Are we living through the single most revolutionary time in business transformation? Or does it just feel that way?
When I think about the combined forces of the internet, cloud computing, social tools, mobile devices and a nearly infinite amount of big data, I wonder how any business can fail to be transformed. (The alternative being to simply fail.)
Then I think about the digitisation of business at the dawn of the industrial internet era, and I'm convinced that we really are in the midst of revolution. Yet as a fan of history, I play devil's advocate with myself on all this. Maybe what the business world is currently experiencing is not all that unique.
I was recently reading about historical periods of business transformation and came across the fascinating history of the ice industry. (Yes, ice!) The 1860s were the height of competitive American ice harvesting, when thriving firms like the Knickerbocker Ice Co. distributed ice to homes and businesses throughout New York. In the early decades of the 20th century, the ice industry was powerful and profitable in the eastern US.
Then along came refrigeration and home freezers, and the ice party melted. It's still a $2.5 billion industry (mostly prepackaged and direct-to-consumer), but dominant players like Knickerbocker went out of business.
What might have happened if those ice companies had asked themselves two simple questions: "What business am I in today? What business do I need to be in tomorrow?"
Instead of thinking they were only in the ice business, they might have realised they were actually in the delivery business. By thinking a little differently, they might have figured out that those ice-delivery routes were a road map to delivering other goods to homes and businesses. (They could have been FedEx!)
Today's industry leaders constantly ask themselves those two questions. Amazon was a bookstore disrupter and e-book company just a few years ago; now it's the largest online retailer in the world, on its way to becoming a dominant power in cloud computing. Given the technology capabilities at our disposal and the ever-lower barriers to entry in so many markets, every industry is a target for disruption today.
What is your real business today? What will it be in the future? Those are the questions all CIOs should be asking (and answering) right now.
Michael Friedenberg is CEO of IDG Communications, parent company to CIO UK publishers IDG UK