A few years ago, back when column-inches rather than tweets were the natural habitat of sporting pundits, they would regularly fill those inches by getting themselves in a froth about who would be “the next Ian Botham”. Speculation about the identity of a new iconic all-rounder, someone who could single-handedly put England’s cricketing rivals to the sword, may have been easy copy but it was a genuinely tough question to answer. (Spoiler alert – it turned out to be Andrew Flintoff.)
I see something similar happening today in the tech space. Here, though, the question is usually who will emerge to become “the next Airbnb”. Everyone has a pet favourite when it comes to stories about disruptors. Maybe you’re a Spotify fan. You’re almost certainly a Facebook user. It’s not surprising that the media gets excited about who is going to emerge to shake up an entire industry – and change our lives into the bargain.
For me, though, such speculation misses the point. England will always need its cricketing heroes (step forward Moeen Ali) but businesses don’t necessarily need to set out to be disruptors. Not when there’s so much disruption going on around them to be tapped into.
Consider just a few technology shifts going on around us right now.
The move in e-commerce from old-school websites to smartphones has happened incredibly quickly. Mobile internet traffic reached parity with the desktop in 2015 – and it hasn’t looked back. Some 62 percent of smartphone users have made a purchase on their phone in the past six months. I’m a bit surprised that figure’s not higher actually. And yet one of the banks I use still has an unresponsive website that’s essentially impossible to use on my phone. That’s an example of someone missing disruption that was, frankly, staring them in face.
Voice technology is also quickly (and, ironically, quietly) building momentum. Amazon’s Alexa now has more than 15,000 “skills” available, and new ones are being added at a pace that makes the early days of Apple’s App Store seem positively glacial. And at IBM we’re advising more and more companies on how to embed conversation capabilities into devices themselves. A coffee machine or a projector is only ever going to have a fixed number of tasks to complete, so it’s easy – conceptually at least – to teach it to only listen to relevant commands.
Augmented reality (AR) is another example. Here the disruption is not so much about new technology – we’ve been talking about potential applications of AR for years – but about the emergence of effective technology at an affordable price. What was once prohibitive is now affordable. Look out for an explosion in applications like AR-enabled instruction manuals.
So disruption is all around us. And organisations can and should be taking advantage. Far better to seek out incremental changes that tap into these dramatic shifts than to set out to somehow engineer a fundamental industry-wide change.
As a term, “disruption” is still useful: it underlines a sense of urgency that is crucial in the current tech landscape. Anyone who thinks these big tech shifts – and there are many more – are just trends that they can follow at their leisure is going to get left behind.
And there are certainly foundations that CIOs can lay down to better equip their businesses for success in this era of widespread disruption. All organisations should be aiming to create a platform that ensures they can create smarter applications and services, accelerate their innovation and use of data and optimise their use of the cloud.
But rather than set out to be a disruptor per se, my advice would be to keep an open mind, think laterally about what disruptive trends you might be able to put to good use and – above all – listen. Follow the right people on Twitter. Go to more conferences. Carve out some time to read a tech journal or two.
Oh, and listen to your kids. They’ll probably be using the Next Big Thing before you even know it exists!
For further information read the Harvard Business Review report “From data to disruption: Innovation through digital intelligence,” about how everyone needs to exploit data and insight at faster rates than ever before in order to deal with dynamic market and competitive threats.