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Cut through digital hype

Digital transformation. What does it mean to you, to me and to the companies who use the term so openly? DR THOMAS OOSTHUIZEN, Global Consulting Director at Acceleration, shares his insight and experience on what the term may mean and should mean.

Words… words … words … When I speak to clients, I hear many different interpretations of what “digital transformation” is, illustrating that the term confuses as often as it clarifies. Some believe that it’s simply a matter of using digital channels to sell and service clients more effectively, more efficiently and in a more personalised manner.

A significant number think it is about a new application or digital marketing initiative. Many regard it as a matter of using technology to drive business process innovation. And others say that their goal is nothing less than to be the Uber of insurance or the Airbnb of banking. Digital transformation has come to mean all of these things and more.

But when a term becomes shorthand for so many perspectives, it loses much of its usefulness. If we are not clear about the definition of digital transformation when we discuss it in boardrooms, how do we create a meaningful strategy for the future? And how do we align our organisations behind our vision?

Definition impacts strategy and the level of its conversation, so it matters

What is clear from my discussions with large brands is that C-suite executives know that their industry, business environment, and customers are evolving, and that their brands and organisations also need to adapt.

What they often do not know is how to bring about the changes that will help their companies to be profitable, sustainable and competitive in an era of disruptive change (yes, disruption has also become an overused and misunderstood term).

The reality is that most companies are reluctant to disrupt their own industries, often because they fear cannibalising their customer base or eroding their own margins. Hence, most choose to tweak some aspects of their business with digital technologies rather than to transform their business models in a fundamental manner. Many scholars like Clayton Christensen suggest that a new business, outside of the current business, is often the best way to have the best of two worlds. It means a company can become more consumer centric by using data and technology well in its current business, whilst also experimenting with more disruptive options enabled by technology.

For example, they may change how they understand and engage with consumers with the aid of digital tools and channels. This is an imperative and no longer up for debate. Unless this is done, nothing else is possible. This is an approach that has the advantage of being realistic and manageable to implement. But is it enough for a large brand to keep the competitive high ground in today’s fast-changing consumer environment?

After all, consumers judge their experiences with all industries they deal with by the benchmarks the digital disruptors have set. Why should interactions with an airline or bank not be as easy and personal as dealing with Amazon? These are the big questions customers are asking – brands should be ready to answer.

Asking the right questions

We recommend that executives begin by discussing their business’s context, challenges and customers so that they can have a clear view of how digital competitors, technologies, and consumer behaviour will affect their brands in the years to come. This exercise is about clarifying language so the organisation can build a digital strategy based on a shared understanding of its challenges and desired outcomes.

The broad questions senior managers should be asking are:

·         How exactly is digital technology changing the way our customers behave and the way that existing, emerging and potential competitors do business?

·         What are the best companies across industries doing across the spectrum of digital enablement? What can we learn from them about the future of our industry and our business?

·         How should we change our business to defend and extend market share, grow profits and ensure relevance as digital technology evolves in the years to come?

·         An interesting point to note here is that the real nature of digital disruption for an established industry isn’t always obvious. Think, for example about Uber, which may have a dramatic impact beyond the taxi industry in the years to come. By making personal transport an affordable service commodity, it could eat away at the edges of the car and auto insurance industries.

Brands therefore must understand how consumers behave rather than simply looking at direct competition. Remaining relevant is not simply a matter of creating an app or smartening up their website, but finding ways to use customer data to create more meaningful and relevant customer experiences at every touch point. It is notable that consumers often do not have finite industry boundaries.

Beyond the obvious

By looking closely at competitors and the technology landscape, executives can see how emerging technologies and disruptive rivals could attack their market share. They can then create the strategies necessary to protect their market share and possibly identify ways to expand into new markets using digital technology.

The next step is how to do it, and the answer won’t be the same for every business. Some businesses will have visionary leadership, agile processes, innovative cultures, young workforces with digital skills, and modern technology platforms, so they’ll be able to embrace digital transformation more wholeheartedly.

Others may be encumbered by conservative leadership, legacy technology, regulation, siloed processes, and their workforces. They’ll need to look at their assets – data, customers, skills and channels – and find ways to put them to work in a digital world. In some cases, they might need to launch new brands, form joint ventures or innovation groups to fast-track their digital programmes.

In either instance, what really matters is that the business stays close to consumers, keeps its eye on new technologies, and keeps building new products and experiences that meet consumers’ evolving needs. There is no excuse not to become more consumer centric – for that to happen, data and insights are the starting points – and how marketing technology can support exceptional customer experiences. In the very least, this will enable a strong defensive against disrupters, even if it won’t protect a brand indefinitely.

So ultimately, underpinning the organisation’s ability to meet these goals is its ability to gather, organise and analyse customer data.

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What US game of phones means for Huawei

The Trump administration shocked the world with its ban on US companies supplying Huawei. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK digs deeper.

The Trump administration shocked the world with its ban on US companies supplying Huawei. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK digs deeper.

In the same week that the wildly popular Game of Thrones series reached its climax with major characters meeting their startling destinies, US president Donald Trump took the game of phones to a new level in a move that was as startling.

By declaring a trade ban on Huawei, he in effect blocked any US technology from being supplied to the world’s fastest growing smartphone manufacturer. The immediate consequence: Google revoked Huawei’s access to the Android operating system, the Google Play Store, and Google apps like Maps, Gmail and YouTube for all future phone models.

However, Google announced on Twitter, through its Android account, that it would not pull the plug on current devices. It said:

This means that the current market-leading phone, the Huawei P30 Pro, won’t be affected by the ban. Huawei said it had stockpiled chips from US suppliers with this possibility in mind, so it should at least be able to meet demand for the current model.

Huawei is also known to have worked on its own operating system for some years now, with a view to it eventually replacing Android and reducing the company’s reliance on Google. However, the severity of the ban, and its catch-all nature, shook the market. A smartphone without any Google products is a phone that will see little demand outside China, which itself has banned most Google apps and services.

Notably, the first impact of the shock wave was on American companies that supply Huawei. Chipmakers Intel and Snapdragon were hit, and a wide range of other corporations, from Microsoft to Corning, could also be affected. Apple could be next, as the Chinese government may well block the assembly of its products in China. Currently, all iPhones are put together at factories in China. Should it retaliate in this way, Apple will have to develop a new supply chain, both delaying its next versions and increasing its cost due to its loss of a cheap source of labour.

That is not to say that Huawei won’t be a big loser in this trade war. It’s a massive blow. Until now, Huawei could carry on blithely in the face of a sales ban in the USA, knowing it is dominant in the rest of the world in both 5G equipment and in handset sales.

However, its smartphone leadership is founded on a particularly good implementation of Google’s Android ecosystem. Losing that means it has to go back to the drawing board in developing and evolving its own operating system and even apps environment. It can do it, but it will lose years of development to Apple and Samsung.

The bottom line, then, is that everyone loses in this trade war. If the Huawei ban is no rescinded, Donald Trump will have dealt a crippling blow to the entire smartphone industry. This could, in turn, presage a slump in technology shares on the stock markets of the world.

It may, then, appear baffling that the US administration would take such drastic steps. The ostensible reason is that Huawei is subject to a Chinese law that requires local companies to cooperate with authorities. This is interpreted as meaning that Huawei would install secret backdoors in handsets to give the Chinese government access to them, and secret spy technology in 5G networks to allow the government to eavesdrop on all communications.

This is clearly an absurd accusation, as any evidence to this effect would instantly destroy Huawei as a credible provider of technology to the world. No such evidence has been presented, and most arguments to this effect have been on the level of conspiracy theory rather than presentation of facts.

It also speaks volumes that the US has not banned trade with China’s Lenovo, which acquired the IBM hardware business a few years ago, and the Motorola handset division more recently. Motorola is still perceived to be an American brand, while Huawei is perceived not just as the challenger brand it had been for some years, but in fact as an invader brand.

Can foreign policy be based on mere perception? In the case of the Trump administration, that tends to be the rule rather than the exception. And the perception is further clouded by the halo effect that surrounds Apple products in the USA. The iPhone makes up well over a third of all American smartphone sales. Typical iPhone users tend to be rather enthusiastic about their loyalty to the brand, to the extent that they are usually disparaging of any other brands.

Grudging respect for Samsung, which has been going head-to-head with Apple for much of this decade, does not extend to Huawei, which emerged seemingly from nowhere to become the world’s third biggest smartphone brand. Its current sales trajectory has it overtaking Apple very soon, and reaching the number one position by the end of the year. Until, that is, Donald Trump brought its momentum to a halt.

Again, why not ban Motorola and Lenovo in the same breath? The answer may well lie in the pathology of the Apple fanboy. American-born Motorola and Lenovo handsets pose no threat to Apple’s dominance of the US market, whereas the interloper, Huawei, is a fundamental threat. It is, therefore, the enemy, merely by virtue of its existence as serious competition when it is seen as having no right to compete with the likes of Apple. Trump is known to be an enthusiastic iPhone user, using two of the devices simultaneously, and would almost certainly buy into this mindset. That, in turn, makes it a natural kneejerk reaction simply to ban American companies from doing business with Huawei.

Whether this is merely idle speculation is beside the point. The ban also represents self-inflicted harm, which extends the pathology argument to an entire administration.

It will be a blow to both countries, symbolic of how a trade ban can hurt the country imposing the ban. It also casts a dark shadow over world trade, and is a shameful example of how trade wars wreck so much in their paths. 

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Time for smart energy

South Africa is experiencing an energy crisis that requires the public and private sectors, along with households to work together. Fundamental to this is embracing innovative technology that provides more efficient ways of managing the country’s energy.

Riaan Graham, sales director for Ruckus Networks, sub-Saharan Africa, said: “With the number of connected devices expected to top more than 75 billion worldwide by 2025, the Internet of Things (IoT) can be considered an important tool in reaching this goal. Already, connected devices can be used to deliver smart energy that sees a more optimal use of resources.”

This approach relies on a smart grid of connected sensors pointing to areas where energy is wasted. In turn, the supply to these points can be allocated to higher priority areas resulting in a better use of resources.

Aiding this drive towards connected devices is government pushing towards the establishment of smart cities. These cities require a technological infrastructure built around various sensors connected to the internet to not only generate data, but control things as diverse as traffic lights, street lamps, and other electrical devices.

Graham said: “These smart cities enable lighting to be automatically switched off when not needed. Sensors on the connected devices will detect when people are on the street and turn it off or on accordingly. What might seem like a novelty, can make a massive difference in reducing energy waste.”

According to Kate Stubbs, director of business development and marketing at Interwaste, IoT is just part of how technology can be used to create a more efficient environment.

“South Africa produces an average 108 million tonnes of waste annually,” said Stubbs. “Of this, only 10 percent is recycled. There is significant potential to use this waste and convert it to energy. This is more than just the traditional way of viewing recycling. Instead, it is using technology to extract value out of waste through initiatives like refuse and waste-derived fuel.”

The first South African Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) plant was launched in 2016 and not only aims to reduce landfill, but also the country’s carbon footprint. As the name suggests, the plant converts general, industrial, and municipal waste into an alternative fuel that is used in the cement industry.

Stubbs said: “Spin-off benefits of this plant includes the creation of additional employment opportunities and a reduction of South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions. Waste management entails so much more than what many people think. But the key remains a combination of technology innovation and a willingness to use the resources generated by this.”

Graham agrees about the need to readily accept the innovation technology brings as the country is teetering on a significant energy disaster.

He said: “New technologies are critical in helping the countries and their cities of the future promote sustainable energy use. For example, Nairobi has introduced smart street lamps that use LED lighting saving money and resources on energy costs. These lamp poles also have Wi-Fi embedded in them that sees air quality probe sensors submitted vital data for city planners on where there are pollution hotspots.”

Stubbs feels these are good examples of how energy management approaches in the connected world need to be non-linear.

“The traditional ways of adopting technology, recycling, and managing energy must be seen as relics of the past,” she said. “Instead, we must all work together and readily embrace modern solutions or risk our country entering a new dark ages.”

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