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May 16, 2014
The end matters when we all start in the same place
By: Mark McDonald

Every team is undefeated at the beginning of a season. Every runner starts with the same distance to cover. For a short period of time, organizations are starting from the same position when it comes to digital.

This will change, but in the meantime there has never been a better time to get serious about digital than right now, while everyone is still at the beginning.

The alternative is an Eeyore strategy. He is the donkey in the Winnie the Pooh books. As the depressive donkey says

“The sooner you get there, the sooner someone asks you to leave.”

That will happen to digital latecomers, just as it happened to latecomers to the web.

Here are three reasons why.

Digital is an undiscovered market, for now

Digital is more of a market than a channel. There are distinct groups that choose to transact in the digital world instead of in traditional markets. Those groups are inaccessible unless you participate in the digital marketplace. As they say about the lottery, ‘you can’t win if you do not play.’

For a short time, the digital marketplace remains an undiscovered country – a market where there are few incumbents and where market values, norms and expectations are forming. That will change in about two years time, but for now playing in this market gives you a stake in shaping how that market works. That is what makes a ‘test and learn’ approach vital to digital now. Once market norms are set, then it will be competition/commoditization as usual for those coming late to the party.

The time to shape the future is now, while it is happening, not later after the terms or reference are common knowledge. It is not easy to be an early actor in a market and to establish a position on how things are done. Just like any pioneer you will catch a few arrows in the front, fall forward and learn from mistakes. That is a better position than the pioneers who shrink from the challenge – those are the ones who turn away from the unknown and get the arrows in their back.

The future is in digital

The point seems obvious, but it is important to think about where things are going not where they have been. Strategies and plans assuming next year as ‘last year + or – 10%’ creates a false sense of security in the status quo. It is a false sense that can be hard to overcome as we live in the long term.

Consider this, can you imagine life without the Internet? Do you remember how business ran without email and other forms of connectivity? That was less than 20 years ago. Just as it is hard to imagine commerce without the web, it will be just as hard to imagine commerce without digital.

Confronting reality is a foundational imperative of the quality movement. Confronting the future is just as foundational for the digital future. The best way to create that confrontation is to start the race, engage the future digital market and constantly learn.

Digital defines customer expectations and commercial terms across the board

The market, more than technology, causes customer expectations and commercial terms to converge in the digital world. Mobile applications in particular have given people the tools to perform tasks on their own behalf. This lays bare the means to achieve common business outcomes like searching a catalogue, purchasing product, checking on its status or gaining support. These are all common tasks and once we see them done well by one company, we want them done the same way by all companies.

Digital accelerates the commercial transparency initiated by the Internet. Where ecommerce created price transparency, digital extends information transparency across just about every dimension. Peer to peer comments in social media, data sets published on websites, product information and demonstrations are all readily available online.

Transparency causes commercial terms to converge, collapsing hidden pockets of profit margin, idiosyncrasies and legacy processes. Digital levels commercial terms for shipping, service, credit, etc. Market leaders increasingly set these terms regardless of industry. If they didn’t then we would not find companies that have become digital verbs – amazoned, the facebook of our industry, googled, etc.

Becoming a digital verb is an impracticable goal for digital strategy and investments, but knowing what those verbs are as they form is critical when everyone faces the same starting line.

Coming to the line, ready, set, go

Leaders have a unique opportunity that is evaporating in the digital space. We are all starting in the same position at the beginning of the race. This is where digital strategy plays a critical role. It is easy to say that we will win by running faster than anyone else. That works when the course is prescribed and success determined by covering a fixed distance in the shortest period of time.

Digital is not that kind of a race, at least not for another few years, where the rules are established and business practices available to copy.

The rules of the digital race remain to be defined, but one thing we know – success does not come from sitting on the sidelines and commenting on peoples failures.That is what Eeyore would do and if you remember the Winnie the Pooh stories, he played the role of comic relief.

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