By Calvin Jones.
The only certainty about the future is that it’s uncertain. As opening gambits go I admit that one is a tad trite… a little clichéd... but it's also unequivocally true.
There’s a delicious irony in the theme for this year’s CongRegation. Most sensible business people would scoff at fortune tellers, dismiss soothsayers, eschew crystal-ball gazers. And yet here we all are, penning our collective vision of a brave new frontier: painting the digital landscape of tomorrow, when in truth few of us really understand the digital landscape of today.
Mapping the future is, at best, informed guesswork, at worst ill-conceived fiction (and a quick spin around your usual online haunts will, I’m sure, reveal more of the latter than the former). We can’t predict the future with any degree of certainty… if you doubt that you need only look to the recent US Election result… but that doesn’t mean we can’t be ready for it.
Ready for anything
If we can't predict the future, how on earth can we prepare our businesses for it? The short answer is we can't.
The last thing you want heading into an uncertain future is a business tailored to thrive under a narrow set of predicted circumstances. The assumption that you know what’s going to happen, and can mould your business accordingly, is the worst kind of commercial hubris. You may as well bet the future of your company on the spin of a roulette wheel. You might get lucky… but chances are you won’t.
A much more tenable proposition is to focus on building a business that’s proactive, nimble and ready to tackle whatever an uncertain future throws its way.
It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.
Building a truly future-proof business isn’t about trying to second guess what might happen years or decades from now. It’s much more important to ensure your business can adapt seamlessly to changing circumstances.
Focus on customers
Right at the beginning of the first edition of Understanding Digital Marketing (nearly a decade ago now) I pointed out how successful digital marketing had very little to do with understanding technology, that it was much more important to understand people, specifically the people your business wants to connect with. Back then, as now, successful digital marketing was about understanding what motivates people to take action, how they embrace emerging platforms and incorporate them into their lives, and how your business can harness those platforms to help solve your customers’ problems.
Looking backwards to move forwards
Technology changes at a pace that makes even the most tech-savvy of heads spin. Digital platforms come and go… transformative change is constantly reshaping the emerging digital landscape. But people evolve much more gradually. Human behaviour has changed (and continues to) as we experiment, explore and adopt new ways of doing things. But while we are harnessing a shifting mosaic of digital platforms to enhance our daily lives, the key motivators driving us to take action -- to subscribe, engage, connect and yes, occasionally even buy -- are essentially the same as they have always been.
Study the past if you would divine the future
We can learn a lot about how and why our customers interact with us, our competitors, and how they’re likely to react and respond to change, by looking at how they’ve done so before. Studying the past, exploring trends and delving into data can show you how your customer cohort is likely to respond in different scenarios now and into the future.
We can also look at how businesses in our own sector and others have responded to dramatic change before, learn how the successful ones managed to adapt and thrive, and, just as importantly, where less successful businesses fell short. All of which can help inform our decisions moving forward.
The importance of being nimble
One of the biggest examples of this whole conundrum of an unpredictable future and failing to adapt successfully is a topic that dominates the corporate landscape right now. It’s called “Digital Transformation” -- and it spans most industry sectors as large incumbent organisations struggle to cope with the winds of change.
Digital Transformation is a curiously inept moniker, because it’s not really about digital transformation at all, although embracing new platforms and technologies is obviously a part of it. It’s really about business evolution: re-engineering rigid policies, procedures, cultures and technologies to create fitter, more dynamic organisation that can adapt to the vagaries of an uncertain future. For some, particularly larger organisations who have resisted change, or have based corporate strategy on predictions that didn’t quite transpire, it’s a huge challenge.
Some big players won’t survive. But if we extend the evolutionary metaphor extinctions are an inevitable and natural part of the process. The dinosaurs of yesterday make way for better adapted species to thrive in the ecosystem of today and continue to evolve into a dynamic and unpredictable tomorrow.
Essentially future-proofing your business means eliminating complex procedures and technical rigidity in favour of simpler, iterative evolution. Embrace the opportunities offered by unpredictable change, understand your customers and experiment and adapt constantly to deliver the best value you can for them through whichever channels are appropriate.
Tomorrow is exciting, because it’s unpredictable. Enjoy it!