Data Abundance, Disruption, and Innovation
The pace of change is staggering in and of itself, but try measuring it. Getting your arms around progress or even predicting it can be like embracing smoke.
This difficulty leads many to overestimate the rate of change in the short term and underestimate it in the long term. This sentiment has been repeated in some form by the likes of Bill Gates and Arthur C. Clarke. But the lesson is timeless in the business world: Executives focused on the next quarter, or the next year, may completely miss the disruption heading their way.
To underscore just how much the world can change, examine a few examples from the past 20 years in which huge transformations created disruption and opportunity in different industries. Even companies now perceived as the smartest on the block once looked shortsighted.
Ghosts of the Past
In 2000, Netflix was a money-losing DVD rental-by-mail service with just 300,000 subscribers. Initially unable to see the riches ahead, its founders tried and failed to sell the company to the now defunct Blockbuster Video for $50 million. Since then, Netflix has evolved into a tech giant and content studio with more than 150 million subscribers worldwide. The $150 billion company, now on its third business model, has been both the disruptor and the disrupted.1
Or there’s the case of internet search in the dial-up years. Remember pioneering search engine AltaVista? Or Inktomi, which briefly dominated search and once had a market cap of about $25 billion? Most internet sessions started in those places. Meanwhile, in 1999, Google’s founders unsuccessfully tried to sell the company to owners of the search engine Excite for as little as $750,000. The deal never happened, and Google has since become both a verb and a $1 trillion company.2
Mobile internet? Before that was a thing, the Nokia 3310 was cutting-edge cellphone tech, and the game Snake was what passed for a killer app. Those monochrome screens and lack of browser and camera are barely remembered today. Eventually, the iPhone and the Android, and the smartphone revolution, for which the internet was the real killer app, pushed Nokia out of the device business.3
What will the next 20 years bring? The expected jetpacks and flying cars haven’t arrived, at least not in a mainstream way. But people and companies won’t stop making predictions. The only way to move closer to the Netflix, Google, and Apple tiers of industry is by tapping into the new data abundance and using it to peek in to the future.
The advent of 5G, internet of things (IoT) and the household ecosystems of Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon will lead to the creation of more data than most people can comprehend. If you think those companies know you now, think again — they are only getting started. IDC forecasts there will be over 41.6 billion IoT devices generating over 79.4 billion terabytes by 2025.4 The exchange of this much data will be enabled by 5G and subsequent technologies delivering near-zero latency and high-bandwidth connectivity. The combination of these technologies will turn databases of personalized information into truly “live” networks — collecting, processing, and sharing data and insights to drive decisions in real time.
That will lead to an evolutionary leap for leading brands, thanks to the wealth of bandwidth and data. Today’s clumsy, programmatic delivery of personalized ads will be replaced with brand interactions that are informed by an individual’s personal branding, geography, and demographics. Television, online, and outdoor advertising will become increasingly targeted to audiences of one. And brand experiences across channels, including online, in-store, call center, and chatbot, will become seamless.
Consumers will accept no excuse for the delivery of an offer or message that is not timely, relevant, and of value. This will require all brands to gain expertise in understanding data and experience very quickly.
Salesforce’s 2019 State of the Connected Customer report found that 66% of Australian customers expect connected experiences. Globally, 50% of millennials say they ignore communications that aren’t personalized for them.5 This is supported by other worldwide studies, such as The Harris Poll, which last year found that 63% of consumers expect personalization as a standard of service.6 And Vonage reports that 49% of consumers have switched brands due to a bad experience in the past year, costing businesses $62 billion in the U.S. alone.7 If a brand doesn’t understand this, it risks becoming irrelevant, abandoned for better, frictionless experiences elsewhere.
It will be surprising if entire sectors and economies aren’t disrupted and new ones aren’t created as different parts of our lives fundamentally change.
Even something as basic as money is already being disrupted. For many people, their money will live with those who know the most about them or where they spend most of it. Why keep money in a bank if all your bills are paid and managed through a Facebook artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot? Why own a credit card if Apple or Amazon manages all your purchases? Even those who use more traditional brick-and-mortar retailers will increasingly find that payment methods are more connected to their phone or other wearables (NFC Ring, Apple Watch, or Fitbit) than to their ATM card.
The payment and credit sections of banks no longer need to be linked. This has enabled the shift to alternative payment platforms such as Alipay and WeChat Pay in China. The future could be dominated by a handful of global payment platforms connected to media and retail businesses, with only a few offerings that started out as banks.
How does the financial services industry respond to this potential threat? One solution is joining these new payment ecosystems rather than fighting them. For example, banks have access to data and AI that could indicate that a customer was moving. That bank could then assist with dozens of decisions and manage new services, such as helping the customer set up new utilities accounts, finding relevant government services, and locating nearby retailers and schools. Providing a checking or credit customer with that level of personalized service can keep that customer returning.
Shopping will become a utility, at least for many of the basics. People won’t spend much time thinking about brands or the wide variety of products available. Instead, digital assistants, such as Siri, Alexa, and Home, will know when someone needs milk or batteries or a new utility provider, and can find the best deals. In some cases, orders will be placed without human input and brand decisions will be made by AI, changing the game for companies when they launch new products.
Even now there is little brand loyalty, which makes that automated shopping future more likely. Salesforce reported that 65% of millennials will take their business to Amazon if a company can’t match their shipping speed or cost. And 67% said it takes more for a company to impress them with a new product or service.8 It’s difficult for a brand to penetrate a relationship between consumers and their purchasing assistant where expense and convenience are paramount. Wholesale categories will have to learn how to effectively market themselves as direct advertisers on Amazon, Facebook, and other platforms. Amazon and Facebook are enhancing their existing advertising models with other signals, such as price, reviews, and social recommendation. And why not? Consumers already accept curation of trained content through Netflix, social feeds, and other channels.
Now, people typically have disconnected accounts with local, state, and federal departments for licensing, taxes, health, welfare, passports, visas, home ownership, and other services. Governments will need to change to reflect a greater understanding of the individual as a citizen, a customer, and sometimes an employee. People will expect to be seen as individuals who need to manage government interactions through user-friendly apps, and retail and concierge experiences. To deliver these experiences effectively, there will be more public-private partnerships, creating even more data challenges and opportunities.
Telecom companies already fear that their services will become little more than commodities, as over-the-air providers piggyback on that existing infrastructure. Although revenue models have been under pressure for a while, the high barrier to entry has been seen as protection. The astronomical investment in wires, cables, and spectrum was constructed over decades, or in some cases, more than a century.
But at some point, the very companies that have eroded telecom value (Netflix, Hulu, Facebook, Amazon) may decide to create their own infrastructure, subsidized by retail and ad revenue. That competition might be starting already with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is planning its Starlink network of 12,000 small satellites. This project, which would relay internet signals globally, is expected to launch in the U.S. this year and have coverage worldwide by 2021. With Starlink said to be costing around $10 billion, a private global ISP is well within the budgets of all the FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) companies.9 These corporate efforts will likely meet with controversy and antitrust concerns. Indeed, Facebook’s Free Basics service was accused of “digital colonialism” and faced a backlash over what some considered net neutrality violations.10 But the benefits likely overcome the barriers.
Data abundance creates privacy and security challenges and will continue to be the subject of much regulatory discussion and action. The 2018 Facebook U.S. Senate hearings demonstrated that lawmakers were in no danger of understanding how modern data and media work.11 Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, has highlighted the desire to protect individual privacy and regulate the use of that data, but also has shown the limited power of small markets. Australia also enacted several amendments to its Privacy Act in 2019, but the maximum fine of AU$10 million is a rounding error even for the local businesses of Facebook and Google.12
Yet all of this is in a world where many users, particularly younger audiences, are more comfortable trading their private data for the convenience and relevance it can bring when used well by retailers, advertisers, and service providers. Salesforce research found that 62% of millennials are comfortable with relevant personal information being used in a transparent and beneficial manner.13
Survival of the fittest became a household term through its use in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. However, there is a nuance to this phrase. It isn’t necessarily about fitness in terms of strength or speed; it is about suitability to the environment. Nature evolves to adapt to its environment, and those who are best suited to that particular environment will survive. In business, the same nuance applies — it is not the largest, the fastest, or the richest that will survive. In both business and nature, it is about adaptation to your surroundings.
This is what Infosys means when we talk about live enterprise, one that is sensing and responding like a living being. It has the agility of a startup, behaves like a digital native, accepts that change is constant, and is prepared to disrupt itself if that’s what is needed.
So how can businesses keep an eye on the transformation the next decade will bring, while meeting the quarterly and annual needs of shareholders? How can we build for technologies and whole industries that do not yet exist? Here is a practical guide to what companies can do now.
- Invest in innovation — Prioritize the creation of true innovation in your organization. This doesn’t mean a design thinking workshop that leads nowhere, or an annual strategic off-site that results in a drawer full of Post-it Notes. Invest meaningful time, focus, and resources in this. And expect your partners to do the same; if they aren’t innovating in the way they are serving you, they can’t remain competitive in their own fields. Collaborating on joint innovation can ensure fresh talent and fresh thinking is applied to your business.
- Get out of the office — A properly funded innovation program should exist in a dedicated space, not an afternoon workshop in a meeting room. This should be separated from business as usual so it doesn’t get sidetracked by the daily flow of work. If your scale allows, consider a floor or even a dedicated address. Then make it as different as possible from the core business. Sure, you can fill it with beanbags and sandpits and pingpong tables if you like, but above all, be sure to create an atmosphere of cross-functional collaboration. Make it a space that your employees will be curious to visit, where people will want to host clients, and where new hires will want to work.
- Create a partner ecosystem — Do not expect that the best ideas will come from within your organization. Sure, you know your business and your challenges better than an outsider, but you are likely blinkered by a narrow focus on “fixing” things. Opening your aperture to take in outside viewpoints will allow you to see opportunities and solutions you may not have considered.
- Embrace fresh ideas — Startups are a great source of new thinking, unconstrained by traditional barriers. Universities are also innovative partners, full of graduate students looking for real-world projects to work on. Create internships or a graduate intake program, and set projects based on your real challenges. Hackathons, incubators, and prototyping are all good ways to embrace outside thinking, and to find new talent to hire or acquire.
These are a few simple changes. But truly embracing and making innovation a priority for your company will be a small investment in preparing for a future that will, most likely, not be in your control. As the poker and finance adage goes, if you can’t tell who the sucker at the table is, then it’s you. If you are not driving the disruption of your market, your sector, and yourself, then you may very well wake up one day to find that someone beat you to it.
Look at the most valuable brands in the world, according to Interbrand. In 2000, that list was topped by a number of brands that have since slid downward, including Coca-Cola, Ford, IBM, Intel, Nokia, and Marlboro. The current top 10 includes only three companies from that earlier list: Microsoft, McDonald’s, and AT&T. The other seven are new entrants, including Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, Alibaba, and Tencent. What will the top 10 global brands look like in another 10 or 20 years? Will your company or brand still be relevant?
1Netflix co-founder: 'Blockbuster laughed at us … Now there's one left', Sam Levin, Sept. 14, 2019, The Guardian.
2When Google Wanted To Sell To Excite For Under $1 Million — And They Passed, M.G. Siegler, Sept. 29, 2010, TechCrunch.
3Where Nokia Went Wrong, James Surowiecki, Sept. 3, 2013, The New Yorker.
5Salesforce State of the Connected Customer Report 2019, Conor Donegan, June 12, 2019, Salesforce.
6Marketers Struggle to Deliver Omnichannel Personalization that Consumers Crave, Blake Droesch, May 11, 2019, eMarketer.
7The $62 Billion Customer Service Scared Away, Chris Bucholtz, Vonage.
8Salesforce State of the Connected Customer Report 2019, Conor Donegan, June 12, 2019, Salesforce.
9SpaceX may spin out internet-from-space business and make it public, Loren Grush, Feb. 6, 2020, The Verge.
10'It's digital colonialism': how Facebook's free internet service has failed its users, Olivia Solon, July 27, 2017, The Guardian.
11Lawmakers seem confused about what Facebook does — and how to fix it, Emily Stewart, April 10, 2018, Vox.
12Australian privacy law amendments to cover data collection and use by digital platforms, Asha Barbaschow, July 26, 2019, ZDNet.
14Interbrand Best Global Brands 2019 Rankings, 2019, Interbrand.