AD: How do you define disruptive technology?
Uldrich: I would define it as an innovation that creates an entirely new product, service, market or value proposition.
AD: What are examples of recent disruptive companies?
Uldrich: Wikipedia is a wonderful example. The disruption was not just putting the encyclopedia on the Internet for free. The real disruption came in thinking differently about who could write entries. It could scale really fast and could grow, and it’s now available in 160 different languages, all written by people who don’t get paid. Another good one is WeWork, which is the Airbnb of office and commercial space. Many small businesses don’t need to rent or even own their own property. They just need to access office space — sometimes on a daily basis, sometimes on a weekly or monthly basis. WeWork now has an estimated value of $20 billion, making it arguably North America’s largest property company, and yet they own virtually no property. They’re just helping landlords to microlease space. That is a powerful disruption.
AD: Do disruptive technologies share certain characteristics that help explain their impact?
Uldrich: They start out slowly, they’re not very productive, and they seem to appeal to only a small niche or fringe business, so they don’t warrant the incumbents’ attention. But what’s tricky about disruptive technologies is they scale and grow at a near exponential pace, so what is substandard and unaffordable suddenly gets better. By that time, the incumbents who weren’t paying attention have ceded the ground to startups. When the first desktop computer came out, it was really expensive, and you needed to be sort of a techno-nerd to play around with it. IBM saw that and thought, “Who would want that? We make these really big powerful mainframe computers and that’s what our customers want.” Because of continued advances in computer processing power, data storage, and graphics, desktop computers got better, and by the time IBM saw what was happening, Apple and others had blown by them.
AD: Has the accelerated speed of technological progress in recent years led to greater industry disruption than we’ve seen in the past?
Uldrich: The greatest change in business today is the rate of change itself. It’s that these technologies — computer processing power, data storage, bandwidth, sequencing of genomes, nanotechnology, robotics, 3D printing, sensor technology, blockchain, quantum computing — are happening at this unique period in human history and converging in interesting, unexpected ways. Even the rate of disruption is accelerating. The past isn’t prelude. We’re going to continue to see more disruptions on a faster scale than anything we’ve seen in the past.
AD: Is there any way to adequately anticipate these disruptive developments?
Uldrich: I call it the Big AHA. AHA is an acronym for awareness, humility, and action. First and foremost, you need to be aware of the technologies that are transforming the world. Do your homework. Secondly, we all need humility to understand that the way we do our business today might not be sufficient moving forward. Business models are changing; customer expectations are changing; new competitors are emerging. You have to open your mind; see the world from a different perspective; listen to different voices. And the final thing is you need to take action. Start looking for partners. Can you partner with some of these disruptive startups? Is there a pilot project you can start on your own? Start doing something with these technologies. Take some risks.
AD: What common mistakes do corporate leaders make in this area?
Uldrich: The most common mistake is to think 10 percent instead of 10X. Most businesses are focused on incremental improvements to their existing products because that’s what their customers are asking for. Customers say, “I like your product but if you could get it to me a bit faster, a bit cheaper, that’d be great.” The problem is people don’t know what hasn’t been created yet. When some disruptive company arrives with an entirely new product or service, those customers are now thinking, “I didn’t even know I needed that. That’s great.” So my advice to business leaders is to shake yourself out of incremental thinking and think big. Ask how you would grow your market tenfold, even if that means eating into your existing profit.
Business models are changing; customer expectations are changing; new competitors are emerging.
AD: What emerging technologies seem poised to create the greatest impact in the future?
Uldrich: I don’t care what business you’re in, have a strategy around artificial intelligence. Start figuring out how machines can make sense of the data we are collecting and see if there are new ways to slice and dice that data to gain new insight that might lead to new products. Artificial intelligence is going to touch every industry. Another one is blockchain. It’s very complicated but it’s a kind of distributed digital ledger and what it’s going to allow people to do is save money and deliver products and services better, faster, and more efficiently. 3D printing is going to change a lot of industries, as are continued advances in robotics technology. The transition from 4G to 5G technology is a big one. With bandwidth that is 100-fold faster, we’re going to be able to do just entirely different things.
AD: Any final thoughts?
Uldrich: The printing press was a revolutionary device, but Johannes Gutenberg’s genius wasn’t that he created it out of thin air. His genius was he took a wine press, movable type, ink, and paper and played around with them to create an entirely new platform that first disrupted the Catholic Church and then disrupted society in a powerful way. The equivalent of the wine press, movable type, ink, and paper today is data, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and 5G technology; and business leaders have to play around with these tools. Don’t just think of one technology; think about how they might converge in some really interesting ways. Convergence is the key.