Digital economy and the digital revolution

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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the digital revolution and the changes that it is driving in the economy. We are seeing a bifurcation between the old 19th and 20th century manufacturing based industries and the 21st century digital economy.

This is a shift from creation of tangible products to the creation of digital products.  These digital products are not intangible. We still touch them, but the interaction is mediated by digital devices. For example we are still reading books and listening to music, but instead of reading a physical book or listening to a physical record or CD we simply download the digital media to our devices.

 Newspapers are a good example

What drove the success of newspapers and magazines in 19th and 20th centuries? The need for information, the scarcity of that information, and the tyranny of distance that prevented ordinary people from acquiring information easily.

And it was advertising and information about shipping that was the killer app for the newspapers. Classified advertising and the shipping schedules met key information needs for consumers and merchants alike.

This situation made newspapers a valued intermediary between sellers and buyers. And it made them valuable to consumers of information about the world, people, politics, and current events

Even digital business are not immune to change

A stalwart digital business is World of Warcraft, and I was surprised to see it reported via BBC News that World of Warcraft loses another million subscribers. 

Yet along with Facebook, with its recent IPO debacle, and Zynga, with its disappointing earnings and consequent management changes, we are seeing digital business struggle. This shows that being a digital business is not the sole answer.  There are other elements of success that we must uncover.

Thus it is interesting to consider The 10 (Surprising) Companies That Make More Money Online Than Facebook where Alexis Madrigal notes (via Paid Content) that the following companies earn more revenue that Facebook:

  1. Google
  2. China Mobile
  3. Bloomberg
  4. Reed Elsevier
  5. Apple
  6. Yahoo
  7. WPP
  8. Thomson Reuters
  9. Tencent
  10. Microsoft

One thing of which I’m certain: businesses whose revenues rely solely on people clicking online ads are destined for the deadpool in the long run.

Information scarcity is gone – we need trustworthy filters

That day is gone. Information scarcity is a thing of the past. Instead our need is to identify the best and most reliable sources among the flood of information available to us.

There was a good discussion of this in Techdirt recently: Turns Out That The iPad Won’t Magically Bring Back Scarcity For Magazines .

The fallacy of adopting old business models and applying them to the digital economy

There has been a belief that we can simply pick up old business practices and apply them to digital channels and expect similar results to what we got last century.  But some recent evidence indicates that this might not be the case.

Some recent articles that point to emerging challenges to traditional advertising approaches are:

New models evolving

Some new approaches that are evolving are supported by concepts like content marketing and community engagement. In recent times the retailer Sears has adopted a new approach and recounts progress: Sears Explains Its Success In Content Marketing.

This article by Shane Snow discusses some of the issues facing us in the digital economy How To Thrive In The Free-Product Economy, the fairly radical call here is:

“The bottom line is someone will probably one day ship a version your product for free. Maybe it will lack this or that feature you hold so dear, but that won’t matter. The broader the appeal, the more likely someone’s going to undercut your paid product with a free one.

I say beat the competition to the punch. It’s going to happen anyway. And setting your product free may just earn you the most business you’ve ever had.”

Even in traditional businesses some are reporting success in the digital economy, for example as Mathew Ingram reported recently:

“Both the Financial Times and the New York Times have either already crossed or are close to crossing an important threshold: namely, the point at which revenue from reader subscriptions exceeds the revenue they get from advertising.”

But Ingram notes, this success is largely because advertisers are departing in droves. The decline of advertising driven revenue models will only get worse in this age of information richness.

Technology shifts are driving the change even faster

As Dave Copeland notes Social Discovery Is Pushing Search and Social Closer and:

“Social Search Is the Web’s New Disruptor”

And consumers are increasingly living in a realtime world and feel annoyed or disrespected when organizations do not deliver to their expectations. A good example of this was the so-called #nbcfail where the NBC network in the US did not broadcast Olympic events to its audience in realtime. Instead it chose to only present them in delayed telecast during prime time.  This led to negative reports on social networks and even to Twitter banning a journalist at NBC’s request, which led to reports like: The #nbcfail isn’t about email addresses, it’s about corporate cronyism.

The Olympics also provided an example of how walled gardens for sponsors simply result in bad user feedback in these hyperconnected days. For example, this user reported their experience of visiting the London Olympics and provided their feedback on one of the sponsors.

The kind of command and control approach used by the Olympic organising committed and their sponsors seems strangely out of step with the digital world.  And it is so easily subverted as demonstrated so amusingly by Nike in London.

I’m not sure what the disruptors will be, but as Tom Foremski said of changes to our traditional business models:

“This is the Gordian knot of our times. The saving grace is that if anyone, I, Rupert Murdoch, or you — figure it out, we all benefit, we can all adapt to that business model.

I’ve been warning about this issue since I left the Financial Times in mid-2004. At the time, I was confident that we’d find a solution within five years. We haven’t — and I’ve seen nothing yet that shows that we will. “

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The business of social business

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Social business is the new trend following on from Enterprise 2.0 – but underlying it is an essential conflict between two different styles of doing business.  The conflict is between businesses optimized for efficiency and those optimized for the creation of value.

Greg Satell encapsulates this conflict neatly in his 2010 post Creating Efficiency vs. Creating Value. He raises the notion of Kuhnian paradigm shifts and open innovation as a key part of creating value.

However, I suspect that Geoff Livingston is right when he argues that we are actually facing the post social media revolution era.

These two ideas – that we have entered the post social media revolution era and; that we need to create value as opposed to efficiency – frame the challenge of the next few years for business.

With the decline of the verities of the economic system that we’ve taken for granted over the past 30 years we are now faced with a new economic landscape within which to create and grow businesses.

In an environment of reduced consumer power, restricted credit and the prospect of sovereign crises, businesses need to find ways to harness creativity to generate revenue. This means we must diversify our efforts from a focus on efficiency and cost optimization. It means that we need to create mechanisms for creation and sharing of value.

We need to find new ways of doing business that do not merely follow the ideological constraints of what has gone before. Instead it is time to bring all of our commitment and determination to find new ways of doing things.

It will be insufficient to merely put the word ‘social’in front of our business activities. It will be necessary to find out how to embed social processes and technology within our businesses to meet the demands of these challenging times.

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If capitalism is broken is social innovation a way to fix it?

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Over the past several years I have come to think that capitalism as practised in the western world is fundamentally broken. Even before the global financial crisis (GFC) this feeling was strong. But in the aftermath of the GFC my discomfort with modern capitalism has continued to grow. Nothing I have seen, read or heard has shifted my perception.

I know and understand the world of capitalism. I like capitalism and think that it has been good for us in many ways. I respect profit and the law of compound interest. Most of my work experience since leaving school has been with large corporations (mostly large enterprises, Fortune 500 or S&P/ASX 200) – what I jokingly refer to as ‘the belly of the beast’.

But business models that were effective for organisations in past centuries are no longer relevant to the conditions that face the world today. We must find business models that are sustainable, equitable and fair to replace them.

A few things to consider:

  • Western business has been like a cargo cult for too long and has elevated shareholder return as an idol.
  • What good to shareholders (a.k.a. human beings) if the profit that is returned to them comes at the price of the environment their children and grandchildren must inherit?
  • What good to the shareholders if the people who work in the business to generate those returns are broken by corporate politics and are called upon to undertake immoral or illegal acts (for example #hackergate)?
  • What good if those returns to shareholders are generated at the cost of social bonds and the common good?

For many years I’ve pondered: surely it must be possible to generate profit sustainably and to create social good while generating profit?

Over the years I’ve also noticed a growing number of people thinking along similar lines. These people have talked about, among other things, the idea social innovation.  They have also discussed concepts such as sustainable or resilient communities (checkout the MiiU wiki); and concepts like open source innovation are becoming increasingly important.

Even if the US manages to sort out its internal issues with the debt ceiling, there remain serious economic issues in Europe and North America.

We need to take collective action to create profit and abundance that is sustainable on a social, economic and environmental basis.

For too long we have let run rampant a corporate ideology that exalts profit as a deity and we have allowed worship at the altar of shareholder returns to dominate our thinking and ways of doing in business around the world.

It’s time to create better ways for organisations to be more sustainable, more humane, and more planet friendly.

UPDATE 7 AUG 2011

An interesting article just popped up on The Guardian from the UK: Our financial system has become a madhouse. We need radical change. Here Will Hutton argues that “As a new global crisis looms, and political paralysis worsens, genuinely bold solutions are required to overcome the malaise”. I recommend this article.

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Headshift event: Social Business Design – Pathways to Success on 23/11 in Sydney

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The Headshift team is running a short event on the 23rd November, here in Sydney:

Everyone is talking about social media, social networks, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter but not many people are discussing how to be a socially designed business.

A social business is one where we use the opportunities presented by new technologies to deliver business value – to reduce costs, increase effectiveness or mitigate risks.

Come along to this presentation to discuss a new perspective on being a socially designed business:

  • Customer Participation: Engaging with customers in ways that traditional one-way communication cannot support.
  • Workforce Collaboration: Meeting your workforce’s need to collaborate and coordinate efforts to effectively meet business goals.
  • Business Partner Optimisation: Rethinking value chain relationships, including connections like suppliers, distribution networks, and vendors/delivery partners.

During the presentation, the Headshift team will facilitate discussion and lead a brainstorming activity to help you understand the opportunities and think about next steps.
via headshift.com

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