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Disruption in your hand

June 13th, 2018

You are carrying a device that has been responsible for the decimation of industries, the loss of millions of jobs and has subjected billions of people to an increased risk of fraud and bullying. This same device is also responsible for enriching our lives, bringing information and money to the billions of people living in remote and less developed regions of the world and enabling thousands of new businesses. This device is of course your Smartphone. It is a prime example of disruptive innovation.

What is disruptive innovation?

The term ‘disruptive innovation’ was coined by the academic, Clayton Christensen in 1997 to describe innovations that, at their inception, pose no threat to established businesses, due to their limited functionality. But over time, as they develop their functionality/price, they begin to nibble away at the established market, taking customers who are looking for ‘good enough’ solutions. The loss of these customers may not necessarily be seen as negative by established businesses who may well regard them as less attractive lower margin customers. But as time goes on, the disruptor takes more and more market share as its proposition grows in capability and acceptance. The result is that the incumbent, and once dominant, providers are squeezed ever more upmarket and ultimately into niche markets (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Disruptive innovation (based on work by Clayton Christensen)

Christensen argues that disruptive innovations can hurt all companies – especially the successful, well managed companies that are responsive to their customers and open to new technologies and methods (see his book ‘The innovator’s dilemma’). For these companies tend to focus on meeting the needs of their existing customers. They ignore the market segments most susceptible to disruptive innovations, because these segments often have very tight profit margins and are too small to provide a good enough growth rate to attract established firms. The result is that these ‘less attractive’ market segments become the ‘beach heads’ for new value propositions that grow and develop in these segments before invading the ‘more attractive’ more profitable segments in the market – the ones that are the preserve of the established and dominant competitors.

The Smartphone as a disruptor

The smartphone is one of the most disruptive products to have appeared in the last two decades. It has disrupted a number of markets, including digital cameras, music and video players, portable satellite navigation, e-book readers, voice recorders, paper diaries and personal organizers and even the humble wristwatch. The subsequent growth in phone screen size is creating further disruption in the tablet and laptop markets.

The smartphone is a good illustration of the process of disruption. Consider but one of its functions, its ability to take digital photographs. The first mobile phone with a built-in camera was manufactured by Samsung and released in South Korea in June 2000. It had a 1.5-inch LCD screen, and the built-in digital camera was capable of taking only 20 photos each at 0.35-megapixels in size, but the user had to connect it to a computer to share their photos. Sharp launched an improvement on this concept in November 2000 – the J-SH04 could take photos at 0.11-megapixels, a lower resolution than the Samsung, but importantly photos could be shared using mobile data transmission. This phone therefore combined the key elements of today’s smartphone cameras – picture capture and immediate distribution.

By the end of 2004 the camera phone was riding high. It was reported that over half of the phones sold worldwide in the first 9 months of 2004 had cameras in them, and two-thirds of all the phones shipped in the third quarter were camera phones. Leading the way was Finnish manufacturer, Nokia.

The arrival of mobile phone cameras at the functional level of ‘good enough’ was illustrated in 2013 when the Chicago Sun-Times sacked its entire staff of 28 full-time photographers and replaced them with reporters using smartphones. As well as significantly reducing the newspaper’s costs, the paper was able to increase its video content. The paper released a statement saying: “The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. We have made great progress in meeting this demand and are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements. The Chicago Sun-Times continues to evolve with our digitally savvy customers, and as a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network.” It was reported that reporters were to be trained in ‘iPhone photography basics’.

Figure 2: Digital camera sales volumes  (Source: IC Insights)

The impact of the disruption caused by camera phones on traditional cameras was clear to see with the market leaders being squeezed into the smaller more specialist and profitable, niches such as digital SLRs.

Other victims of smartphone disruption were closer to home

Apple has benefitted from the disruptive impact of its iPhone smartphone product on the mobile phone market since it was launched in 2007. The immediate loser was Nokia which was the market leader at the time, with handsets that focused primarily on mobile telephony and secondarily on mobile computing and entertainment. But another major player, BlackBerry (originally called Research in Motion) was also hit by the move away from the traditional keyboard to touchscreens.

It is also interesting to consider why it was Apple that was the disruptor of the mobile-phone market and not IBM, whose Simon Personal Communicator introduced in 1994, was effectively the first Smartphone or Nokia, the market leader, whose Communicator series of Smartphones were successfully sold into business markets for several years before the iPhone was launched.

One key factor in Apple’s successful disruption of the mobile phone and smartphone sectors was that the company primarily targeted consumers and not businesses with its smartphone offering, unlike both IBM and Nokia. This enabled it to quickly build volume and sizeable market share. It cemented this success with its complementary ecosystem built around the iTunes App store and its partners’ offerings. This enabled it to then enter the business market taking advantage of the BYOD (‘bring your own device’) movement with its customers using their phones at work and helping to convince purchasing decision-makers of their benefits.

Dealing with disruption?

Disruptive Innovation can threaten any business. It also offers the opportunity for innovative businesses to enter new markets with the strategic potential for overcoming the existing dominant competitors. So any forward-looking organization today should have approaches and mechanisms that try and spot such potential disruptive innovations when they are still ‘over the horizon’. Indeed such disruptive innovation, used proactively, can form the core element of a powerful business transformation strategy.

Unfortunately there is no one approach that can be used to identify potential disruptions early. Businesses need to select a range of complementary approaches for ‘scanning’ the business environment for potential disruptions. They also need to develop and assess scenarios of technology, competition and market changes to determine when and how they should best respond to potential disruption. Whatever approaches they choose to adopt, it is important that they are proactive, rather than planning to react when disruptions become visible – for by then it is likely to be too late.

The one approach that business leaders should most definitely not adopt – is unfortunately the most common: to take a dominant market position for granted or to consider it has some degree of permanence. The business history books are full of companies that have made that mistake.

This article is an extract from ‘Sowing the seeds of business transformation’ by Alastair Ross,available as paperback or e-book on Amazon. It was originally published on LinkedIn on 13-6-18.

 

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