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Mischief, managed – digital disruptors in need of legacy structures

Magic-Beans“Move fast and break things”. That is the motto of Facebook, and unofficially many of its contemporaries. While much of the most visible impact of new digital organisations has been on how they respond to, engage with and influence user behaviour, just as significant has been the extent to which these organisations have eschewed traditional business models, ways of working and other internal practices. This includes traditional measures of success (hence the above cartoon from The New Yorker), but also of transparency and leadership. Such issues will be the focus of this piece, to compare the old with the new, and where opportunities and challenges can be found.

What makes digital-first organisations different

It’s important to acknowledge the utterly transformative way that digital-first companies do business and create revenue, and how different this is from the way companies operated for the past century. Much of this change can be summed up in the phrase “disruptive innovation”, coined by the great Clayton Christensen way back in 1995. I got to hear from and speak to Clay at a Harvard Business Review event at the end of last year; a clear-thinking, inspiring man. There are few things today that organisations would still find use in from the mid-90s, and yet this theory, paradoxically, holds. The market would certainly seem to bear this concept out. Writing for the Financial Times in April, John Authers noted,

Tech stocks… are leading the market. All the Fang stocks — Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google — hit new records this week. Add Apple and Microsoft, and just six tech companies account for 29 per cent of the rise in the S&P 500 since Mr Trump was inaugurated.

The FANG cohort are entirely data-driven organisations that rely on user information (specifically user-volunteered information) to make their money. The more accurately they can design experiences, services and content around their users, the more likely they are to retain them. The greater the retention, the greater the power of network effects and lock-in. (Importantly, their revenue also make any new entrants easily acquirable prey, inhibiting competition). These are Marketing 101 ambitions, but they are being deployed at a level of sophistication the likes of which have never been seen before. Because of this, they are different businesses to those operating in legacy areas. These incumbents are encumbered by many things, including heavily codified regulation. Regulatory bodies have not yet woken up to the way these new companies do business; but it is only a matter of time. Until then though, the common consensus has been that, working in a different way, and without the threat of regulation, means traditional business structures can easily be discarded for the sake of efficiency; dismissed entirely as an analogue throwback.

The dangers of difference

One of the conceits of digital-first organisations is that they tend to be set up in order to democratise the sharing of services or data; disruption through liberalising of a product so that everyone can enjoy something previously limited via enforced scarcity (e.g. cheap travel, cheap accommodation). At the same time, they usually have a highly personality-driven structure, where the original founder is treated with almost Messianic reverence. This despite high-profile revelations of the Emperor having no clothes, such as with Twitter’s Jack Dorsey as well as Google, then Yahoo’s, now who-knows-where Marissa Mayer. She left Yahoo with a $23m severance package as reward for doing absolutely zero to save the organisation. Worse, she may have obstructed justice by waiting years to disclose details of cyberattacks. This was particularly galling for Yahoo’s suitor, Verizon as information came to light in the middle of its proposed purchase of the company (it resulted in a $350m cut to the acquisition price tag). The SEC is investigating. The silence on this matter is staggering, and points to a cultural lack of transparency that is not uncommon in the Valley. A recent Lex column effectively summarised this leader worship as a “most hallowed and dangerous absurdity”.

Uber’s embodiment of the founder-driven fallacy

Ben Horowitz, co-founder of the venture capital group Andreessen Horowitz, once argued that good founders have “a burning, irrepressible desire to build something great” and are more likely than career CEOs to combine moral authority with “total commitment to the long term”. It works in some cases, including at Google and Facebook, but has failed dismally at Uber.

– Financial Times, June 2017

This culture that focuses on the founder has led to a little whitewashing (few would be able to name all of Facebook’s founders, beyond the Zuck) and a lot of eggs in one basket. Snap’s recent IPO is a great example of the overriding faith and trust placed in founders, given that indicated – as the FT calls it – a “21st century governance vacuum“. Governance appears to have been lacking at Uber, as well. The company endured months of salacious rumours and accusations, including candid film of the founder, Travis Kalanick, berating an employee. This all rumbled on without any implications for quite some time. Travis was Travis, and lip service was paid while the search for some profit – Uber is worth more than 80% of the companies on the Fortune 500, yet in the first half of last year alone made more than $1bn in losses – continued.

Uber’s cultural problems eventually reached such levels (from myriad allegations of sexual harassment, to a lawsuit over self-driving technology versus Google, to revelations about ‘Greyball’, software it used to mislead regulators), that Kalanick was initially forced to take a leave of absence. But as mentioned earlier, these organisations are personality-driven; the rot was not confined to one person. This became apparent when David Bonderman had to resign from Uber’s board having made a ludicrously sexist comment directed at none other than his colleague Arianna Huffington, that illustrated the company’s startlingly old-school, recidivist outlook. This at a meeting where the company’s culture was being reviewed and the message to be delivered was of turning a corner.

A report issued by the company on a turnaround recommended reducing Kalanick’s responsibilities and hiring a COO. The company has been without one since March. It is also without a CMO, CFO, head of engineering, general counsel and now, CEO. Many issues raise themselves as a start-up grows from being a small organisation to a large one. So it is with Uber – one engineer described it as “an organisation in complete, unrelenting chaos” – as it will be with other firms to come. There is only a belated recognition that structures had to be put in place, the same types of structures that the organisations they were disrupting have in place. The FT writes,

“Lack of oversight and poor governance was a key theme running through the findings of the report… Their 47 recommendations reveal gaping holes in Uber’s governance structures and human resources practices.”

These types of institutional practices are difficult to enforce in the Valley. That is precisely because their connotations are of the monolithic corporate mega-firms that employees and founders of these companies are often consciously fighting against. Much of their raison d’être springs from an idealistic desire to change the world, and methodologically to do so by running roughshod over traditional work practices. This has its significant benefits (if only in terms of revenue), but from an employee experience it is looking like an increasingly questionable approach. Hadi Partovi, an Uber investor and tech entrepreneur told the FT, “This is a company where there has been no line that you wouldn’t cross if it got in the way of success”. Much of this planned oversight would have been anathema to Kalanick, which ultimately is why the decision for him to leave was unavoidable. Uber now plans to refresh its values, install an independent board chairman, conduct senior management performance reviews and adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward harassment.

Legacy lessons from an incumbent conglomerate

Many of the recommendations in the report issued to Uber would be recognised by anyone working in a more traditional work setting (as a former management consultant, they certainly ring a bell to me). While the philosophical objection to such things has already been noted, the notion of a framework to police behaviour, it must also be recognised, is a concept that will be alien to most anyone working in the Valley. Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at the Rock Center of Corporate Governance, clarified, “The spoiled brats of Silicon Valley don’t know the basics. It is a revelation for Silicon Valley: ‘duh, you have to have HR people, you can’t sleep with each other… you have to be respectful’.”

Meanwhile, another CEO stepped down recently in more forgiving circumstances, recently but which still prompted unfavourable comparisons; Jeff Immelt of General Electric. As detailed in a stimulating piece last month in The New York Times, Immelt has had a difficult time of it. Firstly, he succeeded in his role a man who was generally thought to be a visionary CEO; Jack Welch. Fortune magazine in 1999 described him as the best manager of the 20th century. So no pressure for Immelt there, then. Secondly, Immelt became Chairman and CEO four days before the 9/11 attacks, and also had the 2008 financial crisis in his tenure. Lastly, since taking over, the nature of companies, as this article has attempted to make clear, has changed radically. Powerful conglomerates no longer rule the waves.

Immelt has, perhaps belatedly, been committed to downsizing the sprawling offering of GE in order to make it more specialised. Moreover, the humility of Immelt is a million miles from the audacity, bragaddacio and egotism of Kalanick, acknowledging, “This is not a game of perfection, it’s a game of progress.”

So while the FANGs of the world are undoubtedly changing the landscape of business [not to mention human interaction and behaviours], they also need to recognise that not all legacy structures and processes are to be consigned to the dustbin of management history, simply because they work in a legacy industry sector. Indeed, more responsibility diverted from the founder, greater accountability and transparency, and a more structured employee experience might lead to greater returns, higher employee retention rates and perhaps even mitigate regulatory scrutiny down the line. The opportunity is there for those sensible enough to grasp it.

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Trends, threats and opportunities in the film industry

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In the 1950s… 80 per cent of the audience was lost. Studios tried many ways to win back this audience, including new technologies such as Cinerama, but none of these worked. What did work was to view the entire business as basically an intellectual properties business where they optimised on as many platforms as possible. That’s the business today.”

– Ed Epstein

Strategy is something that this blog has in the past accused the film industry of lacking, particularly when it comes to issues of development (over-leveraging risk with expensive tentpoles) and distribution (a lack of progressive thinking when it comes to day-and-date openings across platforms). This piece takes a look at how, in some areas, there are kernels of hope for the industry, as well as some specific areas that are ripe for improvement.

Given our initial contention, It was refreshing to discover this gem of an illustration (see top image) from none other than Walt Disney himself that was recently recovered from the archives, according to Harvard Business Review, showing “a central film asset that in very precise ways infuses value into and is in turn supported by an array of related entertainment assets”; all that’s missing is the strategic goal. Such forethought, of complementary assets combining to drive value, is arguably a symptom of the much-ballyhoed “synergy” and convergence the industry has undergone over the past ten to fifteen years; here was Walt writing about in 1957. The HBR article contends that it is not just synergy that is important, but in identifying those areas where you possess “unique synergy”. Disney’s current state, with Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm as content production houses, is an impressive pursuit of such a unique synergy, helped in no small part by having the impressive Bob Iger at the helm. The recent announcement of a Han Solo origin story, with the pair behind 21 Jump Street attached to direct, would have been to music to many a filmgoer’s ears. Unfortunately, the danger of undue risk from arranging a surfeit of tentpole releases remains, and is unlikely to be challenged while films such as Tomorrowland tank and Jurassic World soar. A brilliant piece on the evolution of the summer blockbuster, featured in the Financial Times recently, can be found here.

The film industry in China is a subject we last wrote about around a year ago. It’s a booming scene out there (last year China added as many screens as there are in all of France), which despite a quota on foreign film has proved enormously profitable to Hollywood. And while some films have had to seek opaque deals that ensure the inclusion of Chinese settings and talent in order to get the thumbs up for exhibition in China – e.g. the latest iteration of Transformers – others pay scant attention to such cultural pandering, and meet with similar success. In June, the Financial Times wrote that Furious 7 had no Chinese elements, but still managed to break “all-time box-office records since its release in China in April, taking in almost $390m”. Importantly, the figure beat the US’s taking of $348m. China is due to be the largest movie market in the world in less than three years. As we have written before, part of this is due to the cultural interest in moviegoing; people will see pretty much anything in China while the experience is still new and tantalising. While good for revenues, it does imply that content produced will be increasingly skewed – at least for a while – to lowest common denominator viewing that titillates rather than stimulates. The sheer volume of takings for such fare is ominous; of the fastest films ever to reach $1bn globally at the box office, three are from this year. China has played no small role in this development.

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However, all is not as rosy as it could be. Traditional players in the industry are wary of new entrants. Domestic companies Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, YoukuTudou and Leshi have either partnered with studios for exclusive distribution deals over online platforms – irking the exhibitors – or simply investing in developing their own studios and content production. The FT writes, “[c]ollectively, these internet firms co-produced or directly invested in 15 films in 2014, which earned more than Rmb6bn ($965m) at the box office last year – a fifth of total receipts… Industry participants worry that these internet giants may soon seek to cut them out of the equation altogether“.

How to respond to such disruption? Well, they might for a start take a step up in their customer engagement management, from developing more complex segmentation to encouraging retention, whether it be to a particular studio or a particular cinema. At a simple level, this might mean things like not revealing the twists of films in the trailer. At a more complex level, it might involve working with social networks, perhaps even some of the very ones otherwise considered as competitors, listed above, to gain Big Data insights that can better inform messaging, targeting and identification of high-value users. Earlier this year, Deloitte worked with Facebook to produce a piece of thought leadership that looked to do just that, helping telcos with what was defined as “moment-based”, dynamic segmentation, with initial work and hypothesis from Deloitte and their Mobile Consumer Survey correlated against Facebook’s data trove. Using different messages over innovative channels, for example on WeChat, would also likely prove fruitful. Luxury brands, long the laggards in digital strategy, have recently been making headway in customer engagement via such methods. Looking further ahead, they might also consider how their “unique synergy” will be positioned for future consumer trends. The Internet of Things is set to fundamentally change the way we go about our lives, including the relationship businesses have with their customers. How will it impact movie-going and people’s relationship with the cinema? For all the global talk on the impact of such devices, the film industry has yet to develop any coherent thinking on it. One bright area is the subject we mentioned at the beginning of our article; collapsing release windows. Paramount announced earlier this month they have reached an agreement with two prominent US exhibitor chains, Cineplex and AMC, to “reduce the period of time that movies play exclusively in theaters” to just 17 days for two specific films, according to The Wrap. It’s not clear what financial (or otherwise) incentives the theater chains received for such a deal.

So while the threat of disruption is ever-present – as it is for so many industries around the world right now – there are ample opportunities for studios and exhibitors to up their game, through better targeting, better communication, better distribution deals, and, just maybe, better product.

TMT Trends 2015 – Star Wars, Tech Wars & Talent Wars

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH

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*Our 2016 trends for the sector can be found here*

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Our most popular article this year by far was a piece we wrote on trends in the media and entertainment industry for the coming twelve months. That nothing has been written since January that has proved as popular as that is a little disappointing, but it is a good indication of what users come to this blog for.

It’s been an interesting past month or so in the Technology, Media and Telecoms sector. We’re going to attempt to recap some of the more consequential things here, as well as the impact they may have into next year.

Star Wars – And the blockbuster dilemma

Friday saw the release of the first trailer for Star Wars Episode VII, due for release December 2015. CNBC covered the release at the coda of European Closing Bell, around the point of a segment a story might be done about a cat caught up a tree (“On a lighter note…”). They discussed the trailer and the franchise on a frivolous note at first, mostly joking about the length of time since the original film’s release. One of the anchors then went on to claim that Disney’s purchase of “Lucasfilms” [sic] and the release of this trilogy of films, given the muted reaction to Episodes I-III, constituted a huge bet on Disney’s part. This showed a profound lack of understanding. Collectively, Episodes I-III, disappointing artistically as they may have been, made a cool $1.2bn. And this is just at the box office. Homevideo revenues would probably have been the same again, almost certainly more. Most importantly (whether we like it or not), are revenue streams like toy sales, theme park rides and the like (see below graphic, from StatisticBrain). So we are talking about a product that, despite many not being impressed with, managed to generate several billion dollars for Fox, Lucasfilm, et al. With a more reliable pair of hands at the helm in the form of J.J. Abrams, to say Episodes VII-IX are a huge bet is questionable thinking at best.

star-wars-sales

It can be easy for pundits to forget those ancillary streams, but in contemporary Hollywood it is such areas that are key, and fundamentally influence what films get made. Kenneth Turan, writing in mid-September for the LA Times, echoed such thinking. As with our Star Wars example; so “with the Harry Potter films, and it is happening again with ‘Frozen’, with Disney announcing just last week that it would construct a ‘Frozen’ attraction at Orlando’s Disney World”. It is why studios have scheduled, as of August this year, some 30 movies based on comicbooks to be released over the coming years. Of course, supply follows demand. Such generic shlock wouldn’t be made again and again (and again) if consumers didn’t exercise their capitalist right to choose it and consume it. We have been given  Transformers 4 because the market said it wanted it.

But is this desire driven by a faute de mieux – a lack of anything better – in said market? David Fincher may not have been far off the mark back in September when he mentioned in an interview with Playboy that “studios treat audiences like lemmings, like cattle in a stockyard“. But a shift from such a narrow mindset may prove difficult in a consolidated environment – Variety’s editor-in-chief Peter Bart pointed out recently that “six companies control 90% of the media consumed by Americans, compared with 50 companies some 30 years ago”. Some players of course are trying to change the way the business this works. The most provocative statement of this was in September when Netflix announced a sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, to be released day-and-date across Netflix and in IMAX cinemas. Kudos. It’s the kind of thing this blog has been advocating since its inception. Though not in accordance with a capitalist model, the market is certainly showing a desire for more day-and-date releases. Netflix isn’t a lone outlier as on OTT provider trying to develop exclusive content that goes beyond comicbooks (that in itself should give Netflix pause; about a fifth of its market value has eroded since mid-October). Hulu’s efforts with J.J. Abrams and Stephen King, as well as Amazon’s universally acclaimed Transparent series (full disclosure, a good friend works on the show; Zeitgeist was privileged to take a look around the sets on the Paramount lot while in Los Angeles this summer). And that’s not to say innovative content can’t be developed around blockbuster fare; we really liked 20th Century Fox’s partnership with Vice for ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’, creating short films that filled the gaps between the film and its predecessor. Undoubtedly the model needs to change; unlike last summer, there were no outright bombs this year at the box office, but receipts fell 15% all the same. The first eight months of 2014 were more than $400m behind the same period in 2013. Interviewed in the FT, Robert Fishman, an analyst with MoffettNathanson put it wisely, “It always comes down to the product on the screen. And the product on the screen just hasn’t delivered.” An editorial in The Economist earlier this month praised Hollywood’s business model, suggesting other businesses should emulate it. But beyond some good marketing tactics there seems little that should be copied by others. Indeed, lots more work is needed. Perhaps the first step is merely rising that not all blockbusters need to be released in the summer. Next year, James Bond, Star Wars and The Avengers will all arrive on screens… spread throughout the year. Expect 2015 to feature more innovation on the part of exhibitors too, beyond having their customers be rained on.

Tech wars – Hacking, piracy and monopolies

Sony Pictures faced some embarrassment this week when hackers claimed to have penetrated the company’s systems, getting away with large volumes of data that included detailed information on talent (such as passport details for the likes of Angelina Jolie and Cameron Diaz). The full story is still unfolding. We’ve written a couple of times recently about cybersecurity; it was disappointing but unsurprising to see the spectre of digital warfare raise its head again twice in the past week. The first instance was with Regin, an impressive bit of malware, which seems to be the successor to Stuxnet, a spying program developed by Israeli and American intelligence forces to undermine Iranian efforts to develop nuclear materials. Symantec said Regin had probably taken years to develop, with “a degree of technical competence rarely seen”. Regin was focused on Saudia Arabia, Russia, but also Ireland and India, which muddies the waters of authorship. However, in these post-Snowden days it is well known that friendly countries go to significant lengths to spy on each other, and The Economist posited at least part of the malware was created by those in the UK. Deloitte, ranked number one globally in security consulting by Gartner, is on the case.

The news in other parts of the world is troubling too. In the US, the net neutrality debate rages. It’s too big an issue to be covered here, but the Financial Times and Harvard Business Review cover the topic intelligently, here and here. In China, regulators are cracking down on online TV, a classic case of a long-gestating occurence that at some arbitrary point grows too big to ignore, suddenly becoming problematic. But, if a recent article on the affair in The Economist is anything to go by, such deeds are likely to merely spur piracy. And in the EU this past week it was disconcerting to see what looked like a mix of jealousy, misunderstanding and outright protectionism when the European Parliament voted for Google to be broken up. No one likes or wants a monopoly; monopolies are bad because they can reduce consumer choice. This is one of the key arguments against the Comcast / Time Warner Cable merger. But Google’s share of advertising revenue is being eaten into by Facebook; its mobile platform Android is popular but is being re-skinned by OEMs looking to put their own branding onto the OS. And Google is not reducing choice in the same way as an offline equivalent, with higher barriers to entry, might. The Economist points out this week:

“[A]lthough switching from Google and other online giants is not costless, their products do not lock customers in as Windows, Microsoft’s operating system, did. And although network effects may persist for a while, they do not confer a lasting advantage… its behaviour is not in the same class as Microsoft’s systematic campaign against the Netscape browser in the late 1990s: there are no e-mails talking about “cutting off” competitors’ ‘air supply'”

The power of lock-in, or substitute products, should not be underestimated. For Apple, this has meant the acquisition of Beats, which they are now planning to bundle in to future iPhones. For Jeff Bezos, this means bundling in Washington Post into future Amazon Fire products. For media and entertainment providers, it means getting customers to extend their relationship with the business into triple- and quad-play services. But it has been telling this month to hear from two CEOs who are questioning the pursuit of quad-play. For the most part, research shows that it can increase customer retention, although not without lowering the cost of the overall product. Sky’s CEO Jeremy Darroch said “If I look at the existing quadplays in the market, not just in the UK, but pretty much everywhere, I think they’re very much driven by the providers who want to extend their offering, rather than, I think, any significant demand from customers”. Vodafone’s CEO Vittorio Colao joined in, “If someone starts bidding for content then you [might] have to yourself… Personally I have doubts that in the long run that this [exclusive content] will really create a lot of value for the platform. It tends to create lots of value for the owner”. Sony meanwhile are pursuing just such a tack of converged services in the form of a new ad campaign. But the benefits of convergence are usually around the customer being able to have multiple touchpoints, not the business being able to streamline assets and services in-house. Sony is in the midst of its own tech war, in consoles, where it is firmly ahead of Microsoft, who were seeking a similar path to that of Sky and Vodafone to dominate the living room. But externalities are impeding – mobile gaming revenues will surpass those of the traditional console next year to become the largest gaming segment; no surprise when by 2020, 90% of the world’s population over 6 years old will have a mobile phone, according to Ericsson. So undoubtedly look for more cyberattacks next year, on a wider range of industries, from film, to telco (lots of customer data there), to politics and economics.

Talent wars – Cui bono?

Our last section is the lightest on content, but perhaps the most important. It is the relation between artist and patron. This relationship took a turn for the worse this year. On a larger, corporate side, this issue played itself out as Amazon and publisher Hachette rowed over fees. Hachette, rather than Amazon, appears to have won the battle; it will set he prices on its books, starting from early 2015. It is unlikely to be the last battle between the ecommerce giant and a publisher, and it may well now give the DoJ the go-ahead to examine the company’s alleged anti-competitive misdeeds.

Elsewhere, artist Taylor Swift’s move to exorcise her catalogue from music streaming service Spotify is a shrewd move on her part. Though an extremely popular platform, driving a large share of revenues to the artists, the problem remains that there is little revenue to start with as much of what there is to do on Spotify can be done for free. The Financial Times writes that it is thanks to artists like Swift that “an era of protectionism is dawning” again (think walled gardens and Compuserve) for content. The danger for the music industry is that other artists take note of what Swift has done and follow suit. This would be of benefit to the individual artists but detrimental to the industry itself. And clearly such an issue doesn’t have to be restricted to the music industry. It’s not hard to anticipate a similar issue affecting film in 2015.

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There’s a plethora of activity going on in TMT as the year draws to a close – much of it will impact how businesses behave and customers interact with said media next year. The secret will be in drawing a long-term strategic course that can be agile enough to adapt to disruptive technologies. However what we’ve hopefully shown here in this article is that there are matters to attend to in multiple sectors that need immediate attention over any amorphous future trends.

On past and future innovation – Disruption, inequality and robots

How to define innovation, how has it been studied in the recent past, and what does future innovation hold for the human race?

Sometimes the word innovation gets misused. Like when people use the word “technology” to mean recent gadgets and gizmos, instead of acknolwedging that the term encompasses the first wheel. “Innovation” is another tricky one. Our understanding of recent thoughts on innovation – as well as its contemporary partner, “disruption” – were thrown into question in June when Jill Lepore penned an article in The New Yorker that put our ideas about innovation and specifically on Clayton Christensen’s ideas about innovation in a new light. Christensen, heir apparent to fellow Harvard Business School bod Michael Porter (author of the simple, elegant and classic The Five Competitive Forces that Shape Strategy) wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997. His work on disruptive innovation, claiming that successful businesses focused too much on what they were doing well, missing what, in Lepore’s words, “an entirely untapped customer wanted”, created a cottage industry of conferences, companies and counsels committed to dealing with disruption, (not least this blog, which lists disruption as one its topics of interest). Lepore’s article describes how, as Western society’s retelling of the past became less dominated by religion and more by science and historicism, the future became less about the fall of Man and more about the idea of progress. This thought took hold particularly during The Enlightenment. In the wake of two World Wars though, our endless advance toward greater things seemed less obvious;

“Replacing ‘progress’ with ‘innovation’ skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices our getting newer and newer”

The article goes on to look at Christensen’s handpicked case studies that he used in his book. When Christensen describes one of his areas of focus, the disk-drive industry, as being unlike any other in the history of business, Lepore rightly points out the sui generis nature of it “makes it a very odd choice for an investigation designed to create a model for understanding other industries”. She goes on for much of the article to utterly debunk several of the author’s case studies, showcasing inaccuracies and even criminal behaviour on the part of those businesses he heralded as disruptive innovators. She also deftly points out, much in the line of thinking in Taleb’s Black Swan, that failures are often forgotten about, and those that succeed are grouped and promoted as formulae for success. Such is the case with Christensen’s apparently cherry-picked case studies. Writing about one company, Pathfinder, that tried to branch out into online journalism, seemingly too soon, Lepore comments,

“Had [it] been successful, it would have been greeted, retrospectively, as evidence of disruptive innovation. Instead, as one of its producers put it, ‘it’s like it never existed’… Faith in disruption is the best illustration, and the worst case, of a larger historical transformation having to do with secularization, and what happens when the invisible hand replaces the hand of God as explanation and justification.”

Such were the ramifications of the piece, that when questioned on it recently in Harvard Business Review, Christensen confessed “the choice of the word ‘disruption’ was a mistake I made twenty years ago“. The warning to businesses is that just because something is seen as ‘disruptive’ does not guarantee success, or fundamentally that it belongs to any long-term strategy. Developing expertise in a disparate area takes time, and investment, in terms of people, infrastructure and cash. And for some, the very act of resisting disruption is what has made them thrive. Another recent piece in HBR makes the point that most successful strategies involve not just a single act of deus ex machina thinking-outside-the-boxness, but rather sustained disruption. Though Kodak, Sony and others may have rued the days, months and years they neglected to innovate beyond their core area, the graveyard of dead businesses is also surely littered with companies who innovated too soon, the wrong way or in too costly a process that left them open to things other than what Schumpeter termed creative destruction.

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Your new boss

Outside of cultural and philosophical analysis of the nature and definition of innovation, some may consider of more pressing concern the news that we are soon to be looked after by, and subsequently outmaneuvered in every way by, machines. The largest and most forward-thinking (and therefore not necessarily likely) of these concerns was recently put forward by Nick Bostrom in his new book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. According to a review in The Economist, the book posits that once you assume that there is nothing inherently magic about the human brain, it is evidence that an intelligent machine can be built. Bostrom worries though that “Once intelligence is sufficiently well understood for a clever machine to be built, that machine may prove able to design a better version of itself” and so on, ad infinitum. “The thought processes of such a machine, he argues, would be as alien to humans as human thought processes are to cockroaches. It is far from obvious that such a machine would have humanity’s best interests at heart—or, indeed, that it would care about humans at all”.

Beyond the admittedly far-off prognostications of the removal of the human race at the hands of the very things it created, machines and digital technology in general pose great risks in the near-term, too. For a succinct and alarming introduction to this, watch the enlightening video at the beginning of this post. Since the McKinsey Global Instititute published a paper in May soberly titled Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy, much editorial ink and celluloid (were either medium to still be in much use) has been spilled and spooled detailing how machines will slowly replace humans in the workplace. This transformation – itself a prime example of creative destruction – is already underway in the blue-collar world, where machines have replaced workers in automotive factories. The Wall Street Journal reports Chinese electronics makers are facing pressure to automate as labor costs rise, but are challenged by the low margins, precise work and short product life of the phones and other gadgets that the country produces. Travel agents and bank clerks have also been rendered null, thanks to that omnipresent machine, the Internet. Writes The Economist, “[T]eachers, researchers and writers are next. The question is whether the creation will be worth the destruction”. The McKinsey report, according to The Economist, “worries that modern technologies will widen inequality, increase social exclusion and provoke a backlash. It also speculates that public-sector institutions will be too clumsy to prepare people for this brave new world”.

Such thinking gels with an essay in the July/August edition of Foreign Affairs, by Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee and Michael Spence, titled New World Order. The authors rightly posit that in a free market the biggest premiums are reserved for the products with the most scarcity. When even niche, specialist employment though, such as in the arts (see video at start of article), can be replicated and performed to economies of scale by machines, then labourers and the owners of capital are at great risk. The essay makes good points on how while a simple economic model suggests that technology’s impact increases overall productivity for everyone, the truth is that the impact is more uneven. The authors astutely point out,

“Today, it is possible to take many important goods, services, and processes and codify them. Once codified, they can be digitized [sic], and once digitized, they can be replicated. Digital copies can be made at virtually zero cost and transmitted anywhere in the world almost instantaneously.”

Though this sounds utopian and democratic, what is actually does, the essay argues, is propel certain products to super-stardom. Network effects create this winner-take-all market. Similarly it creates disproportionately successful individuals. Although there are many factors at play here, the authors readily concede, they also maintain the importance of another, important and distressing theory;

“[A] portion of the growth is linked to the greater use of information technology… When income is distributed according to a power law, most people will be below the average… Globalization and technological change may increase the wealth and economic efficiency of nations and the world at large, but they will not work to everybody’s advantage, at least in the short to medium term. Ordinary workers, in particular, will continue to bear the brunt of the changes, benefiting as consumers but not necessarily as producers. This means that without further intervention, economic inequality is likely to continue to increase, posing a variety of problems. Unequal incomes can lead to unequal opportunities, depriving nations of access to talent and undermining the social contract. Political power, meanwhile, often follows economic power, in this case undermining democracy.”

There are those who say such fears of a rise in inequality and the whole destruction through automation of whole swathes of the job sector are unfounded, that many occupations require a certain intuition that cannot be replicated. Time will tell whether this intuition, like an audio recording, health assessment or the ability to drive a car, will be similarly codified and disrupted (yes, we’ll continue using the word disrupt, for now).

What Creative Destruction means for Kodak, China and Romney

February 27, 2012 1 comment

Some things are built to last. Some businesses are made this way. They are in the end ultimately just as susceptible to market forces as their counterparts. Originally a Marxist idea, creative destruction has found its way into popular economics. Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan mentions the phrase often in his autobiography. Zeitgeist has previously mentioned the late, great economist Schumpeter, too. His notion of ‘disequilibrium’ was that within the market, though you may have a great product or solution, there are external forces that can render said product or solution redundant. These innovations often come in leaps of ingenuity that might initially seem to be extraneous to the current product or solution’s market. Finally though, the new innovation ends up eradicating any synonymous inefficiencies. Think first about Henry Ford’s famous quotation,

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Along with the insight that customer research is not always the best way to go – Apple’s avoidance of it is a case in point – what this quotation also illustrates is our tendency toward myopia when it comes to seeing strategic competition from a seemingly unrelated field. Harvard Business Review have an excellent paper on strategy that covers this. It is unlikely that anyone thought the motorcar would replace horses, or that it would even be popular. This eradication of the other, more inefficient product or solution is a great example of creative destruction. Apple’s iTunes and it’s myrmidons, and the damage it has inflicted on CD sales, is another example.

Speaking of cars, attention on the auto industry was front and centre during half-time of the recent Superbowl in the US. The automaker Chrysler, which produced a similarly provocative commercial that aired during last year’s Superbowl, has caused much chatter over television, radio, print and social media. It’s an affecting advert, not least because it is built on a fallacy. Though Zeitgeist believes that bailing out the auto industry was the right thing to do, this commercial, and politicians of different stripes (including Newt Gingrich and Obama), have all been harping on about the manufacturing renaissance coming to the US: America Redux. The simple, horrible truth is that while manufacturing as an industry has room to grow it will not return to what it was.

Moreover, those jobs that will be required demand increasingly skilled, technical labourers, i.e. college-educated. There will be a great many people who are now out of work in the US who will be unlikely to find work again due to a lack of required skills. This is not President Obama’s fault, just as it is not Bush Jr. or Daddy Bush’s fault. Though some would point the finger at policies endorsing outsourcing, this would be incorrect. Insourcing is an increasing phenomenon as wages improve in regions like China. It is the way of things, as a recent editorial explains in the FT explains,

Mr Obama [has] bought into the fallacy… that manufactures are declining in the US, but his work suffers from conceptual flaws. Take just one problem: services splinter off from manufacturing even as vertical integration yields to specialisation. Over time, manufacturing yields to services. This gigantic change that is taking place has nothing to do with outsourcing.

And speaking of China, the country sits on the brink of mass creative destruction. While money poured into the country during times of less fiscal restraint, China funneled it into myriad infrastructure and planning projects. Now the easy credit is drying up, the country is in a difficult situation, not helped by mass protests across the land as workers demand remuneration that could almost be considered wages. As with the US, there will be an inexorable shift from a manufacturing industry to a services industry. How horrific this shift will be depends upon timing, among things, as a recent article in The Economist points out,

“The long-term plan is for China to wean itself off its reliance on exports and investment projects such as roads, railways and overpriced property developments, and for domestic consumption of goods and services to play a much bigger role in fuelling growth. But this rebalancing will be a long, hard slog. Officials do not want shock therapy because it could threaten the jobs of many of the 160m migrants who come from the countryside to provide the cheap labour behind China’s exports.”

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, as is the lot of someone frequently perceived as front-runner in the candidate race, has been the focus of unrelenting criticism from his fellow party members. Some of this criticism has focussed on his time working for the private equity wing of uber-consultancy Bain & Co., specifically on how many people’s jobs the man cost during his tenure there. Though Romney claims to have created a net sum of 100,000 jobs, he has since withdrawn that rather nebulous figure as his arithmetic has been questioned. His Republican opponents, as well as grass-roots Democratic lobbying group MoveOn (below), have been airing ads featuring blue-collared workers who were let go thanks to Romney’s strategies and implementations.

Mr. Romney, though his flaws and foibles may be many – he recently praised the height of Michigan’s trees as being “just right” – is not responsible for the trend of efficiency savings in America, as the Schumpeter editorial in The Economist points out,

“[I]t was also a symptom of a wider change. It was not just people like Mr Romney who were pushing American companies to shape up. It was also the new rigours of global competition. Firms of every description sought to squeeze out inefficiencies, sell off non-core businesses and close redundant operations, all in the name of shareholder value. [I]t was the shift from manufacturing to services.”

To attack Romney for such practices is to attack the foundations of modern capitalism. Which one is most welcome to do, but presumably something that most Republicans would want to shy away from, continuing as they do to bizarrely refer to Obama as a socialist. One can’t have it both ways.

Similarly caught unawares was the film industry back in the silent era, which underestimated the massive success it would have on its hands with the arrival of sound. While excellent news for film studios, many of the talent in front and behind cameras suddenly found their way of storytelling outdated and unpopular. The Artist, which won Best Picture and Best Director awards at the Oscars at the weekend, perfectly illustrates this change. The ceremony was a grand affair as usual, hosted in the same venue as it has been for years, The Kodak Theater. Reuters recently reported that Kodak has asked to have its name removed from the building as it tries to reduce its debts.

Kodak’s recent fall into bankruptcy serves as a superb example of the forces of creative destruction. The brand is surely one of the most famous of the 20th century. The Economist called it the Google of its day, and surely there are few companies that manage to enter the public lexicon. Until the 1990s it was “regularly rated as one of the world’s most valuable brands”.  The phrase “Kodak moment” has long since left the zeitgeist. The company built one of the first digital cameras ever back in 1975, the cheapest of which cost $1,000. Its share price has fallen 90% in the past year. Its competitor Fujifilm was cheaper and quicker to adapt. Creative destruction first made physical film cameras obsolete, and increasingly digital cameras as smartphones become equipped with high-definition cameras.

After trying to diversify into chemicals, George Fisher, boss of Kodak from 1993-99, “decided that its expertise lay not in chemicals but in imaging. He cranked out digital cameras and offered customers the ability to post and share pictures online.” This could have led to the creation of something akin to Facebook, but for one reason or another it did not. The Economist blames Fisher, and whatever the cause, the company has also suffered from inconsistent strategies due to a revolving door of senior management. Tony Jackson, writing in the FT, defines the creative destruction as one of “technological disruption… cheaper than the existing version and initially not as good. Faced with a cheap and dirty alternative… it goes against the grain to devote resources to it.” One of Kodak’s problems was also its passion; for physical film itself. This passion essentially made them blind to investing fully in the coming digital revolution. There was an acknowledgement that a change was coming, but it was underestimated.

Creative destruction works in terms of the stock market too, of course. What this clip, from the excellent film Margin Call, is alluding to, is that good times lead to indolence; crashes trim the fat. It is nothing new. The series is a cyclical, unending one, difficult to influence, let alone prevent. (That’s why it was so ludicrous when Gordon Brown, as short-lived UK Prime Minister, grandiloquently announced “no return to boom and bust”). Each new cycle brings new regulations, new ideologies and practices. New products, new solutions. The ways the booms and busts happen changes. The products we make and the strategies we implement change and become more and more innovative. But the cycle never ends. Enjoy the ride.