I’m reading a lot of blogs, whitepapers and articles about the ‘age of digital disruption’ at the moment.
Disruption as a negative force, signalling some kind of necessary shift away from what has come before it: old business models becoming increasingly irrelevant, old ways of communicating becoming increasingly ineffective, old systems too slow to cope. The old ways are simply, well, in a word ‘old’.
The system as we know it, as we are led to believe, is unresponsive, slow, encumbered, weighed down, broken. The weight of the past hangs heavy. We cling on to our industrial heritage, only beginning to let go, once we (willingly or unwillingly) realise the old ways can no longer keep out the pace of the change that is increasingly all around us. We can no longer keep up the pretence that the system is not creaking.
We begin to turn our back on it, but in favour of what? What are we really replacing it with? An unknown future? The promise of something better? Faster? Quicker? Simpler? More relevant? How broken is the system?
In 2009, in ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable’, Clay Shirky writes:
“Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.
“With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.”
Shirky goes on to write:
“That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.
“And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it.”
And so Shirky poses the following question: If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?
To be honest, I’m not sure anyone knows. And in some respects, does it matter? We are aware that technology – disruptive technology – is changing many of the things around us; we can see it take place.
The last few years have seen the convergence of mobile, broadband, apps and the emergence of a willing user (some call them ‘connected’). A user free to explore, create and share. Where once we talked about disintermediation, we now talk about decentralisation and empowerment. Where just a handful of years ago we talked about social media, we are now talking about social business and even the eventual disappearance of the word ‘social’ itself. Business is business, right? What need to qualify it? But, all these changes, to what end?
For so long, business has been a journey into the known. Businesses knew or were able to predict the result before setting out. Businesses had the tools, frameworks, models and blueprints to help them understand what would work, what success would look like. And now, businesses are being asked or forced to take leaps of faith. Leaps of faith within a changing landscape, where they are just one of the participants. Think about BYOD as an agent of change, disrupting the familiar, infiltrating the organisation. The old rules no longer able to help navigate the entire length of the journey. Organisations are left having to rely on themselves to get the rest of the way; the challenge being, none of us are sure what the rest of the way looks like.
The friction, tension, helplessness, anxiety we feel is where the old, the emerging and the new rub against each other. We have forgotten how to be explorers.
But equally, what we don’t know is whether the assumptions we have made about the old model being broken are genuinely true or not, or whether the revolution is simply an evolution…