Keeping step with the pace of digital disruption

By TEC Speaker Simon Waller

You don’t have to look far to see the impact that digital disruption has had on our lives. Technology that was once central to our lives now belongs in a museum, replaced by new devices that are faster, smarter and more useful to us.

While technological development has always been happening, what we have seen in the last few years is the true impact of digital disruption. Now, business processes that used to be lodged firmly in the analogue world are finding their feet in a digital existence that looks very different to anything we have seen before.

For many CEOs, the challenge is now two-fold. Not only do they need to start embracing technology within every level of the business, they also need to become the leading proponents of technology and win over sceptical workers to these new opportunities.

The end of business as usual

One of my favourite quotes comes from Kevin Kelly, a founder of Wired Magazine, who said:

If we were sent back with a time machine, even 20 years, and reported to people what we have right now and describe what we were going to get in this device in our pocket – we’d have this free encyclopaedia, and we’d have street maps to most of the cities of the world, and we’d have box scores in real time and stock quotes and weather reports, PDFs for every manual in the world – we’d make this very, very, very long list of things that we would say we would have and we get on this device in our pocket, and then we would tell them that most of this content was free. You would simply be declared insane. They would say there is no economic model to make this.

The point here is the influence of technology appears in many ways, making it hard to predict the future. Digitisation has inevitably and irreversibly changed business organisations so that there are entire industry sectors offering free services, with diverse and creative ways to be profitable.

In just about every sector there are start-ups and innovators looking to challenge the way businesses are traditionally run. These upstarts are often able to thrive thanks to their reliance on technology and their willingness to push the envelope in ways that risk-averse organisations aren’t prepared to pursue.

Kevin Kelly was also quick to point out that over the next 20 years we are going to see even greater change – the kind that will make the last 20 years look like a snail’s pace by comparison.

This change has become so widespread that even attempting to predict the future is pointless – with the words likely to feel outdated as soon as they leave our mouths. So while we cannot stop this disruption from occurring, we still don’t know what form it will take or how it will occur.

Preparing for a world where technology underpins every business

Just as the future business world cannot be predicted, it is becoming clear that every job in the future will require some level of technical or IT knowledge.

The findings in the UK Digital Skills Taskforce, published in 2014. The study found that 90 per cent of jobs will require at least a basic understanding of digital technology, while 56 per cent require an intermediate to advanced skill set.

Many workforces simply don’t have this depth of expertise that they need in order to thrive in a digital future. Building these skills require comprehensive training efforts and upskilling programs to ensure existing staff can handle an increasingly digital workload.

This is also true at the C-Suite. Many senior executives will have come of age at a time when digital technology was still in its infancy and therefore may not be familiar with the latest developments that are changing work on the shop floor. CEOs that want to make the most of digital technology need to acknowledge the limitations of their own skills as well as those of their staff members.

Technology that is truly personal

If you look at the history of technology, among the biggest changes has been taking technology and making it personal and relevant to an individual.

Take computers as an example. The very first computers were solely the preserve of governments and very large businesses. Over time, mainframe computers became standard in businesses, before being replaced by the personal computing revolution.

Of course, the PC was never really personal – it still had to sit on a desk be plugged into a wall and even with the advent of the internet, the connection still came through the wall. It has only been with the growth of mobile computing that this technology can truly be called personal.

While the march towards truly personal technology is a great boon for individuals, these same changes need to be addressed at an organisational level. CEOs need to recognise that old patterns of procuring and using technology are still done through the lens of the organisation, rather than the individual user.

Scaling technology to a personal level also demands scaling business decisions and direction to that same level as well.

Business that is led by innovation

Every company sits on a scale – from those who are leading digital disruption to those who are actively trying to preserve an old technology in the face of change.

Historically, companies at the latter end of the scale were those that were seen as successful – they had a proven track record, a specific niche and were dependable. Innovative disrupters were the opposite; treated as highly risky undertakings working on the periphery of established processes.

Now, that relationship has been inverted. Protecting old industries is now seen as a dead-end, while the top end of the disruption scale is seen as the area where real growth is occurring. A shift in business thinking needs to occur so that companies focus on moving up that scale. That’s a change that cannot come soon enough – and it has to start with the C-Suite.

Expecting the unexpected

Being told there is no way to predict the future may come as anathema to CEOs that are used to market research and sales forecasts, but it’s a realisation that needs to happen. Every industry and sector is already playing catch-up with technology and trying to keep pace with the latest innovation, and this challenge is only going to grow from here.

While there’s no sure-fire way to succeed, there are some steps CEOs can start to take. Focusing on technology skills, both their own and those of their staff, is essential for building digital-first organisations. Likewise, understanding how personal technology and innovation are now shaping the business landscape are essential for informing future business planning.

In an unpredictable future, mastering these strategies will give businesses a chance to make the most of digital disruption, rather than becoming another disrupted organisation.