23rd October 2019
Around 150 years ago, a strange contraption emerged; an impossibly tall front wheel, surmounted by a sliver of a seat and a pair of rickety handlebars. The rear wheel, by contrast, was tiny, connected by a single tube which swooped down from the lofty pedalling position.
By any stretch of the imagination, the penny-farthing was an awkward-looking beast. It was also extremely dangerous. Falling from its precarious seating position would be dangerous enough at a stand-still, but if on the move – and particularly if going downhill – the chances were that the user would be thrown head first onto the ground. In fact, some of the more experienced cyclists learned to hang their feet over the handlebars when going downhill, as a means of reducing this risk.
However, there were a group of individuals who enthusiastically adopted the penny-farthing. For them, it was a machine that allowed them to show off their athletic credentials and ability to laugh in the face of danger. It wasn’t intended to be a racing machine, but that’s exactly what it became because of the cognitive frame of those who became its main users.
What’s true for the penny-farthing is equally true for any new technology, digital or otherwise: the use to which it is put is not defined by the manufacturer alone, but the user too. As end users, we’re able to modify or completely subvert the design intent as befits our needs. In fact, it’s essential that we do.
Change is a constant in life, but the rate of change forced by digitisation is particularly dramatic, given that connectivity is enabling even relatively ‘low-powered’ devices to hook into much more powerful back-end systems. This means that traditional barriers to the adoption of a new technology – notably installation – no longer exist, and many systems can simply take advantage of the latest updates as they roll out.
This in turn means that attempting to follow an established practice may mean missing an opportunity to fundamentally rethink operations altogether. Digitisation certainly allows established modes of working to be done more efficiently, but it also opens the door to significant disruption.
The automotive industry offers the starkest example of this, where new entrants are re-defining the ownership model of the car. Where historically we may have thought in terms of owning a vehicle, perhaps the new technology frame will be one where we think in terms of subscribing to a mobility service. Does this not make more sense than paying for something that you must then insure and maintain, even as its sits idle for 95% of the time? Giants like BMW, Ford and Daimler are sufficiently concerned about the notion, to the extent that they’re rethinking how they regard their own business. None of them foresee a future in which their survival is assured by making and selling cars in the traditional fashion.
Perhaps there has been no better time to consider the frame through which you regard your organisation and the technology it uses. If you don’t see any disruption on the horizon for your industry, perhaps that indicates a space for potential innovation!
Disruption doesn’t always have to be about doing something radically different: it can also be about extending the reach of existing processes to unlock value elsewhere in a lifecycle or operation. This is something that will be explored in the next blog in this series.