Understanding the Past, Present, and Future of the Digital Revolution

Published by

Ryan McManus

Directors and executives could be forgiven for feeling like digital transformation has materialized out of thin air to attack their business models and markets. For most sectors, “digital” has historically been confined to tactical efforts across websites, mobility, social media, and e-commerce. Digital efforts were important to marketing execution but certainly did not inform overall business model strategy, much less determine which companies won, lost, or failed to survive. And while everyone is familiar with the global Internet giants that have emerged over the past two decades to dominate markets and stock indices, until recently digital disruption had not yet penetrated beyond the traditional realms of media, content, and e-commerce.

The massive competitive challenges witnessed in these early domains have now arrived in every other sector. Billboards lining airport corridors proclaim the urgency for companies to digitally transform. Corporations are funding incubators, venture funds, and innovation programs, and are facing the task of shaping the future of work. Many consulting firms and agencies make claims to broader digital transformation expertise, regardless of their historic core capabilities.

It is easy for leaders to get lost amidst the clamor. What follows is an account of the past, present, and the possible future of digital business risks and strategy that could help your board discuss digital business model risk and winning strategies.

Tracing the Origins

Along with my co-author, I presented the foundations of digital transformation and the strategic and financial performance considerations in a previous article. To begin to grasp how digital transformation impacts value creation, and to build on the concepts outlined below, I suggest starting there. The basic competitive dynamics across all past and emerging digitization phases  reinforce the business model risk that directors and executives should understand as digital disruption changes their sectors.

The graphic below describes the primary phases of digitization over the past two decades and the emerging waves.

Click the graph to enlarge in a new window.

A pattern emerges across the phases. First, a primary enabling technology emerges, targeting specific product and service domains within a selection of target sectors. As these products and services are digitized, leading companies within these target sectors bring to market entirely new business models based on the primary enabling technology of the phase. These companies bring new value propositions to market and rewrite the rules of competition in the sector. For example, Google reinvented advertising, Amazon.com reinvented retail, Uber and other ride-sharing companies are reinventing transportation, and Social Finance (SoFi) is reinventing loans. Existing companies in these target sectors that fail to evolve their business models lose market share or cease to exist, while new, dominant-phase leaders emerge.

This dynamic has been consistent across the first three digitization phases, resulting in massive disruption across the target sectors as well as a recalibration of the world’s most valuable companies list—despite the relatively small number of target sectors initially involved. Currently, the dominant digitization phase is driven by Internet of Things (IoT) and smart products technologies, with implications for all machines, all physical products and the companies that design, manufacture, sell, and operate them.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies are also in broad, albeit early, deployment with implications for every sector of the economy, including forming the foundational elements of continued robotics and digitized biology and chemistry.

This is an admittedly simplified picture. Primary enabling technologies do not evolve in isolation from earlier phases, and the phases themselves do not end. For example, more and more content continues to be digitized (from newspapers to videos to augmented or virtual reality), while the scope of digital services continues to expand (from basic e-commerce to mobile payments to blockchains) and AI is reinventing all previous primary enabling technologies. Furthermore, leadership in one stage of digitization does not guarantee continued leadership as the cycle continues. Yahoo! was among the major winners of the original content digitization phase but failed to evolve, while Google, which emerged during the same phase, has consistently grown in line with emerging technologies. Meanwhile, General Electric Co. and General Motors Co. are bucking the trend of established companies falling to digital upstarts to assume leadership in the industrial IoT and automotive markets.

What’s Next?

While it is helpful to understand the enabling digital technologies, it is primarily beneficial for directors at companies of all types to seek to understand the implications of these technologies on the products, industries, and business models of their companies, and ensure that their CEOs have a sound strategy to address these considerations.

Every sector is now in the crosshairs of digitization. Many business leaders not operating in the initial target industries, however, have never been trained on how to think about digital transformation strategically. So long as a company was not in a target sector of digitization, it was sufficient to deploy point solutions related to the primary enabling technology of each phase, such as websites, mobile applications, e-commerce offerings, and a social media presence—and, indeed, it has always been important for companies to keep up with these tactics. Directors and the C-suite should understand, however, that this approach is not sufficient when it is their own sectors that are the primary focus of digitization.

 

Ryan McManus is senior vice president of partnerships and corporate development for EVRYTHNG, the IoT Smart Products platform company and serves on the board of Nortech Systems, the advisory board of Carlabs AI, and two advisory boards with the Aspen Institute. He is the founder of Accenture’s Digital Business Strategy and Transformation practice, has served an advisor to Fortune 100 companies, and is the author of numerous articles on digital transformation and corporate strategy. Ryan earned his MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

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2 Comments

  • Ryan McManus says:

    Sankar, thank you for your comment. Digital transformation execution indeed requires a several month/few year roadmap given the broad organizational, operating model and technical implications. My point was that leading companies understand that digital transformation strategy must be considered as a whole–at the business model level–so that a subsequent roadmap and execution plan is correctly joined up. Many companies have struggled with digital transformation because they started from a limited, tactical strategy–resulting in a limited, tactical roadmap and consequently limited results.

  • Ryan, excellent article on addressing digital transformation looking at the entire gamut of a company – past, present, future and how they can adapt emerging technologies (you mentioned pretty much all important ones but inadvertently missed some additional key ones Big Data, Analytics, Virtual reality and Augmented reality). The key you stated was not to transform in a piecemeal basis but as a whole. Correct me if I am wrong. We do digital transformation road-map – say 2 to 5 years and then we implement suitable projects/systems in the order depicted in our road-map. I am of the opinion that it is impossible to do digital transformation as a whole and the best we can do is road-map followed by several months/years of execution/roll-outs. I would appreciate if you can clarify . Appreciate your response

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