What would your business look like if it was a technology company?

A powerful exercise for any company is to reimagine their strategy as if they were a technology company – imagine being Google, Amazon, Alibaba who define their products and services for an online connected, dynamic, personalised, mobile, intelligent and virtual world.

There is a long list of industries that have been disrupted. Any company or industry that thinks they are safe gets caught out. The list is long. The media, clothing, white goods, hotels, taxis, Nokia, IBM, real estate, car sales, recruitment, airlines, travel agents, accountants, second-hand goods. As Pierre Nanterme, the chief executive of consulting company Accenture puts it: ‘… new digital business models are the principal reason why just over half of the names of companies on the Fortune 500 have disappeared since the year 2000.’

Can we be impervious to the changing digital landscape?

I’m often asked for advice on how companies can think about possible future challenges. In my experience one of the most interesting thought experiments for any company is to think about your business as a technology company.

This can be a thought experiment. Or it can be an experiment that you get your internal and external tech experts to sit down and work on. In either case, it’s all premised on the same question: “what would this business look like if it served its customers as if it was a tech company?”

The threat of digital disruption comes from many angles. While Uber is a great example of disruption, the challenge doesn’t always come from a new startup that threatens to take over your entire business in one swoop. Many businesses are more susceptible to death by a thousand cuts. When you break down all the separate functions of a banking institution, for example, it’s clear that many of the business and consumer facing services are being challenged by a new fintech app or platform.

The bottom line is that if you’re not thinking of your company as a technology company, the chances are that someone out there already is. No industry is immune so no one can afford not to participate in the conversation.

It is every director’s duty to keep up with the advancements in digital technologies and how they are being applied. But how can we understand the potential of data and analytics, advanced robotics, AI, internet of things, 3d printing and more futuristically, block chain? How do we understand where the disruption is coming from? Can we rummage amongst the hype, the talk of unicorns and the sheer multiplicity of start-ups, apps and well-funded, new and fast-growing technology developments to identify the threats and opportunities relevant to our businesses and society and their future?

There seems to be no choice but for senior managers and directors to understand this landscape as much as possible. We must set ourselves the task of acquiring digital intelligence and figure out what is the extent and reality of the digital challenge. But I suspect even so, we will be ham fisted in building great digital strategies.

The bottom line is that if you’re not thinking of your company as a technology company, the chances are that someone out there already is. No industry is immune so no one can afford not to participate in the conversation.

Get your tech team to write the strategy

What would be the result if the organisation’s strategy was written by your technical team? Boards will be stocked with people who have legal and business experience while tech experts bring a very different perspective to the table. First though make sure the team is the one you really want. Technical people can be wedded to their own technical past and glories and resistant to the new. They also may not be contemporary in their knowledge. Like any project, the right team needs to be selected and can be sourced from outside the organisation as well as within. The right digital strategy team will question many aspects of the business that may have been taken for granted by people with more traditional corporate backgrounds.

The right answer is not going to be: here is our business, our customer value proposition, products and services, and now, how do we digitise it. The answer may be: here is our customer value proposition in a connected, virtual, mobile, personalised, intelligent and dynamic online world; here is the restatement of our purpose which is now informed in a granular way because of the capabilities of data capture and analytics (and in-depth, face to face interviews and discussion – there is no substitute for that); and here is how we realise the purpose and deliver value using the information, intelligence and technologies available.

The executive team and the board can’t achieve this. Traditional strategy consulting wont either. Let’s look elsewhere for the disruptive ideas.

This is an ideal exercise for a board away day

Most boards have away days, where they engage with management to look at the broader strategy and direction of the company. Asking “what would we look like as a technology company?” is a great exercise for these retreats. Even better is to bring your tech team.

Let the tech experts and the digital natives meet in one room while the board meets in another. The tech group should be asked to imagine and develop a strategy on the basis that the organisation is a digital organisation and no current strategy exists. After the initial strategy is developed, this team meets the board and challenges them with that strategy.

Company directors can lack familiarity with the scale and breadth of the digital world. The specific environments and platforms that the digitised environment offers are, however, native territory for a gun tech team. They think of information as an asset rather than concentrating on physical assets.

By asking “What would this business look like if it was a technology company?”, you’re really asking “What are our digital and information assets, and how can we leverage these to help evolve our business into the future?” In a world where disruption is inevitable, it’s a question that must be answered.

The digital revolution is real. This not only presents a challenge to the organisation, but it also can challenge the skills of the board. If we approach business by thinking like a technology company, we will not relegate the IT and information engineers to implement strategy but will invite them to lead it. What are the digital and information assets that create the power of our business and how does that digital power evolve our business on a global scale into the future we want?

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