Ride the dragon of digital disruption

Don't ignore the dragon: digital disruption is coming for your industry - but there's an alternative to being caught in the flames…

The worst thing you can do with a dragon is ignore it.

In a week’s time, we’ll be gathering in Berlin to discuss the dragons ahead – but some people will ignore the message. And they’ll ignore the dragon. They can turn their backs on it, they can stick their heads in the sand, but they can’t make themselves safe, because this dragon’s name is Digital, and it’s changing everything.

Digital disruption burns down industry after industry. The music business, the publishing business, the travel business – all have felt the flame of digital disruption, and few existing companies have emerged unscathed.

In every case, access was the thing that made these businesses viable and profitable in their existing forms. Access to recording studios, and record pressing facilities. Access to printing presses. Access to information about flight and hotel availability.

In every case, digital took away that advantage. Laptops became recording studios (maybe even tablets now) and records and CDs were replaced by digital files. Anyone can publish to the internet – who needs expensive and slow printing presses? And who needs a travel agent to search for hotel deals, when you can do it from the comfort of your own living room?

Make no mistake, being attacked by the dragon of digital disruption is a horrible experience. Companies die. People lose their jobs. Sometimes even seeing the dragon coming isn’t enough. I was one of the loudest dragon-spotters in a traditional publishing company, and my job was scorched away in the fires of disruption. As James McQuivey points out on his Forrester blog, it was nothing personal. People have always been hurt as a benefit turns around and becomes a disadvantage:

While this has always been true, thanks to digital disruption, it’s now expanding and accelerating, because even the smallest market inefficiencies that have even the slightest hint of monopoly opportunity are fair targets for digital disruptors. We see it happening in TV, in books, in pharmaceuticals, in retail. Everywhere you look, companies are upset that digital tools and platforms are making it possible for companies to invade their customer relationships, upset their traditional economics, and provide benefits to customers without having to pay the price to gain entry past whatever monopoly gates previously ensured scarcity in the industry, whether the broadcast of signals over scarce spectrum, the publication and distribution of physical books through a handful of bookstores, the expensive development of patentable medications, or the costly erecting of brick-and-mortar locations for distributing products.

So, what to do? When you see the dragon coming, you can’t run and hide. You can’t pretend this isn’t happening or – worse – persuade yourself that your industry is somehow, magically immune. It isn’t.

McQuivey has his answer:

Instead of fretting about it, I can admire it and then roll up my sleeves and participate.

To me, that’s just another way of saying “don’t stand in the dragon’s flame, ride its back.”

I’ve left the burning publishing industry behind – and am riding the wave of online disruption. But I also, through training, lecturing and writing, aim to help other people climb on the dragon’s back.

Join us in Berlin next week – because as surely as we’ll show you that Here Be Dragons – we’ll also show you how to climb on their backs, and take to the skies…

Image by Greg Weir, and used under a Creative Commons license