If there was still any doubt, we are well and truly in the age of digital: technology is now a part of our solutions to every problem.
Since the internet first launched 30 years ago, we have speculated on and feared for a world run — if not ruled — by robots and algorithms. With each wave of new technology, the worst of our fears failed to materialise, but we did benefit from better tools like emails, mobile devices, cloud storage, GPS and virtual assistants. That lulled us into a pattern for responding to digital change: initial [attention/interest/panic] (select your preferred response), then back to business as usual, albeit with better tools. Digital tools improved business processes but left organisational models largely untouched. It was Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen, who alerted us to seeing digital technology as more than tools. Through his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma (Harvard Business Review Press, 1997), we became aware of the digital age’s next phase: disruption. Digital disruption, spearheaded by startups, hit industries where they were most vulnerable: their organisational complacency. Layers of hierarchy and rigid departments may have been efficient, but the model was inflexible and change too slow and reactive. Digital disruption forced traditional organisations to accept more collaborative, adaptive and user-centred ways of working. Then, just as they were getting comfortable with methodologies with names like Agile and Lean, the digital age’s third phase arrived: digital augmentation. New technologies, such as artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, quantum computing and machine learning, push our human abilities beyond our existing physical boundaries. Tech has become our autonomous co-workers, freeing us to do work that requires our unique humanness: emotions, relationships, beliefs and values, creativity, spirituality, and so on. This phase is often referred to as the post-digital era because the advantage is not the technology, but what the technology enables people to do.
A collective focus on the future
Times of massive change tend to magnify our weaknesses, but they also highlight our strengths. The licensing industry has grappled with a retail industry that has had an uneven approach to investment in digital technology. Too much focus on the mechanics of channels came at the expense of sustained customer relationships. Netflix offers an instructive case study as cofounder, Marc Randolph tells it: “…one of the things we did very well, is recognize very early on that if we were going to be successful, we had to come up with a premise for the company that was delivery agnostic. But if we [had said], ‘This is all about downloading or streaming,’ [that would have been] disastrous. So we had to come up with a positioning which transcends the medium.” On the flipside, the licensing industry’s collaborative approach is a strength. Where most industries struggle, this capability is built into licensing’s DNA. Creatives, agents, product managers, distributors, and others – a mix of the right assets contributing to further the collective agenda. Even more advantageous is the importance the industry places on connecting with brands’ emotional equity. It primes us for the digital augmentation — human-centric — phase that is currently upon us. Implementing digital tools is no longer a competitive advantage, but an operational imperative. Collaborative approaches will be more significant for business success today, as long as skills, adaptivity and innovation continues for the world ahead, not the one gone by. As much as things keep changing, meeting the needs of consumers and understanding their sentiments will always be a constant. To paraphrase Netflix’s Marc Randolph, the opportunities are in the value technology enables us to deliver, not how it enables us to deliver it.
Originally published in The Bugg Report https://www.buggreport.com.au/category/columns/the-new-age-of-digital/, August 2020.