Five stars: the ingredients for a digital revolution

Slow and steady doesn’t always win – sometimes revolutionary thinking is needed for a dramatic upheaval. We are experiencing huge changes in the digital world, both in industry-wide technology “uprisings” such as artificial intelligence and edge computing, and from innumerable internal digital transformation projects where the revolutionary spark is catching in a corner of a business or vertical. Whether American, French, Industrial or Digital, it’s impossible to make a like-for-like comparison of any two revolutions. However, they all share many core attributes that lead to dramatic and wide-reaching change. We can study history to identify the vital building blocks for any organisation feeling the pressure to revolutionise their products, services, customer experience, or business model.

A people

All revolutions are begun by people, and driven by those committed to creating change. In the world of business, the brand usually receives the plaudits. In most cases the brand is the business, but in a few exceptions it’s a single individual such as Steve Jobs and Richard Branson. Regardless, people are at the heart of every transformation. For every digital transformation project, there’s an employee asking a question no one had thought of; a department tackling a problem everyone thought insurmountable, or a customer whose experience or demands changed a service or a company forever.

All organisations today should be watching for these revolutionaries within their business and customer bases. The most successful digital transformation projects usually take place within businesses that listen to their employees: encouraging them to speak up, and rewarding creative thinking and risk taking. After all, it only takes one person, or one team, to start a chain reaction that launches a company to previously unimagined heights

An opposition

Revolutions don’t arise from nothing. There has to be something to revolt against: taxation or control by a colonial power, an overbearing aristocracy, or an unbearable status quo. In business, this often means targeting incumbents vulnerable to digital disruption –partly why half of the year 2000’s Fortune 500 have now disappeared.

Today, consumers want a better life, new opportunities and, often, to break the chains of the establishment – fertile ground for revolution. For instance, consumers were constrained by TV companies’ restricted programming for years: until Netflix arrived on the scene delivering its huge library of content to subscribers on their terms. Further afield, Airbnb did the same for the hotel industry, Skyscanner transformed flight bookings, and Transferwise changed international money transfers.

User expectations have changed fundamentally in the digital era, leaving businesses that don’t provide a truly exceptional end-user experience ripe for disruption. One of the most common paths to success in recent years has been to target those industries and businesses that continually dissatisfy, and attempt to improve them.

A spark

It may have the people, and even an opposition, but often without a single spark to act as a catalyst, a revolution will simply rumble beneath the surface without ever truly erupting. Think of the Boston Tea Party or storming the Bastille - events that, at least now, are seen as the starting point of massive upheaval.

This spark can come from anywhere – most important is recognising the opportunity it presents, and taking advantage. For example, in the 21st century connectivity has proven a great equaliser of organisations. Mobile technology, the internet and the World Wide Web have made possible massively interactive enterprises, where the business can engage with customers, workers, partners and even between machines – creating new experiences and opportunities with truly transformative potential.

Organisations watching for these sparks can act swiftly, and use them as a trigger before their revolution fizzles out.

A vision

A revolution cannot be meaningless or it simply becomes chaos. Instead, it needs a worthy cause to create good will and generate popular support. Think of the difference ideals such as “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” or “No taxation without representation” have made. Similarly, any digital revolution needs an underlying goal. Look at Amazon: it can lay claim to having one of the most profoundly disruptive digital revolutions of all time. Its business model of a customer-centric online shopping experience helped propel ecommerce to where it is today, and businesses in every industry have taken cues from its example.

None of this would have been possible if Amazon hadn’t put its customers front and centre, with a vision for how it could improve lives. Knowing how your revolution will affect the experience of customers or end users is essential.

A strategy

Passion may start a revolution and is essential to fuel it. But without effective leadership and direction, that initial uncompromising force can eventually dissipate into nothing. The most successful revolutions have clearly defined objectives and strong, strategic leadership to ensure that they are met. Microsoft has twice been an example of this. It dominated the personal computer industry for years under Bill Gates. And more recently under Satya Nadella’s leadership, the company has reinvigorated its focus, and is once again a major disruptive force. Every successful business needs strong leadership and direction, but during periods of intense change, this demand becomes even more acute.

There are always exceptions: revolutions that arise out of nowhere, and new business models that succeed against all the odds. However, for businesses considering revolution, these building blocks can be the foundation to success. Businesses that aren’t considering change should think twice. The chances are that disruptors are gathering now, putting together a revolution of their own.

Article by by Huw Owen, VP EMEA and APJ at Couchbase

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