The future of business is the future of technology

Recently Rebecca Nash from ABC’s The Business asked me to consider the future of business over the next decade. Here’s some thoughts from that conversation.

The future of business has always been driven by developments in technology, and the digital revolution is of equivalent substance to the previous industrial revolution. This has important implications for the future of business.

Manufacturing will not die but it will change

Manufacturing used to be about employing large numbers of people in relatively low skilled jobs. However, this has been declining for many years with the introduction of robotics and automated production lines.  Automation of production lines is already highly advanced, but now we will see new approaches to how things are constructed. This trend in manufacturing employment will continue with the introduction of technologies such as 3D printing.

One  of the possibilities arising from 3D printing is enabling mass customization. A good example of this is shoe production via 3D printing, Australian startup Shoes of Prey is already using this technology. Another compelling application of 3D printing is in medical solutions like this: 3D printer gives disabled girl “magic arms” exoskeleton. Although it is important to note that the technology can be used for other purposes too for example, the ability to create a weapon.

Changed competitive landscape

The digital revolution is also leveling the playing field between competitors, and being large is less advantageous than previously. Smaller competitors can form loose coalitions that provide similar scale to a larger organization without the need for capital intensive setup.

We are likely to see a reduction in the market power of big players. Some traditional businesses will fail to scan the environment and detect shifts in the consumer environment. A good example of this is the differences in adoption of new technology and business models and its impact on the performance of competitors Kogan and Harvey Norman.

New internet

Another game changer is the internet of things – things knowing information about themselves and talking to each other, and enabling us to interact with them.  Thus metadata becomes increasingly important and enables the continued development of augmented reality applications such as those made possible by technologies such as Google Glass.

The internet of things will be enabled by wirelessly connected sensor technology. An interesting example of this is DNA tags as used by ethical Australian timber company Simmonds Lumber to help stamp out illegal logging. Yet this technology will have important ramifications for our personal privacy too – we will be asked to trade-off convenience for privacy.

Cost shifting to lower cost regions will continue – but those regions may change as economic shifts happen in the developed world.  That is, due to economic shifts, developed countries may evolve as lower labour cost regions.

Changing customer landscape

Power relations between business and consumers are shifting, and the shift is toward empowerment of consumers. This requires new attitudes and responses from business, and this requires customer insight which is provided by good data. Data will increasingly drive decision making and the making of meaning within businesses.

New approaches – loose coupling

Innovation will be powered by loosely coupled technical components that are joined up with loosely coupled business components. Even large businesses will need to find ways of being nimble and agile, to develop the ability to pivot rapidly in response to environmental changes.

Change cycles will increase in rapidity so businesses will need to constantly scan the external environment to assess and adapt.

Organizations will need to develop skills in entrepreneurship as an internal capability to drive innovation. If access to credit or capital becomes constrained then organic growth capability will be critical for business. Further, the ability to partner effectively with other organizations will also be critical to growth.

Effective use of resources becomes critical

Sustainability will continue to grow in importance, not just to save the environment. Sustainability will be important from both a cost control and environmental perspective.

Access to natural resources that we take for granted – such as water or petrochemicals – will become increasingly competitive.  And access to other resources needed to grow a business are also likely to be problematic.  A good example is access to credit.

New ways of doing traditional things like eduction and work

Schools and universities will not need to look like they do now. The need for large places enormous investments in physical infrastructure are no longer necessary to perform the task of eduction.  Online education and collaboration technologies mean that we do not necessarily need to ‘go’ to school in the way we do now.

This has implications for society and business. We currently use schools as a holding bay for children while their parents are working at the office 9-5.  If young people no longer need to attend school in a physical sense then how will their parents manage, and what impact will this have on the traditional workplace?

Also the need for workers to be physically present at an office to do their work will reduce. Better communications and presence technology means that adults will also be able to work from other locations than the traditional office. Some good examples of the evolution of co-working in Australia are Hub Melbourne, or Vibewire and Fishburners in Sydney.

This will drive changes in the ways that organisations design and define their physical footprint. It also means significant changes for currently viable business models such as building and renting commercial real estate.

Yet human beings still need interaction with others. Our young people need to interact with each other physically to evolve as human beings. Adults need to connect with each other in the work context.  We have a strong social drive and these needs still need to be met.

It is likely that localised co-working spaces will continue to evolve as solutions to this need for human contact and affiliation.  No longer will we head, lemming-like, to a corporate office in the city, instead we will head to the local co-working space where we can connect virtually with our colleagues.

Rise of collaborative models – leisure, work, competition

This does not mean that competition will disappear, however it will change.  Due to increasingly scarce resources collaboration will become more important for business. Further, the question of why a business needs to do everything for itself will become important. With cloud and ubiquitous connections to the network partnering with best-of-breed service providers will be easier.

In the personal sphere collaboration is likely to increase too.  And the change will be driven by similar considerations to business.  For example, why own a car when you don’t need one all the time, especially if you can get access to one whenever you need it?

Shared resources – cars, tools, etc – will make increasing sense to people and shift the consumer culture from one of product acquisition to service adoption. Some good examples of existing collaborative consumption models include Open Shed and 99 Dresses.

The future is a distant country*

Some of my prognostications will be wrong in their particulars. But the technology trends are clear. The next decade will see the rise of new businesses fuelled by technologies that don’t exist yet.  The job I do for a living did not exist when I left school. The industry I work in did not exist at the start of my career. I can see no reason why those trends will change in future. We need to be open to the new opportunities and accept that things move faster now.
* with apologies to L.P. Hartley

Digital economy and the digital revolution

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. “

On the Continued Economic Decline of the West

Jon Moynihan, Executive Chairman of PA Consulting Group, made a presentation at the London School of Economics in July 2012 titled The Continued Economic Decline of the West. He dissects the problems we face, taking a deep dive into the stagnating Western world, and proffers some possible solutions.

It is worth noting that Moynihan comes to this from a non-Keynsian perspective. Indeed, I found his characterization of neo-Keynesians as the true inheritors of Fabian Socialism amusing. And he castigates the Western government’s general disregard for running surpluses and their affection for deficits.

This changing economic landscape that we in the West will inhabit must be contemplated by our leaders and citizens. It is sobering to consider the data that he presents.  Yet within the challenges there must be opportunities.

Moynihan outlines a sombre future. A future where young people cannot reasonably expect to get jobs or be well paid; one where xenophobia and discontent may well become the norm.

As Niall Ferguson has argued: “If the young knew what was good for them they’d join the Tea Party”. Thus we can expect to see shifts in political allegiances arising from the social disruptions we can expect from the economic disruption evolving in the West.

As Moynihan sees it some of the issues that loom large for Western nations include:

  • Inability of the West to protect existing IP due to counterfeiting or piracy by the Developing world
  • Inability of the West to innovate and create new IP on large scale due to inadequate capital available
  • China is rapidly increasing their number of patents registered – supported by their 10,000 science PhD graduates per annum
  • Number of adults in West who leave school unable to read – 1 in 5  Western school leavers are functionally illiterate
  • The West has a low propensity to invest new capital into new ventures and infrastructure
  • Western nations have a growing hostility towards high income earners and lack of encouragement for entrepreneurs and VCs
  • Western wages will fall – low paid workers to suffer most and this means that demand will decrease – it will lead to a global equalization of wages
  • Entitled groups – banks, CEOs, public sector, benefit claimants – mean that funds are not available for investment (NB: there is an interesting example of what happens when a government downsizes the public sector happening right now in Queensland)

What is to be done?

According to Moynihan the solution lies in what many would view as fairly radical steps:

  • Reorient government spending away from entitlements and towards new infrastructure (like an NBN)  and education
  • Reform the banks so that they do not make excess profits
  • Move taxation away  from corporate and personal income taxes and towards consumption and property taxes
  • Develop new technologies, support new forms of manufacturing, and support ecosystems that provide job multipliers – he cites the Rational Optimist for ideas
  • Accept immediate cuts in living standards by increasing retirement age and reducing entitlements

It’s worth taking the time to watch the entire presentation, even if you don’t agree with his ideas there are lots of interesting data.

http://techtv.mit.edu/embeds/20213?size=medium&custom_width=432&player=simple&external_stylesheet=

If you don’t have time to watch the entire video then it’s worth viewing the slide deck from Moynihan’s talk on Business Insider. It is food for thought. I hope that our politicians are taking time to get their heads around these issues that we face.

However, I suspect that these issues that we face will not be addressed at a national, regional, or global level. The political cost of doing something will paralyze many governments from taking action until too late.

It is time to think about localized solutions and building resilient communities. It is time to reboot capitalism and find new and sustainable economic approaches.