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Pluralistic Ignorance

May 13, 2013 Leave a comment

How often have you heard something – and not questioned it, as you don’t want to appear stupid, foolish or ignorant?

Too often people accept what they are told and don’t question information. In educational environments this leads to a failure to learn. In business environments, it leads to bad decisions and bad strategy. Received wisdom becomes the operating principle rather than reality – especially when things have changed or are changing.

The reason people don’t question is that they don’t want to look foolish in front of peers, bosses or employees. Rather than highlight something that doesn’t make sense, they prefer to keep quiet so as not to appear stupid. The term for this is “pluralistic ignorance“. It is especially a problem in cultures where “losing face” is an issue. (I wrote about this almost two years ago -see  Competitive Intelligence & Culture). In such cultures, employees find it difficult to question superiors – there is almost a belief that superiors are in their position as they know more and are better.

Pluralistic Ignorance” is a phenomenon that prevents people questioning, when they fail to understand something or when they disagree with an issue, because they feel that they are the only ones not understanding or agreeing. It leads to “group-think” whereby a group of people fail to face up to their lack of knowledge or address false/inaccurate information because they don’t wish to appear foolish by questioning it.

In business it is important to emphasise communication and openness at all levels – and encourage questioning. This is especially key for effective competitive intelligence, but can be just as much a problem in CI as in other corporate areas if CI people aren’t looking out for it. For example, in CI there is the risk that a key piece of intelligence is missed because the person (perhaps a sales rep) doesn’t pass it on. They are sure that the CI team will already know this / that senior management is sure to know this – and so they don’t want to look stupid by passing it on.

The solution appears easy – build a corporate culture that rewards those who share information, even if it is already known. The difficulty is that such openness often contradicts other aspects of the corporation including hierarchical aspects – where one needs to address chains of command to pass on information. This leads to problems where the person at the bottom passes on information to their superior. This person then qualifies the information (exaggerating good news and softening bad news) when they pass it up – and by the time it reaches the actual decision-maker the information has been so transformed as to become meaningless and often false.

An example of how pluralistic ignorance works can be seen in this video of a college lecture. This brief (5 minute) video is the first in a course on behavioural economics. The lecturer, Dan Ariely of Duke University Business School (and TED speaker), is aware of the problem and halfway through this lecture shows how it works.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9wHttUayMo

The iWatch – is this the next disruptive innovation from Apple?

February 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Apple has developed a reputation for creating new markets that didn’t exist previously. The iPod was not the first mp3 player but it created a mass market. The iPhone launched the SmartPhone era – showing BlackBerry the potential of an Internet enabled phone, in a way that has almost killed BlackBerry’s manufacturer, RIM. The iPad was the next innovation – but since then nothing at all except rumours. The rumours include an Apple TV that would shake up the television industry, and an Apple watch – the iWatch. The AppleTV was said to be the next big innovation – and was briefly mentioned in Steve Job’s biography, where apparently Apple had something that would really shake up the TV industry. Nevertheless, the rumours relating to this have died down – and the iWatch is the latest rumour target.

One idea on the iWatch

My first thoughts on seeing images of the rumoured iWatch were why?

Why would anybody want something like this on their wrist when there were so many beautiful products from Citizen, Seiko, and higher-upmarket, Rolex & Patek Phillipe, among many others. It didn’t even have the look of the Swatch watch.

I also couldn’t see it as a replacement for a SmartPhone – as it’s too small to do all the current functions expected of phones that seem to be getting bigger, not smaller. So I personally dismissed the iWatch as just rumour, or a sign that Apple had lost its mojo, if it turned out to be true.

Nevertheless, the rumours have become pervasive – and so I’m sure that they are either a smokescreen or reflect something real.

I started to think about it.  The watch market can be divided up into a number of sectors. One sector views watches as a form of jewellery – and this is the market Rolex, Patek Phillipe follow. To an extent it is also the market that Citizen and Seiko chase too – although their watches also emphasise functionality, with the Seiko Solar and the Citizen Ecodrive watches that don’t need batteries or winding. Further downmarket, Swatch tries to be a fashion item. However all have a basic raison d’être – to tell the time. I couldn’t see an Apple watch easily replacing the jewellery element (or at least not initially). I doubt it will be a solar product – and so (again initially) it won’t replace Seiko or Citizen. It could compete with Swatch, but from previous Apple history would be much more expensive and so bring little to the pie.

The next question is who wears watches today – and that gave the clue to why I think the iWatch is real. Most watch-wearers are Generation X or older.  Millennials / Digital Natives don’t wear watches. They use their SmartPhones to tell the time. That’s the clue – and the target. A SmartWatch – especially if it could interact with existing devices – makes a lot of sense, as it could provide a more compact device to supplement their iPhone, iPod and iPad or even replace them for around the house, workplace or college dorm. I think that contrarians that say such a device won’t work are falling for the mistake I think I made, by not thinking about how people tell the time today. The potential problems revolve around the other expected features. Will it also be a phone? A music player? A portable sat-nav device? How would these work ergonomically?

Assuming that the iWatch is real and not a smokescreen for something else, the argument that it won’t be attractive fails when you see some of the suggested design concepts. Some are very attractive and wearable as both a fashion item and even as jewellery. The potential objections to functionality are also less if the iWatch were to interact with other devices.  The problem here is that there may be an expectation that the interaction is with another Apple device – which would mean that the iWatch would not be a stand-alone product. This limits its potential considerably. What about linking to Android phones – that have overtaken the iPhone in overall market share – or a Windows computer? If this were to be allowed then I think the iWatch would be another Apple success story.

If this is the case, then it does something else. The onset of quartz watches in the 1980s was highly disruptive to the Swiss watch industry. Initially the Swiss industry dismissed such timepieces as cheap and nasty, but in classical disruptive innovation style, they soon overtook mechanical watches to become the dominant format. The rise of quartz watches caused serious damage to Switzerland’s watch industry – until it recognised the threat, and created products such as the Swatch. An Apple iWatch that succeeds promises to be equally disruptive – and overtime, most of us may end up wearing such products.

The impact of disruptive innovation – on PCs and on Retail

January 17, 2013 11 comments

Two recent items highlight the impact of disruptive innovations on industries. The first is a presentation from the Business Insider called the The Death of PC. The second is an article looking at Amazon and mentioning its March 2012 purchase of Kiva Systems.

Since 2009, the PC market has hardly grown. In the same period, Smartphone & Tablet sales boomed. Many tasks that used to be done on PCs are now done on these newer devices: email, web-searching, social media, and more. This has had a massive impact on the traditional PC market and its suppliers such as Intel and Microsoft. Whereas Apple’s and Samsung’s share prices have grown substantially, Dell & HP have been static or fallen. The introduction of both Smartphones and Tablets illustrate how disruptive these technologies are to the traditional PC industry – although as the The Death of PC presentation shows, things are actually more complicated. This is typical for a disruptive innovation – especially in the earlier stages.

Disruptive innovations do not always kill the products and industries they replace. What they do is change them radically. Smartphones haven’t killed the camera industry. They have, however transformed it so that DSLR and higher-end / special function cameras are now the main products sold. The cheap mass-market snapshot camera has gone – who needs one, when a Smartphone does everything that they could do, and much more. Disruptive innovations also mean that companies that fail to adapt quickly enough disappear. Kodak’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy is an example of this. Kodak and photography were synonymous – but the company failed to anticipate how digital camera usage would change the way people process photographs.

In the case of the PC market, so far it’s only the home PC that’s dying. The PC in the workplace is doing fine – and that’s because the type of task it is used for is different. It’s hard to work on a spreadsheet, or a complex graphic or even a long report using a Tablet and almost impossible on a Smartphone. These aren’t tasks that the home computer was used for. So Tablets haven’t changed the work PC – only the home PC market. However expectations have changed – and this has led to newer devices and cloud computing which promises to be as disruptive for the traditional hard-disk based PC and so the PC as we knew it last century is gone or going. It’s not yet dead – just changed.

Amazon’s purchase of Kiva Systems in another example of a disruptive innovation. Amazon itself has shown how disruptive e-commerce is to traditional retailing. The high-street and even the out-of-town retail outlets struggle to compete with Amazon on price. However they can still compete on service: if you want something on the same day, then such outlets beat Amazon, even if the price is higher. Further, Amazon’s warehouse distribution system could be copied and many of the larger retailers now offer online options. Currently both use human labour to select and package products for delivery – and this represents a significant proportion of retail costs. The Kiva Systems purchase promises to change all this. Kiva Systems manufactures robots and the software used to control them. The robots are designed for use in warehouses for accessing goods. They remove the need for a human being to go to the relevant shelf and remove a product for sending to a customer – instead a machine does this. Eventually such systems are likely to completely automate the distribution process – meaning that Amazon’s labour costs will fall dramatically.

Any retailer that still depends on human labour in their warehouses or retailing is likely to find it even harder competing with Amazon’s prices. Such retailers should start thinking now on how they could compete. Options include looking at ways of improving service or focusing on narrow niches requiring in-person expertise. Waiting and hoping that some shining knight on a white charger will come and rescue them is not an option. There will be no shining knight because, however much retailers may wish it was, true life is not a fairy story.

[After writing this post, Michel Bernaiche, Program Development Director of AurowaWDC and current Chairman of the SCIP board, pointed out this news story to me – highlighting how robots are impacting not just retailing but many other business areas – from hospitals & surgery to legal research. CBS News Video on Impact of Robotics in Industry]

Why six-sigma, just-in-time and lean manufacturing are dangerous!

December 10, 2012 17 comments

Six sigma is a great idea: make sure that your product or service is as close to perfect as possible with almost zero (3.4 in a million) faults. So is just-in-time (JIT) and lean manufacturing. All involve tight control on business processes and require businesses to focus on efficiency. You can’t have a JIT manufacturing process without being highly efficient in controlling all aspects of your supply chain.

The problem is that when circumstances change it can be difficult to adapt the processes quickly enough. When the change is disruptive then it’s likely to lead to business failure. Casey Haksins and Peter Sims describe this in a Harvard Business Review blog post: The Most Efficient Die Early.

The authors correctly point out that business must also expect the unexpected and plan to absorb it and cope with it. The problem is that pursuing greater and greater efficiency goes against this need for flexibility to change. Instead there needs to be a balance. Look for efficiency but not at the cost of losing flexibility. Success requires both.

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