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Conversation & Coffee: Mark Howe, Advantage MD on Disruption

Business-talk is full of buzzwords, from ‘circling back’ to taking face-to-face conversations ‘offline,’ it’s almost impossible to be an executive in this day and age without ‘leveraging’ a few buzzwords to get your point across. And it seems that in 2017, no buzzword is more frequently or vacuously used as ‘disruption.’ 

But what is it? Seriously, why is everyone so focused on or scared of disruption? Am I being disrupted right now? Did I disrupt this morning? To help us get a firmer grasp on what the big buzzword of 2017 actually means, I sat down with Advantage Managing Director, Mark Howe.

Camilo (C): Mark, everyone is talking about disruption right now, there’s digital disruption, disruptive technology, there are even disruption consultants, in your opinion, what is disruption?

Mark (M): For me, disruption is really just another word for progress or change. The fact that we’re talking about ‘digital’ disruption or disruptive ‘technology’ simply speaks to the fact that technology and digital platforms are the tools being used to create change and progress in today’s world. If we were around 500 years ago during the Reformation we would have been talking about the Gutenberg disruption [Johannes Gutenberg was the inventor of the printing press, the technology that allowed Martin Luther to propagate his ideas about the Catholic Church]. Disruption is looking at something – a technology, an institution, a process – and improving it. It’s about changing the rules of the game.

C: What’s a modern example of digital disruption most people will be familiar with?

M: I think the one that’s most obvious and touches most people is social networks and the media in general. If you think back to the early 2000s, print and television absolutely dominated the industry. They were the ones that got all the advertising money and they were also the gatekeepers of information; nowadays, anyone with a laptop and a Wi-Fi signal can be their own media outlet. Disruption for the media industry has resulted in publications such as The Economist or The Guardian providing multichannel offerings to their customers – which is great – however, it’s also resulted in them pushing more ideologically driven content. We see this with the Fake News phenomenon that’s taking place in the United States and to a lesser extent here in the U.K. Because there’s been a digitisation and personalisation of the press, people are wanting news coverage that confirms their political, religious and ideological beliefs over reporting that simply highlights the facts of a particular issue – at times it seems like the opinion section of some magazines and newspapers has completely taken over the whole publication.

C: Couldn’t this just be seen as a failing of the media?

M: I think it’s very easy to blame the media, but it isn’t entirely their fault, in fact, I would say it’s digital disruption – that is, the digitisation of news – that’s to blame: if a media outlet doesn’t have a clear pro or anti Trump, or pro or anti Brexit stance then readers – and therefore advertisers – will simply go elsewhere. Digital disruption in the media industry has made sure every single viewpoint is represented online. Move away from news media for a moment to media in general and you can see this even clearer with the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime, digital disruption completely changed the rules of the game when it came to television production and consumption. The fact that television has become an on-demand streaming service has forced the BBC to develop iPlayer and DVDs to become almost extinct. Think about most laptops, many of them don't have CD/DVD slots because people simply don't store and consume content in that way anymore, it's all on YouTube or Spotify. And again, like with the news, any individual with a YouTube account can make their own nightly news or reality TV show. We live in a world of 'Influencers' and people that are solely famous because of their social media presence, nothing else. 

C: You said earlier disruption means progress, the Fake News phenomenon doesn’t sound like progress?

M: Progress or change, though I do see a silver lining to all of this. The fact that we’re even talking about Fake News means that there are large groups of the population that are taking an interest in making sure the information they see online is accurate and truthful. It is the chaos, or rather the disruption that media digitisation has caused that now sees organisations like Google, Facebook and Twitter really thinking about how they operate, the content they allow on their sites and how they can stop the spread of misinformation in the age of information overload and the Internet.

C:  What about for SMEs, how should they start thinking about and preparing for digital disruption?

M: I think what SMEs can take away from the media industry example is that disruption is only really negative if you ignore it or fail to plan for it properly: if you're still trying to make a living off DVDs, you're playing the wrong game. Disruption can be a great thing, just think of services like Netflix or Amazon – television has never been so good! Or smartphones, teenagers in 2017 can do on their phones what genius pioneers could only dream of in the 1960s and 70s. Instead of thinking about disruption as something to fear, businesses – especially SMEs – should think of it as using digital resources to enhance and improve their customer value proposition. And because digital resources require significantly less capital investment than brick and mortar resources, businesses can dramatically improve customer experiences more quickly and cheaply than they’ve ever been able to before. Take, for example, a business like Airbnb, they are one of the world’s fastest growing holiday accommodation providers and they own absolutely zero real-estate, all they do is connect homeowners with travellers; the rest is up to the users of the service. They have used digital disruption to build their whole business model and this allows them to compete with goliaths like the Hilton Group and the Accore Group. And as Airbnb shows, it's not just the technology that matters - you don't see GumTree being the world's most popular holiday accommodation platform - disruption only works when human ingenuity and creativity get involved. 'Digital' is just a resource, not a solution in itself. 

C: What about if your business isn’t as innovative or ‘disruptive’ as Airbnb, can you still take part in digital disruption?

M: Yes! Of course, and this is the area where Advantage can really help. A lot of customers that I speak to worry that digital disruption isn’t right for them because they themselves are not a particularly disruptive business – they might be an insurance provider or asset managers – thankfully disruption does not discriminate. When we have a client that’s worried about digital disruption we like to walk them through a process of identification. All this really means is that we work with our customers to catalogue all of their business functions and capabilities in order to identify areas where digital disruption could be beneficial. In order to do this, we try and get from our customers a sense of what they think they’re customers might like – it’s important to remember, whatever disruption you’re after, it has to have a clear benefit to the customer. Once we’ve identified what might improve a customer’s experience, we then look at the various technologies available to make that happen and narrow it down to the most appropriate option. The most important thing is to stay open-minded and not jump to conclusions, rather keep your focus on the customer and work back from there. For example, one of our clients was drowning in paperwork and data duplication. Because this business was quite small, the Account Managers, whose primary job should have been to simply manage relationships with their customers end-to-end, were also – due to the small size of their business – being made responsible for chasing customer payments. The internal process for invoicing and payment generation was so disjointed that Account Managers were spending more time looking for information and being debt collectors than they were identifying new ways to improve their customers’ businesses. Customer satisfaction was understandably hit and miss, so once we found out what the issue was (when they originally came to us they had no idea just how arduous their internal processes were) we went about implementing Dynamics GP – specifically highlighting the email invoice and Credit Control functionality which allows invoices to be generated and sent directly from an individual’s outlook, and improves debt collection activities scheduling and helps to proactively manage debt. The ability to easily send and track invoices and their payment status meant Account Managers were able to move more efficiently onto new ways of helping their customers; customers were no longer left waiting for resolutions to invoice queries or service issues to be resolved, and by using Office 365’s Microsoft Forms to create feedback surveys, Account Managers were able to clearly see what they were doing well and where the businesses needed to improve. Each customer engagement was now evaluated and key learnings codified.

C: So, disruption doesn’t always have to be ground-breaking?

M: I think disruption itself is ground-breaking, as I said it can change the rules of the game, but sometimes you can partake in the new game by changing a few of your tools. As long as you keep your eye on the customer and make sure that what you’re doing is adding value and keeping them away from your competitors, you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. Obviously sometimes you do, and there are some clients where we've had to build tailor-made CRM solutions for them so they can set up loyalty programmes and customer service portals, but sometimes it’s just as simple as providing technology that helps a business connect more authentically with their customers, or improves a back-end issue that frees staff to deliver their primary service more effectively.

C: Finally, Mark, what do you see as the big disruptors of 2018?

M: I think from a political/regulatory point of view Brexit and GDPR are going to be huge. Businesses really need to start thinking about how they’re going to adapt to both, especially if they're an SME that has restricted budgets. From a technology perspective, Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality are going to be huge game changers, but they shouldn’t be feared, rather they should be harnessed. Whatever ends up happening though – whatever the disruptive force of tomorrow ends up being – businesses need to keep their minds open and their customers’ wants and needs top-of-mind, and most importantly they need to remember that technology is just a tool, the real disruptor is human ingenuity.

If you’d like to find out more about how Advantage can transform your business into a digital disruptor, talk to us today.

Words by Camilo Lascano Tribin