By Jerry Mooney
The way technology is affecting the economy is changing dramatically. In the past, company leaders could plan and predict for change, and then slowly adapt their organizations over the long run to accommodate it. But with the pace of change today, we’re discovering that regular humans can’t really keep up. When asked about their number one concern about the economy and the future of their business, more people at the top of companies say that it’s technology and what it’s going to do to their business model.
According to a survey by Forbes, more than a quarter of business executives are currently fighting “technology,” meaning that 25 percent of all firms in the market see technology as a disruptive force.
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Warnings about technology aren’t new. Academic studies usually focus on the employee side of things, predicting mass layoffs as a result of automation. But from a company perspective, things like pretty dire too. The churn rate of Fortune 500 companies is already at record levels and is expected to double by 2030, thanks to a combination of AI, VR, machine learning, cloud networks, digital strategy, 3D printing and quantum computing. In short, technology is driving fundamental changes in the economy which will cause high levels of economic turbulence never before experienced by most bosses.
At the moment, the biggest problem is that executives are operating under 20th-century management models. Their primary role, as they’ve been trained to see it, is to facilitate processes and meet objectives. But thanks to technology, those goals and processes are in constant flux. When technological developments are uncertain, objectives become fuzzy, and one can no longer predict with confidence whether a particular course of action is wise. Perhaps the management strategies those in leadership positions within companies were appropriate for the world that existed when managers were in school, but it certainly doesn’t today.
The very nature of what it means to run a business today is different to the past. Historically, running a business was simply a matter of gathering up the inputs you needed from suppliers and combining them in ways that people want. But thanks to things like data analytics and digital marketing, that’s no longer the case. Instead, businesses are taking a network approach, slotting themselves into the wider structure of the industry they occupy and trying to find advantageous ground. The best leaders are slowly coming to realize that they need to be part of the system of relationships that brings customers what they want and that they need to have fingers in everybody else’s pie.
Disruption Isn’t New: It’s The Reach Of Disruption That’s Raising Eyebrows
It should be noted that disruption really isn’t anything new. We’ve seen technology make an impact in dozens of sectors for decades. Perhaps the first was farming when mechanization forced the closure of millions of family farms and prompted migration to the cities as people searched for work. Later came the revolution in the banking industry brought about by automatic teller machines. At one point, the industry employed hundreds of thousands of clerks simply to count and hand out money to customers. But with the rise of money vending machines, those people got disrupted, and banks changed. Likewise, supermarkets became less labor-intensive with the advent of smart inventory systems and self-service checkouts. And if Amazon’s new Seattle store has anything to say about it, these trends will be taken to the furthest point possible, with no retail staff at all.
The difference between classical disruption and the disruption of the present decade is its reach. Today, we have a general technology which could be termed “digital intelligence” which has applications across the board. The last time such a shift occurred was when the economy electrified in the decades following the invention of electricity – but that change took nearly half a century to complete. In the modern era, most technologies are adopted on the order of years, not decades. And, as a result, companies can find their profits tanking in the course of just a few months if a disruptive competitor starts grabbing marketing share.
What’s more, as the professional services company McKinsey.com points out, it’s not just businesses that are disappearing but entire industry categories. We’ve seen the end of physical cameras and film, music stores, video rental shops and many other services that now fit on a smartphone. With increased digitization and the growth of chatbots and AI assistants, whole new classes of cognitive labor will also be automated away. Accountancy firms really could become a thing of the past, only to be replaced by software that can process business accounts instantly.
Disruption is going to happen, and so many executives have taken the view that it’s either disrupt or be disrupted. There’s just no point in waiting for technology to come along and destroy a business. What’s needed is change today in anticipation for tomorrow. Nobody wants to be the next Kodak.
So how should the C-suite react to more disruptive technology?
Think In Terms Of Platforms/Networks, Not Products
The digital revolution has forced a wholesale collapse in what economists call transaction costs – that is, the cost of doing business. If you wanted to trade with somebody halfway around the world in the 1970s, you either had to get on a boat with a briefcase full of cash and see them in person, or you had to pay an agent to transact on your behalf. In short, it was costly to do business. But digital currencies, online marketplaces, and online checkouts have pushed transaction costs down to a level where they are negligible. Now the value is not in the ability to transact, but the technology that makes it possible. Look at the success of platforms like Paypal, Amazon, and eBay, all of which are mere facilitators of market operations.
Taking a network approach is essential in a world with constant disruption. You want to position your company to occupy critical nodes in that network to cement your position in the market and prevent competitors from dislodging you. Dell, for instance, used to focus on just making computers. But it didn’t want to go the way of other computer manufacturers like Tiny, which went out of business almost as soon as the mobile revolution hit, so it tried to make itself more of a platform, becoming a data-driven company and setting itself up as a specialist to help others do the same.
Use Data For Digital Marketing
It’s not just on the product front where companies need to worry about being disrupted, it’s in the marketing space too. At the moment, far too few established companies really appreciate the power of the digital platform, and many simply aren’t reaching out online in the most effective ways possible. Yes, most companies have SEO strategies, but the digital marketing environment is one in which you get out what you put in, and currently, startups with very little money are doing a better job than established players.
According to Digitalico.com news, one of the most important aspects of digital marketing is its uniqueness. Yet many of larger companies still don’t direct their creativity effectively online. For instance, some use stock photos, rather than their own, just because it’s quicker and cheaper to do so.
To really get ahead in the digital space, it’s important to be as dispassionate as possible. Whereas influence and real-life social networks mattered a lot in the past to get the message out, in the digital world, the rules are set by search giants like Google, and they apply equally to everybody.
Digging deeper also allows companies to figure out what it is that their customers actually want from their advertising which simply wasn’t possible in the past. Digital data is revealing whether marketing ideas that the marketing department thinks will be successful really are.
Start Making Partnerships
The idea of a single company journeying alone is increasingly past-tense. Today, companies that matter are seeking partnerships with other firms. This trend fundamentally comes out of platform thinking and is a recognition that individual companies really can’t do it all in a world where customer needs are so multifaceted. We’re in the era of “coopetition,” not competition.
Thus, companies are seeking partnerships to become more than the sum of their parts. They’re doing this because they want to occupy critical information pathways in the business network to cement their position, just in case they are disrupted.
Use Data To Create Emotional Ties To Customers
Apple managed to be incredibly successful on the back of establishing an emotional connection with its clients back in 2004 when it launched the iPod. Since then, the company has done pretty much the same with the rest of its products and has kept enormous margins in a market where they are typically paper thin. Regular companies need to do the same, otherwise, they risk becoming little more than white-label back offices with small margins and exposure. High margin operations depend on using data to find out what makes customers tick and then deploying it in the most effective way possible.