Digital disruption. There is no doubt that this was the buzz-phrase of 2014. There is no doubt it is going to be the hot topic for C-level executives in 2015. But there’s a problem. ‘Disruption’ isn’t ‘disruption’ any more – it’s an earthquake. I believe that the label we have put on this phenomenon is distorting our perception of its magnitude and impact. And that’s dangerous for you as a leader and dangerous for the future of your business. The stakes have never been higher.
So what’s the answer? How should we respond? How do we ensure that our current understanding of digital disruption isn’t leading us astray? How do we avoid taking our eyes off the main game and being distracted by the latest shiny object to appear in our field of view? Good questions! To look forward into the future, we need to begin with a quick look backwards to the emergence of digital disruption.
Buzz-phrases and Buzz-kills
The initial concept of digital disruption emerged almost 20 years ago, introduced by Harvard Business School Professor, Clayton Christensen. His original theory related to ‘disruptive innovation’ and referred to the way new ideas and technologies could be deliberately employed to upset the status quo, redefine industry best practice and change the very rules of the game. It was about taking the initiative and playing ‘off the front foot’, as the cricketers would say. Of course, emerging digital technologies, as primitive as they look to us today, were the keys to creating this rapid and disruptive innovation.
Fast-forward to 2015 and the meaning of the term ‘digital disruption’ has morphed significantly. Now it’s a buzz-phrase used to describe the impacts that new digital technologies are having across all industries and sectors. The reality is that many businesses and business leaders are struggling with the concept of digital disruption and its implications for the future.
There’s a problem though. Forgive me for being a ‘buzz-kill’, but I’d like to argue that whilst the phenomenon of digital disruption is real, the term itself is no longer a helpful way of labelling what is happening. In fact, focusing on digital disruption could be damaging your, and your organisation’s, ability to respond to future challenges. At the heart of this issue is our understanding of what ‘disruption’ actually is.
A Rose By Any Other Name?
Disruption /dɪsˈrʌpʃn/noun : Disturbance or problem which interrupts an event, activity, or process. (Oxford Dictionary)
The seismic upheaval that is occurring is massive. The tectonic plates of society and business are being shifted and shaken. However, for many of us, our understanding of the concept of ‘disruption’ does not align with the magnitude of this change. I’ll say it again – what we are calling digital disruption is not ‘disruption’.
You could argue, “That’s just semantics!” and you would be absolutely right. What’s in a word? Everything! Shakespeare’s Juliet argued that, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The semiotics experts would beg to differ.
In fact, the way that we conceptualise an issue has a huge impact on the way we react to that issue. The label we attach to it affects both our intellectual and our emotional responses to it. Those labels are either meaningful and helpful or misleading and damaging. The way you think about issues and the way you talk about them with your team can determine the way you respond to them. So, what exactly is wrong with talking about ‘digital disruption’?
3 ways Digital Disruption could be leading you astray
Here are three reasons why I believe labelling this phenomenon as digital disruption is potentially dangerous for you and your organisation:
Firstly, ‘disruption’ implies problems – the changes brought by advances in digital technology and social media are perceived as troubles that need to be fixed or solved. Straight away this casts these changes in a negative light. They are stopping us from doing what we do!
If businesses and executives think of this new state of being as a damaging situation, rather than a positive opportunity to be grasped, it immediately puts them on a defensive footing. We are battening down the hatches to weather the ‘storm’. And although it shouldn’t be the case, often the thinking and action taken to tackle problems is much less creative than that which is applied to taking new initiatives. It’s often about restoring the status quo, rather than moving forward into the future. Or it’s about holding on, until the storm passes. In a rapidly changing environment, these attitudes and actions are recipes for disaster.
Secondly, ‘disruption’ implies that this is a temporary state of affairs. After the disruption things will return to the way they used to be. “Thanks for your patience. We will return to your program after this short interruption!”
Quite simply – that isn’t going to happen! The world has changed fundamentally. Like Neo taking the red pill in The Matrix, there is no way to get back to the way things were. This is not a temporary disruption to service – the old models and methods of doing business have largely been superseded. Failing to recognise this could put you and your organisation at a huge disadvantage. Waiting for things to ‘return to normal’ kills innovation and discourages forward thinking.
Thirdly, ‘disruption’ implies that this is a minor earth tremor rather than a major earthquake. The fact is – things don’t get much more major than this. This is not a change in direction, this is a paradigm shift – a new way of thinking and understanding. The game has changed and as we will see, this paradigm shift has emerged out of a massive power shift.
Ditch Disruption And Look To The Future
So, forget thinking about ‘disruption’. This evolving digital revolution is neither minor nor temporary. And rather than creating problems, it continues to create exciting opportunities and solutions across the board for all industries. Increasing efficiencies, improving processes, streamlining staffing, speeding up communication, opening up new markets, reinvigorating existing markets… the list goes on.
Okay, so we’ve ditched ‘disruption’ as unhelpful and limiting to our thinking. How should we conceptualise this social and technological tidal wave? My suggestion is to call it a digital redistribution. And as I mentioned, at the heart of it is a redistribution of power. Understanding this is the first step to refocusing your thinking and your business strategy and positioning yourself to ride this wave of change.
Three Effects of the Digital Redistribution
New digital technologies and tools have increased access to information, improved connectivity and speeded up the communication process. More people have more access to more information more quickly.
Access to information and new technologies mean power. Here are three ways that the digital redistribution has created a power shift:
1. Power has been redistributed away from institutions and businesses, back into the hands of citizens and consumers:
a) Consumers have faster access to more accurate information giving them increased ability to compare and contrast products.
b) Online buying allows consumers to access a global marketplace and much greater freedom of choice.
c) With the social media ‘megaphone’, word of mouth- acknowledged as the most powerful form of advertising- just got a whole lot louder! The comments of a few can have more impact, more reach and often more credibility than an expensive marketing campaign.
2. Power has been redistributed from big, slower-moving corporations to smaller, more agile businesses which can give them an edge in a rapidly changing marketplace:
a) smaller businesses can innovate more quickly adopting and adapting new technologies.
b) smaller businesses have smaller infrastructures so they have less capital and emotional investment in maintaining the status quo
c) smaller businesses can now market competitively with big businesses and maximise their ‘bang-for-buck’ using the power and reach of social media.
3. Power (and market share) is being redistributed from slow adopters of more customer-centred business models to businesses which are able to rapidly embrace this new paradigm and successfully engage with their customers at a deeper level.
Those businesses which still have a ‘broadcast’ model of marketing – we have the message and we need to tell the customer – will continue to lose market share to those businesses who use new technologies to develop a relationship with the customer (a two-way interaction with benefits to both parties).
Don’t Just React – Refocus
Massive change is both disturbing and disorientating. The danger is that we either panic, grasping for solutions wildly and desperately or we stick our heads in the sand and hope the storm blows over. I’ve watched leaders do both of these things and the results are never pretty.
So, what’s the way forward? What are some principles to help you surf this tidal wave of change? Let me give you four ways you can respond constructively to this digital redistribution:
- Don’t just react – Don’t be dazzled or intimidated by the new technologies. The reality is that they will keep emerging at an increasingly frantic pace. Instead carefully consider how this digital redistribution – this shift of power – impacts and will continue to impact on your business. You can safely assume three things – people will continue to get greater access to information, connectivity (of everything with everything!) will increase and the speed of communication will accelerate.
- Refocus on what is important – Remember that the main thing is still the main thing. Know what your ‘main thing’ is and ensure that your team and your customers know what it is too. Aim to deliver excellence and value so your clients have something positive to tweet about!
- Clarify your message – The online world is crowded with ‘content’. I call it ‘digital static’. The key characteristics of messages that cut through the static are that they are clear, simple and customer-focused. Say more with less – your clients will thank you for it and your message will stand out.
- Harness the power of digital to get you there – If you know what your core business is and you have a clear message, digital technologies are the ideal instruments to help you achieve your objectives. But let me be clear about this – let them serve you and your business, not the other way around! Refocus, clarify and then choose the right tool for the job.
The Brave New Digital World
Don’t let the talk about digital disruption lead you and your organisation astray. The key is to recognise it for what it is – not so much a ‘disruption’ as an earthquake. It’s a paradigm shift that is here to stay. It’s a fundamental redistribution of power that is changing the game.
Best of all, it can open up a brave new world of opportunity for you and your business. So, don’t panic! Refocus your mission, clarify your message and then confidently harness the power of this digital redistribution as it carries us into the future.