In 1999, consumers took over 80 billion photos a year; by 2014 over 1.5bn new photos were being shared every day on Facebook, WhatsApp and Snapchat alone. Camera brands should have been revelling in this explosion of photography, and generating record revenues, but it hasn’t turned out that way.
In 2000, the first mobile phone with a camera was released. Camera-phone photography spawned new companies and business models (Instagram, Periscope), transformed seemingly-unrelated sectors (news media), and generated huge revenues for smartphone manufacturers and social platforms. It also radically reshaped the camera industry. Some of the larger players were pushed out of the market and the biggest photography brand today is arguably the iPhone.
Traditional camera manufacturers are not alone. Anyone who works in a technology business, or holds a tech role in an organisation, will know the scale of change that digital disruption has caused. The pace is accelerating so much that it can be a challenge to keep up, let alone get ahead of the curve. How can businesses take advantage of technological change rather than being crushed by its inexorable progress?
It’s important to identify early signs of social, political, economic and technological change that will affect business models. These are ‘weak signals’. Weak signals are sometimes vague, ambiguous and contradictory, so how they are interpreted is as crucial as identifying them in the first place.
Consider our camera example above. There were a number of weak signals that heralded a genuine shift in consumer behaviour: the growth of social platforms such as Facebook, the increase in user-generated visual content (sharing), and improvements in reach and speed of mobile internet connectivity that enable sharing. Traditional manufacturers of compact cameras did not identify the same weak signals - or if they did, they believed they were strong enough to withstand the challenge from new competitors. Given that smartphones are pocket-sized devices capable of doing nearly everything a full-sized computer can do, it was a bad miscalculation.
Today, the ability to identify and understand weak signals is a critical as ever, and to do so, organisations need to be curious. We recently conducted its second study of organisational curiosity to understand how curiosity, and by extension sensitivity to sensitivity to weak signals, affects business outcomes.
Sixty-eight per cent of respondents believed technological innovations offer opportunities for growth, and 53 per cent seek to gain advantage by adopting new technology innovations as soon as possible. However, less than a third of respondents were effective at seeking out weak signals of technological developments before they become accepted trends.
Our study showed why organisations’ ability to identify weak signals is important. The more sensitive an organisation is to weak signals, the better they perform across a range of five key business measures: revenue growth, customer loyalty, customer experience, partner satisfaction, and employee satisfaction.
Companies and individuals who are sensitive to, and adept at identifying and interpreting these ‘weak signals’, are those who can plan for alternative futures, including ones that may not favour their current business model. They can explore a range of possibilities: what is the current consumer pain point? How does new technology solve that pain? What changes are people responding to in other areas of their lives? How can we take advantage? What is the bigger picture, and how do we respond in our own way to delight our customers?
Interpreted and used correctly, weak signals can prompt product, productivity improvements, service and operational innovation, shaping staff and skills development policies, which in turn drive success.
Whether a company is a disruptor or an incumbent, the most successful are those that have an uncanny ability to leverage new technology and ride social and economic trends. By focusing on weak signals and the effect on business outcomes, our research shows how curiosity gives businesses an ‘adaptable differentiation’ rather than a competitive edge.
Too many businesses focus on trying to find a ‘competitive advantage’ in order to respond to these changing market conditions. We think the answer is something else. According to Forrester, to be truly agile, businesses need to think beyond the traditional notion of a ‘competitive advantage’. Rather, they should embrace the concept of ‘adaptable differentiation’.
We believe that adaptable differentiation is ‘curiosity’; the ability to challenge our thinking, to ask why and to not fear the unknown. It is the process of generating ideas through the simple act of being curious as part of the everyday. Not just every now and then.
The curious companies of today will be the winners of tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that. Why? Because they never stop asking why. They stay curious. Those that don’t are in danger of being overtaken by agile new competitors with the ‘what if?’ mentality.
Angus Dorney is General Manager and Senior Director, Rackspace ANZ