteran of industries including healthcare and consumer and B2B media. Speaking from New York, 1,300 kilometres west from Britannica’s HQ in Chicago, it is abundantly clear he brings with him a deep-rooted passion for empowering learning.

“The transformative power of education, in a nutshell, is why I was attracted to the organisation,” he says. “I believe education needs to be reset globally, away from a mass production model to a much more personalised system where people are not only given an education, but a lens through which to learn.

“The two are different, and Britannica offers the opportunity to transform our approach to learning. At the moment we solve problems in conformity – we need to fall in love with the problem and not the solution, because the solution can change in many different ways through one lifetime.

“We must ask the question why, encourage critical thinking and be collaboratively curious. The founding members of Britannica were true visionaries – they were curious and wanted to bring knowledge to the masses.”

A global heavyweight

A quarter of a millennia on, and Encyclopædia Britannica has evolved from a single publication in Edinburgh to a global organisation comprising more than 5,000 contributors and several standalone sister companies.

“Collectively we reach around 150 million students from 83 countries around the world,” says Krishnan. “Across all of our platforms we generate around five billion pageviews annually, which places us in the top 10 reference sites in the world.

“More important is the fact we have the largest semantically referenced data set in English, which equates to around 25 million individual data points connecting various topics. This is also personalised in terms of categorising information at different learning levels, from beginners upwards.”

Asia forms an important part of Britannica’s global reach. In the early 1970s, the 29-volume giant Buritanika Kokusai Dai Hyakka Jiten, or Britannica International Encyclopædia, was published in conjunction with the Tokyo Broadcasting System. This is subject to continual revisions and additions, as demonstrated by partnerships with Casio, Uchida Yoko and Tsutaya.

In China, an agreement was struck with the Greater Encyclopedia of China Publishing House to translate a concise version of the 15th edition Britannica into Chinese. Starting at 10 volumes in 1985, it grew into the 20-volume Encyclopædia Britannica International Chinese Edition in 1999 and was substantially revised in 2007.

“Asia is a very interesting market for us,” Krishnan adds. “With the general huge growth economically and in terms of population, a great emphasis will be placed on this region regarding new knowledge creation.

“We will continue to learn the market here, understand its needs, build partnerships and add value.”

Channelling curiosity

It is no coincidence that Britannica greatly extended its geographical reach as computerised publishing began to take off.

From publishing through LexisNexis in 1981 through to launching on CD-ROM in 1989 and online for consumers in 1995, the advent of online connectivity has opened up what must have been an incomprehensible number of channels for content consumption.

Krishnan goes on to describe numerous channels Britannica has forayed into, including a partnership with Google Chrome to launch a sidebar information service for consumers using its search engine. Named Britannica Insights, the tool can be installed as a browser extension and will instantly feed a menu of accurately researched content once a term is searched in Google.

“Google is such a common starting point for seeking knowledge,” Krishnan says. “Today, 92 percent of people don’t navigate beyond the first page of search results and 60 percent only look at the top three results. This means that users could be going away without the most correct information.

“Britannica Insights is a free extension that presents fact-based, encyclopaedia-style way of navigating the topic you have searched. This is a learning framework we are trying to provide so that people don’t walk away with just one piece of information about a subject that could have numerous elements.”

Other emerging channels include video and voice assistants, an area in which Britannica has also partnered with industry pioneers.

“We have to improve the discoverability of content,” Krishnan continues. “But not just any content, because today in the internet age everybody is a publisher, and misinformation is an issue. For instance, we are also partnering with YouTube to help filter out fake information.

“With voice assistants, people will be receiving one response in answer to their questions. We want to make sure that piece of information is verified, accurate and hasn’t surfaced from anywhere on the internet.

“Our goal is to figure out how we make great knowledge accessible – people could be using a voice assistant, social media or even talking to their refrigerator or oven through the internet of things. We are looking at all of these areas and more.”

Having stood alongside innovation for 250 years, empowering millions around the world through access to information, it is the CEO’s objective to ensure Britannica builds on this formidable legacy.

By making learning as accessible and transformative as possible, generations to come will be futureproofed and ready for jobs which are yet to be defined. If Encyclopædia Britannica continues to play its part, it will be job well done for Karthik.

He concludes: “We are coming into a world where we are competing with artificial intelligence. Machines are better at remembering things than we are, so we as humans must start thinking about the kinds of problem solving skills that will empower us to be successful.

“If we cannot adapt to a future world, then things will become very difficult. Our job is to inspire curiosity and the joy of learning, and with the reach Britannica has, we have an amazing opportunity to make this happen.”


About Karthik Krishnan

As the Global CEO of the Britannica group of companies (Britannica, Merriam-Webster, Britannica Knowledge Systems, and Melingo), Karthik Krishnan is focused on value creation for customers and unlocking the true potential of the trusted brands within Britannica Group.

Prior to joining Britannica in November 2017, he spent over a decade at RELX (formerly known as Reed Elsevier, a FTSE 100 company) in various business leadership roles, driving cultural transformations and accelerating growth.

In his last role, as Senior Vice President and General Manager for the Clinical Reference business, he launched products that won coveted industry recognition, including Best in KLAS and Frost & Sullivan Technology Innovation awards. His other positions within RELX included Senior Vice President and General Manager of Global Pharma and eCommerce and Vice President of Interactive Media.

He is currently on the board of Urban Upbound, a non-profit focused on transforming the lives of people in public housing in New York through job training, financial fitness and college education. He is an adjunct professor at New York University – Stern School, where he obtained an MBA, and is a National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) governance fellow.

Krishnan strives to live up to a guiding mantra: “Every job is a self-portrait of the person who does it. Autograph your work with excellence.”