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Software Isn’t Going to Eat the World

Software Isn't Going to Eat the World

GUEST POST from Greg Satell

In 2011, technology pioneer Marc Andreessen declared that software is eating the world. “With lower start-up costs and a vastly expanded market for online services,” he wrote, “the result is a global economy that for the first time will be fully digitally wired — the dream of every cyber-visionary of the early 1990s, finally delivered, a full generation later.

Yet as Derek Thompson recently pointed out in The Atlantic, the euphoria of Andreessen and his Silicon Valley brethren seems to have been misplaced. Former unicorns like Uber, Lyft, and Peloton have seen their value crash, while WeWork saw its IPO self-destruct. Hardly “the dream of every cyber-visionary.”

The truth is that we still live in a world of atoms, not bits and most of the value is created by making things we live in, wear, eat and ride in. For all of the tech world’s astounding success, it still makes up only a small fraction of the overall economy. So, taking a software centric view, while it has served Silicon Valley well in the past, may be its Achilles heel in the future.

The Silicon Valley Myth

The Silicon Valley way of doing business got its start in 1968, when an investor named Arthur Rock backed executives from Fairchild Semiconductor to start a new company, which would become known as Intel. Unlike back east, where businesses depended on stodgy banks for finance, on the west coast venture capitalists, many of whom were former engineers themselves, would decide which technology companies got funded.

Over the years, a virtuous cycle ensued. Successful tech companies created fabulously wealthy entrepreneurs and executives, who would in turn invest in new ventures. Things shifted into hyperdrive when the company Andreessen founded, Netscape, quadrupled its value on its first day of trading, kicking off the dotcom boom.

While the dotcom bubble would crash in 2000, it wasn’t all based on pixie dust. As the economist W. Brian Arthur explained in Harvard Business Review, while traditional industrial companies were subject to diminishing returns, software companies with negligible marginal costs could achieve increasing returns powered by network effects.

Yet even as real value was being created and fabulous new technology businesses prospered, an underlying myth began to take hold. Rather than treating software business as a special case, many came to believe that the Silicon Valley model could be applied to any business. In other words, that software would eat the world.

The Productivity Paradox (Redux)

One reason that so many outside of Silicon Valley were skeptical of the technology boom for a long time was a longstanding productivity paradox. Although throughout the 1970s and 80s, business investment in computer technology was increasing by more than 20% per year, productivity growth had diminished during the same period.

In the late 90s, however, this trend reversed itself and productivity began to soar. It seemed that Andreessen and his fellow “cyber-visionaries were redeemed. No longer considered outcasts, they became the darlings of corporate America. It appeared that a new day was dawning and the Silicon Valley ethos took hold.

While the dotcom crash deflated the bubble in 2000, the Silicon Valley machine was soon rolling again. Web 2.0 unleashed the social web, smartphones initiated the mobile era and then IBM’s Watson’s defeat of human champions on the game show Jeopardy! heralded a new age of artificial intelligence.

Yet still, we find ourselves in a new productivity paradox. By 2005, productivity growth had disappeared once again and has remained diminished ever since. To paraphrase economist Robert Solow, we see software everywhere except in the productivity statistics.

The Platform Fallacy

Today, pundits are touting a new rosy scenario. They point out that Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Airbnb, the largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Facebook, the most popular media owner, creates no content and so on. The implicit assumption is that it is better to build software that makes matches than to invest in assets.

Yet platform-based businesses have three inherent weaknesses that aren’t always immediately obvious. First, they lack barriers to entry, which makes it difficult to create a sustainable competitive advantage. Second, they tend to create “winner-take-all” markets so for every fabulous success like Facebook, you can have thousands of failures. Finally, rabid competition leads to high costs.

The most important thing to understand about platforms is that they give us access to ecosystems of talent, technology and information and it is in those ecosystems where the greatest potential for value creation lies. That’s why, to become profitable, platform businesses eventually need to invest in real assets.

Consider Amazon: Almost two thirds of Amazon’s profits come from its cloud computing unit, AWS, which provides computing infrastructure for other organizations. More recently, it bought Whole Foods and began opening Amazon Go retail stores. The more that you look, Amazon looks less like a platform and more like a traditional pipeline business.

Reimagining Innovation for a World of Atoms

The truth is that the digital revolution, for all of the excitement and nifty gadgets it has produced, has been somewhat of a disappointment. Since personal computers first became available in the 1970’s we’ve had less than ten years of elevated productivity growth. Compare that to the 50-year boom in productivity created in the wake of electricity and internal combustion and it’s clear that digital technology falls short.

In a sense though, the lack of impact shouldn’t be that surprising. Even at this late stage, information and communication technologies only make up for about 6% of GDP in advanced economies. Clearly, that’s not enough to swallow the world. As we have seen, it’s barely enough to make a dent.

Yet still, there is great potential in the other 94% of the economy and there may be brighter days ahead in using computing technology to drive advancement in the physical world. Exciting new fields, such as synthetic biology and materials science may very well revolutionize industries like manufacturing, healthcare, energy and agriculture.

So, we are now likely embarking on a new era of innovation that will be very different than the digital age. Rather than focused on one technology, concentrated in one geographical area and dominated by a handful of industry giants, it will be widely dispersed and made up of a diverse group of interlocking ecosystems of talent, technology and information.

Make no mistake. The future will not be digital. Instead, we will need to learn how to integrate a diverse set of technologies to reimagine atoms in the physical world.

— Article courtesy of the Digital Tonto blog
— Image credit: Pixabay

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Think Like a Tech Company or Go Out of Business

Think Like a Tech Company or Go Out of Business

by Braden Kelley and Linda Bernardi

Even in 2014, there are business sectors who feel they are not ‘tech companies’. News flash: Whether you are a consumer products company, an insurance company, a hotel, or a pharmaceutical company, your business is a technology business. Why?

Technology is the link between any business and its customers. To say technology is not core to your business strategy, means you think customers are not the key to your business success. So, your business is a technology business whether you want it to be or not.

Today technology is how you market and sell your products, make your business more efficient, and most importantly, how you stay connected to your customers. Some companies mistake the importance of technology to mean that they need to open a twitter account and monitor social media, put in an ERP and CRM system, and revamp their web site. But the importance of technology in today’s business environment is more than that.

ERP and CRM are common tools, a requirement to remain competitive, and while social media and the internet are important to sales and marketing success, they are becoming yesterday’s news as customers develop deeper connections to their mobile devices. If you aren’t on their devices and interacting in a meaningful way with them there in real-time, you won’t stay connected to them in the long run.

Let’s look at the impact on a few different industries whose members tend not to see themselves as technology companies:

1. Fortune 100 consumer product goods (CPG) companies
2. Hotel Chains
3. Big Box Retailers

1. Fortune 100 CPG companies typically manufacture large quantities of consistent products and have visually pleasing (static) web pages for consumers. But they don’t use technology well enough to detect what the market wants before it knows it, often fail to personalize or customize products to customer needs, and usually lack the online networks that could help connect other customer product needs together into new potential product ideas that the company could co-create with their customers. Often connection means post mortem analytics on data collected in the past, or, analyzing previous customer interactions with static web pages. Creating authentic customer connections requires online and mobile technology these companies usually don’t possess. I don’t mean apps (which often are pretty much the same as a website), but new physical/online/mobile engagement models that inspire customers to stay connected to the company (and each other) in a dynamic, evolving community. Rethinking is needed here. The customer is not just a buyer but an influencer. If CPG companies want to sell that next bottle of $300 facial cream, they better consider delighting, and not just marketing to, their customer base.

2. AirBnB has proven to be a major disruptive force in the hotel and hospitality business, grabbing a massive foothold in a market that the Homeaway.com member companies created and should have dominated. Resistance to AirBnB is massive and lawsuits are abundant, but for a moment let’s go beyond the hype and explore the angst of traditional hotels. AirBnB created a highly connected, effective community of property owners and property renters. This bi-directional ecosystem can only thrive if they are both happy and satisfied. To experience what they’ve created, first go to a traditional hotel website (pictures of room, building, lobby) and then go to AirBnB and browse the hundreds of customer experiences their property owners offer. On the hotel site you’ll see they’ve created the mechanics of paying to rent a hotel room, while on AirBnB you’ll see that they’ve created both an ecosystem and an experience.

3. Big box retailers have done a poor job of seeing themselves as technology companies capable of fending off challenges from online-only retailers. Target made the mistake of seeing themselves as a retailer, not a technology business, and so they outsourced their ecommerce to Amazon in the beginning, only to regret doing so because Amazon was able to learn which 20% of their inventory drove 80% of their profits, and when.

Meanwhile, Costco and Walmart, despite being two of the most successful retailers in the world, have struggled to find success online because they can’t get beyond their brick and mortar heritage to see themselves as a technology business with an integrated online/offline ecosystem. Seriously, it is 2014, do we still need to get our Costco circulars in the mail? Nothing has changed about Costco’s interaction with its customers. Walmart exacerbated the disconnection between the two sides of their business by creating a separate online division and exiling it to Silicon Valley. Costco sells different products online than offline. The results of both of these approaches have been far from stellar.

Build a Common Language of Innovation on your team

Technology Lowers Barriers to Entry

In the history of the world, it has never been easier to start and scale a business to a global footprint, not in a matter of decades or years, but in months. And it is not just the other companies in your industry and technology-driven startups that you have to worry about if you choose not to view yourself as a technology company and move as fast as they do. You have to worry about competition from established technology players like Google and Amazon too, because one day they (or people that used to work for them) might decide that your market is attractive enough to enter and come disrupt your industry. For example, Amazon has become a book publisher and a financial services company.

Technology Enables Experiences

Technology enables the creation of customer experiences. I am going to choose my insurance company based on my experience. At the end of the day if all prices are comparable, then how the businesses you interact with make you feel, and the connections you’ve built with them will matter more. Without an emphasis on using technology to make your business a social business, you will find your company displaced by others that do. You must lead your industry in identifying opportunities to use technology to get closer to your customers. The future of business will be all about delighting customers and making their experience more personal.

Technology is not just a tool, but central to everything you do in today’s always on, always connected digital age.

Here are ten ways that technology can help you become a more social business:

  1. Building Connections
  2. Developing Networks
  3. Global Sensing and Prediction
  4. Sharing Recommendations
  5. Creating Experiences
  6. Personalization
  7. Customization
  8. Co-Creation
  9. Crowdsourcing
  10. Open Innovation

To give you an example of what things will look like in the future, the forward thinking health insurance company will leverage the mobile device for virtual ID cards, drug interaction warnings, personal triage, mobile care, wellness, cost sharing calculations, FSA/HSA administration, diagnostics, and more.

Conclusion

In conclusion, no matter what business you are in, it is very dangerous not to see technology as a competitive differentiator and a core driver of your business. Instead, you must constantly look at how you can become more of a technology company in order to enable deeper customer connections and more meaningful experiences. Today if you don’t connect with, understand, delight and start predicting your customer’s needs/wants, you may not thrive in your industry and your competition and new entrants who do embrace technology will replace you.

This article is brought to you by Linda Bernardi and Braden Kelley. Collectively, we have over 30 years of experience working with large, global multi-disciplinary enterprises. We write this with care and passion as we want your enterprises to succeed. We would love to hear your thoughts.


Guest Collaborator:

Linda BernardiLinda Bernardi is a Technology Strategist, Investor, and Founder & CEO at StraTerra Partners, The Bernardi Leadership Institute and a Strategic Advisor at Cloudant Inc. She is also the Author of Provoke, Why the Global Culture of Disruption is the Only Hope for Innovation. Learn more here about Linda’s work on disrupting large enterprise analytics.

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