Digital Tribalism

Chris Farrance

Chris Farrance

07 October 2014

I was at a conference at Southampton Football Club last week and although I have never been even a lukewarm football fan I was struck, as I walked past the Boardroom, by the resounding history of a club founded as long ago as 1885. I appreciate, of course, that there is probably no tribalism stronger than that of football fans and that my own ‘Digital Tribalism’ can only pale in comparison.

But, if we describe tribalism as a way of thinking or behaving then I think I meet at least the basic criteria in my focus on all things ‘Digital’. It’s still a long way short I’m sure of the atavistic force and shuddering resonance of Southampton’s  fans at a home game but it is something in my own way that I feel quite passionate about.

Why digital? Because as many have commented, this is a radical, exponential and disruptive tectonic force the power of which is still only just being understood. The Economist describes it as the ‘third great wave’ – more powerful than the agrarian and industrial revolutions.
Understandably there are major concerns – and it’s right to acknowledge them – not the least of which is that it is likely to have major societal implications. These include:

• An increasingly unequal divergence between the rich and the rest;

• A hollowing out of ‘middle class’ professional employment;

• A skills disparity probably precluding some from any form of employment;

• Declining workforce productivity.

There may be some solace in the fact that the previous revolutions were in time absorbed and in general the outcome was noticeably more global prosperity, health and productivity than previously. For Digital ‘Luddites’ this is scant comfort, but the fact of the matter is this is no time to play the misunderstood and misrepresented King Canute.

Why? Because technology is moving at such an inexorable pace as to make Moore’s Law itself virtually redundant. So the question is, how do we adjust to this Jedi force because as well as the societal there are major implications in the way in which wealth creation is delivered through the commercial enterprise model (a business).

It’s axiomatic that all majorities have to start as a minority. The well-known adoption curve plots the journey from innovators to laggards. This model doesn’t generally show the elapsed time from beginning to end or the symbiotic relationship between push (company promotion) and pull (buyer demand). In the case of digital, however, the push of technology cannot be managed or generally mitigated and demand is almost wantonly fuelled by users who don’t attempt to understand the technology but readily adapt to the functionality. Businesses are thus caught in a technology ‘vice’.

Digitally ‘native’ businesses understand this and cope with the challenge. Global overnight thanks to the internet, infrastructure and people ‘lite’, agile and prepared to ‘plug and play’ with minimum viable products, they’re at ease with partnering ecosystems as opposed to silo-ed hierarchies. They thrive or die and move on. For established businesses clearly it’s harder but the answer usually isn’t piecemeal and incremental improvement – it’s a stripping down and re-building of the core business model.

Many businesses I’m talking to at the moment – which have historically been very successful and come through the recession, are finding themselves on a performance plateau – flat turnover and flat profits with all manner of competitors ‘nibbling’ at their expertise. There’s a need for these businesses now to move from an ‘inside out’ focus to an ‘outside in’ one, to look beyond their own workforce and harness the rich external skills of today’s mobile workers. Technology has a part to play in this, but the deeper challenge is moving the mindset and culture of the people so that they become comfortable with change, ambiguity and just not knowing.

You may choose to play the part of the ‘boiling frog’ or you may say now is the time to work on your Digital Business Strategy to become a truly ‘2020 Digital Business’.