Pic: Julie Hawker, CEO of Cosmic Ethical IT
Speaking with most business owners and managers in the past year through the Superfast Business programme, we’ve been struck by how many people regard digital technologies as a disruption (often negative) in their business.

Levels of resentment about the place of digital in modern business are still very clear, alongside a sense for many of being overwhelmed by the challenges ahead and their ability to keep up with the changes they’ll be required to know well enough to make decisions on.

  • In 2000, just half of UK adults said that they had a mobile phone – that figure now stands at 93%.
  • Total UK digital ad spend was up 15% year-on-year to £6.3bn in 2013; Mobile ad spend doubled to break £1bn mark and now accounts for £1 in 6 spent digital advertising; Tablet-dedicated ad spend has increased 400%; 6 in 10 tablet owners say it’s their “go to” home internet device
  • The etailing trade association estimates that 21% of retail sales now take place online.

And then there are others for whom digital disruption and digital transformation are an end in their own right, although this can also pose some big problems. There needs to be a clear sense of the overall business objectives beyond the transformation itself – whether that’s the implementation of a new CRM system, website or social media strategy. What are you aiming to achieve in the business plan and success next year that will require digital systems / processes to be transformed?

For the most proactive users, though, digital disruption on a large scale that will bring about innovations, creativity and developments, we’ve not yet even considered.  The most obvious examples in recent years have perhaps been the use of social networks to disrupt national government and support revolutions across the Arab states. But we also have examples of a more local scale and with direct relevance to our businesses.

Digital technologies which can inform healthcare, fitness and wellbeing are probably the most evident changes this year, particularly with the growth of wearable devices and digital monitoring devices in the home. Wearable technology is predicted to grow to over 20 million devices this year and forecast to go up to 350 million within four years. Imagine the accessibility which this level of mobile devices will bring for your business, services and products.

Digital in the home, informing and advising consumer choices on utilities, groceries and even fashion are not very far away. There are a growing number of large home devices which will come complete with digital connectivity and apps built in – your fridge, your TV, radio, cooker, heating systems, and more.  The connected home really will bring about a rethink on how we are entertained and enjoy our home lives including how we purchase a wide range of products and services. But we don’t seem to have really considered how disruptive these developments will be on the average business operations yet do we?

For example, the mass ownership of mobile devices, particularly tablets, now places most businesses in a different position with regard to their use of online and offline marketing. The two can now sit very comfortably alongside each other – and businesses can use offline marketing channels (newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, printed materials) as a direct way to engage new customers online – driving traffic to web and social media channels. This approach is in many ways ‘old hat’ now – but it appears to be more relevant than ever given that we continue on the digital development loops and disruptive nature of engagement with our customers (don’t let yourself be deceived into believing that everyone now reads online newspapers only, or only ever watches TV on catch-up online).

So here’s the question for you to consider – what do you want to achieve as a result of all this digital disruption and its potential? What do you want to create for your customers that will deliver competitive advantage? How will you differentiate your business in highly competitive markets by harnessing the power of digital disruption? Most businesses operating in retail are having to consider these questions right now and many are finding the answer lies in a radical re-think of the way it’s business operates in order to achieve the outcome it needs (think of major supermarkets and how the growth of online shopping and the delivery expectations of consumers has hit the massive retail outlets model which was doing so well until only a few years ago).

The courage required in leading the charge into digital disruption should not be underestimated, though. There is almost a ‘leap of faith’ required in order to place the current business operations to one side and contemplate how to effect the change needed in order to leapfrog competitors through digital advantage. And for some businesses, now is not the right time to consider this approach; but at the same time leaving it for too much longer may indeed signal ultimate failure, particularly given that most competitive sectors are already investigating future business models and ways to gain this advantage at national and international levels.

James McQuivey’s book on the subject ‘Digital Disruption’ encourages us all to consider a three step approach to unleashing the next wave of innovation:-

  • Adopt the digital disruptor mind-set – one where the default answer is ‘yes’ not as a result of simple optimism, but out of understanding that digital developments can be exploited in so many new ways and at very low cost, i.e. previously not achievable within the business
  • Behave like a digital disruptor – look for the added benefits in approaching your current challenges with digital technologies, look for new partnerships and collaborations they could bring, look for the enhancements for your customers, and look for the advantages achievable by your business
  • Disrupt Yourself Now! – practice some digital disruption in your own areas of the business where you know the risks, can manage any failure and are ready to be a bit gung-ho! Assess the best path to take, inform and reassure others and then go for it. Each time will show you how to improve the approach, and will open up opportunities for other examples to be exploited. Before long you will be building cycles of digital disruption deliberately into your business plans each year.

Let’s have a look at a few examples of people who’ve achieved digital disruption well in business:

  • DesignMom – Gabrielle Clair known to thousands of bloggers and millions of readers globally, has taken the opportunities offered to her – a new home in rural France, a family of six children, and a real talent in design; and made herself a digital disruptor par excellence! She could be viewed as a super-blogger alone, but it’s her disruption of the wider design industry which has made her this exemplar. She’s now experiencing thousands of page views every day, and can generate as many as five hundred responses per post. She rewards her readers regularly with free gifts (and they create new content for her for free in return) and is regarded as a key content provider to a wide range of other online communities and platforms. Her focus has always been on the power of ‘free’ – free technology, free content, free gifts.   This all means that the appeal of her blog/website for advertising commands a very high fee, and also that she can inform more traditional media (magazine and TV features) as a thought leader. And all from her 1600s French family retreat, or from her New York publisher’s office (but it never matters which).  She’s achieved position in her industry in a very short space of time, and with a range of tools and developments which were ‘free’ and has embraced the power of ‘totally free’ in her business approach.
  • Twitter accounts @Queen_UK and @westendproducer have both built business simply by having an online presence and thinking about business in a different way. Instead of having a business idea and then using social media to advertise, they’ve created a business solely from a satirical social media account and then published books, and created themed stationary which they sell off the back of the online publicity.
  • Another company that has truly revolutionised their customer experience through digital is Pact Coffee, which has created a new business offering ground coffee subscription service. This tech-driven start up delivers fresh coffee and is using social media advertising effectively to acquire customers. Once customers have bought into the service, (which has the quickest mobile subscriber service we have seen - two screens and payment using PayPal), all correspondence is managed through text (including an update on delivery).

So what do we need in order to become digital disruptors and lead our businesses forward embracing this approach? Well, this is where we need to go back to some basic human psychology and behaviour assessment. Remember Maslow and his hierarchy of needs? Well let’s have a look at how this informs digital disruption:

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs










Looking at this diagram we need to reflect on the needs (basic, psychological and self-fulfilment needs) as if they represented our experiences in business and in the digital world. In order to achieve digital disruption we need to be confident that the basic and psychological needs (our own, our colleagues and the wider business) are being well-served. This way we will find the freedom and confidence we need to be disruptors.

So for example, using a standard business and a standard experience as staff or managers in that business it might look like this –

  • Basic needs – business plan in place, products/service well developed, marketplace established, data management and data security effective, staff skills being developed (the need to feel comfortable in our businesses)
  • Psychological needs – business performance analysed and communicated well, future plans understood and effectively developed, relationships enhanced across the business through digital communications, employees feel empowered by digital technology, developments are well supported by digital (the need to feel connections and variety in our work).
  • Self-fulfilment – room to explore, learn and be creative – time to try out some disruption (the need to feel unique and to lead the business forward).

For many managers and leaders in business, starting out on the path of digital disruption means having to take on the perspectives of our customers first and put them at the very centre of our thinking. Excellence in customer service is a sure-fire way of achieving commercial advantage in most sectors currently, and we’ve all experienced a failure of customer service which we directly relate to digital technologies haven’t we?

So, consider yourself as a digital disruptor, but also as a champion for your customers and their experiences with the business. If they had a clean sheet of paper and could create the business they want to interact with what would they ask for right now? What don’t they know about the future developments in your sector which you could delight them with? And how would you ensure that your approach to customer service would truly bring about a fresh experience they haven’t expected or anticipated? The answer to this probably lies in connecting with your customers and asking them.  But when did you last do that!

Julie Hawker CEO Cosmic Ethical IT

January 2015


Julie Hawker is Chief Executive of Cosmic Ethical IT

Julie's strengths include strategic planning, project development, relationship and network development. She is a keen advocate of IT solutions which truly improve businesses and lives. Julie contributes in various training programmes and our consultancy service, particularly where organisations are seeking to develop leadership and their business models. She is well known for her passion for social enterprise and successful achievement in all our work.

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