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BusinessDay: Goliaths can turn the tables on digital disrupters

By Johan Steyn, 24 August 2021

Big companies need to revamp and innovate not only from the top down, but encourage innovation from the bottom up.

When the company was started it was fuelled by an entrepreneurial spirit, a keen appreciation of digital technology, and it soon became internationally recognised as a market leader in its domain. This firm attracted the best talent available; they were the talk of the town and other business leaders viewed them with a jealous appreciation.

Now, almost two decades later, the company is a behemoth of corporate structure, political undercurrents, and the once can-do attitude has morphed into competing status quo alliances. Many of the exceptionally talented and ambitious engineers who joined them in the early days are still there. They steadily climbed the corporate ladder and the many years of success bred a smug sense of entitlement.

Once an exciting technology-led start-up, blinded by triumph, the company stagnated. Producing ever-strong annual results, but unaware of the sea change in the technology landscape, the executive slumber at the steering wheel continued.

Dear business leader, do you identify with this story? I am writing about a particular client I consulted with over the years, but this story most likely applies to many organisations in our market. The rate of change brought on by the smart technology era, where start-ups use artificial intelligence (AI) to streamline their back-office operations and front-office client interactions, poses a dire threat to many traditional corporations.

Imagine working for a company that had smart technology at its very foundation. Just think if you could lead a firm with a lean workforce, few disabling structures, with AI at its centre. Envision how you could disrupt your well-established competitors, quickly eating away at their once-secure market share. You may shrug in despair, believing that the large and slow-moving firm you are now leading may never compete in the long term with the new kids on the block.

In Goliath’s Revenge: How Established Companies Turn the Tables on Digital Disruptors, authors Todd Hewlin and Scott A. Snyder provide an insider’s view on how large global firms such as General Motors, Hitachi, Mastercard, and others accelerated into the digital era.

“They have seen some of their traditional competitors succumb to the digital attackers that are setting the rules for their industries. Instead of waiting for their businesses to be disrupted by some Silicon Valley whizz kid, they are saying, Why can’t we use those same strategies, tactics, and tools for ourselves? Some are setting their sights even higher.”

The authors offer a step-by-step map for executives of established businesses to follow the Silicon Valley model and profit from digital disruption. AI, robotics, the internet of things, blockchain, and immersive experiences are all transforming the competitive landscape.

“They are simultaneously protecting their core businesses from digital disruption while also running the disrupters’ playbook to expand into high-growth adjacent markets.”

Leaders of “Goliath” corporations are encouraged to revamp their client outcomes and to innovate not only from the top down, but to encourage innovation from the bottom up. You can use the vast amounts of client data at your disposal in smarter ways while reframing your company’s purpose. Always value talent over technology and upskill your workforce for the future.

Johan Steyn is a Smart Automation & Artificial Intelligence thought leader and management consultant. He is the Chair of the Special Interest Group on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics with the IITPSA (Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA). He writes in his personal capacity.


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