When it comes to Digital Disruption, one of the most vexing and important questions is:
Why do incumbent businesses have such a hard time dealing with digital disruption even when it unfolds right in front of them?
Drawing on my work and experience in this field I have distilled a number of important factors into a framework, which I name the VIRUS model. The acronym emerged conveniently from the process of isolating these factors, but carries a deeper meaning: It captures the ways in which the disruptive product or service is able to emerge slowly, steadily and unrecognised – when symptoms are first noticed by the wider market, it is often too late, and full-blown disease strikes.
VIRUS stands for: Visibility, Information, Risk, Utility, and Speed. Each of the factors are explained below.
VISIBILITY: Can’t fight what you can’t see.
Despite what the name suggests ‘disruption’ doesn’t happen suddenly. The disruptive technology, product or service usually has been around for a while before it unfolds its disruptive potential. Why then do we frequently (dis)miss it? Because the disruption typically doesn’t make sense initially; incumbents literally can’t see the disruptive potential in emerging ideas. This is because disruptive innovation is revolutionary, not just evolutionary, it is path-breaking – it challenges the background on which the industry is currently understood. Therefore it appears as irrelevant, as a niche or fringe product initially. Yet, the disruption happens when it brings about a tectonic shift in understanding of what counts as a valid product, which can catapult the disruptor from the fringe to the core and the incumbents to the margins in a very short period of time.
Think of mp3 and CDs, or the iPhone and Blackberry/Nokia – initially dismissed as fringe products they have redefined the very idea of what counts as music media or a mobile phone – a fact that appears self-evident in hindsight but not while unfolding. Neither the first generation of mp3 players, nor the initial iPhone were a great success, yet both have disrupted entire industries, relegating previous incumbents to the fringes. The problem is to know before the fact which of the many (sometimes competing) emerging ideas will have that effect.
INFORMATION: Information rules!
Software is eating the world, according to Marc Andreessen. Digital Disruptors change the nature of competition in many industries from a dominance of physical assets (hardware) to a business dominated by software and digital information and data. Digital Disruptors are ‘Information First’ businesses; they change the rules of competition by becoming very good at working with data, collecting and exploiting information to add value to the industry. They turn physical into digital industries. Because of the very different nature in their business model, these emerging ideas are easily misunderstood or dismissed initially.
Both mp3 and the iPhone are good examples of this, mp3 has turned a formerly physical into a digital product. The iPhone has redefined the mobile space from a hardware to a software dominated one. Further examples are Uber, Airbnb, Yelp or Tripadvisor all of which redefine business not by owning the physical assets in their respective industries, but by redirecting customer allocation and value creation streams by exploiting information and data in innovative ways.
RISK: Risk adversity is the greatest risk.
Incumbent businesses become hamstrung by their own success. In stable markets, asset exploitation, efficiency and compliance through process optimisation and risk management through rigorous budgeting processes all make sense and underpin success. However, when markets are disrupted those traits become the greatest risk. When faced with a disruption those structures make it hard to innovate and change, all the while the existing business acts as a powerful disincentive to necessary self-disruption. First, there is the fear of self-cannibalising what is still a profitable business in favour of a new way of doing business that is not yet proven to work. Second, internal incentive structures are built on the old way of doing business, the risk of which is that people will not be inclined to get involved with something that doesn’t add to their KPIs, leading to the “not involved here” phenomenon. Finally, budget processes are based on rigorous cost-benefit analysis; yet benefits are foundamentally unknowable when it comes to disruptive change (as I have argued previously for the NBN example). Risk adversity becomes an inhibitor of the capacity to innovate internally.
Take Kodak for example: Kodak had all the technology and patents to be a leader in digital photography, but could not pull it off for the above reasons.
UTILITY: Different, not just better!
Clayton Christensen in his work on disruptive innovation has argued that new products or services initially start out as inferior to the incumbent product, which makes them appear harmless in the short term, but that they eat away at and slowly emerge as a powerful and disruptive alternative to incumbent products. So, initially the product’s utility appears inferior, but later it’s not. My point is that the change that happens is not just one of linear improvement, but a subtle, yet radical change in the understanding of what counts as utility in the market in the first place. Disruptors are not delivering an initially inferior, then better solution – in essence, they do something different and thereby, over time, redefine the rules of the market. Once this tectonic shift in what counts as utility happens, their product appears as vastly superior – but only on this new understanding.
Take mp3 again – initially it appeared inferior in terms of sound quality to the CD (it still is by the way!). But our understanding of music consumption has changed fundamentally. When the original iPod was released many people asked “what do I need 1000 songs in my pocket for?”. Today we take mobile music consumption for granted, with streaming of anything anywhere a given reality – this marks a tectonic shift in what counts as the actual product!
SPEED: Late but slow…
This last one is the accumulation or outcome of the previous factors. Once the digital disruption is widely recognised within an industry the disruptor tends to have a strong head start on the incumbent players. And because of the inertia of existing business, the shift in perception of understanding, and the ways in which internal structures tend to hamstring the incumbents, reacting to disruption becomes an uphill battle. Remember: disruptors not only came earlier to what is now a different market environment, they are also quicker in execution…
Well, all of this then raises the next big question – what can the incumbent do?
I will return to this question in one of my next posts.
My thanks goes to all colleagues in the Digital Disruption Research Group, and in particular Ben Gilchriest at Capgemini, all of which have inspired and contributed to these thoughts through joint work and discussions.