Bill Gates famously observed that society always overestimates the change that will happen in two years, and underestimates what will be achieved in ten. Looking back at the last ten years – the invention of the smartphone, the tablet, Google Chrome, virtual reality, Instagram – it seems he has a point.
But as the pace of change and the march of technology continue to ramp up exponentially, even Bill Gates’s wisdom might need updating. Truly modern business models that are harnessed to tech, rather than assets, capital or any physical product, have shown just how quickly industries can be turned on their head. Most people know about Uber’s radical rise as a global force in the private transport sector, but few know just how fast the company was able to pull off, what can only be described as, a near-miracle. From launching in San Francisco to operating across five continents took place inside three years.
The game changer is technology, in all its diversity and its abundance. The average phone in the pocket of today’s consumer is now becoming more powerful than their personal computer. With the roll out of lightning fast wireless internet to offices, transport and even open public spaces, it’s no wonder that the machine in the palm or our hand has become a guiding influence for all aspects of our lives, both public and private.
Yet, when Haines Watts, asked business owners what they were most worried about when it comes to disruption, technology came a lowly seventh, behind government legislation (46%), competition from larger business (42%), changing customer expectations (37%) and others. In fact, barely a fifth (22%) listed technological disruption as one of their pressing concerns.
Brexit, and other distractions
It’s important to get a handle on why that is. A combination of factors are responsible, ranging from the supposedly imminent catastrophe awaiting SMEs on the other side of the UK’s departure from the EU, through to the false sense of security that comes with the knowledge that one’s particular industry hasn’t yet suffered at the hands of tech disruptors.
Unfortunately neither of these reasons will stand the test of time. Firstly, Brexit, while a major concern and a distinct threat, will take a long time to come to fruition, giving companies plenty to time to respond to what will be slow, predictable and well publicised changes. Tech disruption on the other hand will come out of nowhere, just like Uber, and put inflexible, unprepared industry incumbents on the back foot from the get-go.
Secondly, a lack of evidence of an industry’s ripeness for digital disruption isn’t evidence that disruption isn’t imminent. The evidence is disruption, and when those warning signs appear, the storm will have already hit. Preparation, deep thinking and regular, open knowledge sharing among industry peers and advisers are the only way to get ahead of the curve.
The augmented CEO
Doing all of that isn’t easy, but not taking steps to prepare is no longer an option for anyone that wants to still have a thriving business in ten years time when the iPhone turns twenty.
The fundamental reality at the heart of disruption is that no matter how the UK navigates storms like Brexit, the danger will only increase from radically new digital-centred businesses creating new efficiencies and new service models. It can be an intimidating time, but it doesn’t have to spell doom. The advantages of being an incumbent in a market are also huge, from experience and knowledge to loyalty and trust.
By aggressively embracing the world of digital – perhaps even getting ahead of the game to hire the tech talent that can help to navigate small scale digital transformation – companies can take their fate into their own hands. But that starts by ensuring that no-one’s head is still in the sand.