Uber has reinvented the transportation business, Facebook is changing everything we ever knew about media owners, Amazon's endless march is destroying large retailers in it's path. We’ve Netflix worrying TV companies, Tesla threatening Automotive makers and the list of unicorns from SnapChat to Airbnb to WeWork to Seamless seems to grow longer by the week.
In order to understand these we’ve formed generalizations, we’ve assumed that these, the fastest growing companies the world has ever known, are “disruptive”, we’ve called many “the sharing economy” and we label each and every one a “tech company”. It’s not just frustratingly inaccurate, it painfully misunderstands the underlying reason for success. WeWork or Seamless isn’t by any sensible definition disruptive, Airbnb or Uber isn’t a sharing company any more than American Airlines or Marriott, and are Tesla or Netflix really collectively home to more technical prowess than say BMW or Telefonica?
The celebration of “tech” companies is going too far, Domino’s is now “a technology company that happens to make pizza”, Dell like to think they are “the worlds largest startup”, from Dollar Shave Club to Blue Apron to Casper Mattresses, we’re thinking any company with a nice website is miraculously different.
They are companies built for the Modern Age.
This is not to undermine the remarkable and deserved success of a tranche of companies that have improved my and many other’s lives significantly. Their success lies in is they brought digital thinking and modern behaviors to the very heart of their companies, not just bolted it onto the side.
These are companies founded in a world of new behaviors, inspired by new technology and liberated by new market dynamics. They have ignored all existing companies in their marketplace, they’ve been propelled into rapid growth unencumbered by the same elements, assets, knowledge, learned behavior that once fueled the incumbents.
We shape our tools and then our tools shape us: a classic Marshall McLuhan quote that most perfectly explains the current business reality. These companies realize that the modern age is a time of scarce attention and abundant connectivity, where smartphones are our primary access and point to everything; where money and everything is digital; where the interface layer is where the profit is; where physical assets and employees are liabilities; and where providing a slick, best in class human experience will create your companies most profound business.
What these companies have all learned is that new technology is everything, and it’s essential for every company and every person to be cognizant of the possibilities it provides. Much of the world has collectively failed to learn the lessons from the past and see that when a technology really arrives, it blends into the background.
When electricity became widely available after the industrial revolution, it didn’t change things overnight; it took many decades for it to make a difference. To start with we used it at the edges and embellished what we had. Factories used the very same belts to power the same equipment in the same places and, powered by one electric motor, the benefits were marginal.
Only in retrospect was the error of their thinking obvious. Some 20 years later it was clear that electricity was core, it was something that changed the very fabric of what was possible and how to do it. The real power of electricity allowed factories to be arranged in totally different ways, to reduce staffing, work 24/7, make new things and, above all else, relocate from locations near fuel to areas near ports and population for workers.
Of course we don’t have electrical advertising agencies or have electricity strategists or heads of electricity, It’s just a given that everyone gets it. So why is it we allow ourselves to talk about digital the same way?
Technology isn't a thing, it's everything.
Technology is not oil to lubricate; it’s oxygen to grow ideas and change business. Modern businesses need to disrupt themselves at the very core, empowered by what new behaviors and new technology make possible and what people today demand and expect. We won't tolerate waiting. Banks need to reevaluate their roles in the modern world. Gyms need to use technology to become health partners. Car makers need to become transportation solution companies. Why didn’t a telco invent WhatsApp? Or GM start Uber or Kodak create Instagram? Or Blockbuster, Netflix?
Digital transformation is not about a digital department, a mobile strategist won’t save your company. It is not the role of any additional unit to take your company from irrelevance to leadership. It’s a philosophy that all must adopt. If you’re a physical retailer, your role is not to have a better app than your mall neighbor, it’s to reconsider the entire purchase process up to and including delivery and return and the entire relationship with customers over their lifetime.
If you’re a hotel company, use technology to bring to life everything that hospitality and personalization can be in the modern age. From freeing staff stuck behind desks to iPad-carrying helpers, to reconsidering the role of hotels in a future world of freelance workers and telecommuting.
Hertz is a good example of technology added at the edges. I can book a car using a decent app, and as a Gold member my car is sometimes featured on a digital display. They have video calling kiosks in their reception areas. But that’s it. And frequently they lose my booking.
If I want to extend my booking or change locations it’s a painful series of phone calls. If I want to upgrade, its frantic key-pressing at the point of collection for seemingly hours. Using technology in a deeper fashion would allow iBeacons to send me live upgrade offers I could accept with one swipe. More advanced technology may incentivize one-way rentals that suit the business, allow per-hour rentals when it maximizes their fleet. These are not gimmicky edge use-cases; these are ways to increase fleet utilization and boost profits significantly.
Retailers often show they’ve “got omnichannel” by chucking an iPad in the corner, but the systems don’t allow you to pay at the till, or return stock to the store, or give the shop assistants the sales credit for leading you there or helping you. What retailer really need to do today is understand that after years of online shopping people no longer tolerate waiting in line, they expect to find what they want immediately. They want things to fit first time ( end vanity sizing) and they want to shop based on what works together- what does "you may also like" become in store?
It's not about digital talent, it's about imagination.
You don’t need a head of digital or a digital department. In fact you should banish the world digital as an entirely redundant word. But your company needs to understand these changing times and prepare to reimagine yourself for the near future, based on what new possibilities and threats new technology provide.
Dream don't engineer, don't look back on the past, work around the unmet needs and unstated dreams of customers in the modern age. And yes, of course that includes a mobile website.