Times are changing fast and that means new risks on top of old risks. So how do you stay one step ahead when market disrupters are bowling through every industry?
It would be difficult to name a single sector of the business world that isn’t being transformed by outside forces that, in some cases, threaten to undermine long-established companies and even entire industries.
Consider this (far from encyclopaedic) list.
The oil and gas industry is confronting historically low prices for hydrocarbons that have put entire business models in jeopardy.
The bricks and mortar shopping industry is battling with online giants that have already claimed many notable victims.
The global steel industry, as we’ll see, is automating rapidly in order to survive in a period of falling demand.
The automotive industry, long dominated by century-old giants of the combustion engine, faces a revolution in electric vehicles that is attracting many new competitors from left field, such as Dyson group, a world leader in compact electric battery technology. Retail banks have been shocked by a stream of technology-driven developments such as fintech, blockchain, online logarithm-driven lenders, and a market-savvy mortgage-broking industry.
Even the wealth management industry, one of the most consistently profitable of all businesses in the financial sector, faces competition from ‘robo-advisers’ and other logarithm-based upstarts.
THINK SMALLER, FASTER
Size is no guarantee of survival. Partly state-owned Air France–KLM is engaged in a tough battle with the emerging phenomenon of low-cost, long-haul carriers such as Norwegian that, which chief executive Jean-Marc Janaillac says requires a top-to-bottom overhaul of the group. As for the transport industry in general, it’s in a state of constant upheaval. As we speak, transport companies are linking up with electrical giants to trial battery-driven – and even automated – trucks.
Even iconic new-technology companies cannot afford to rest on their laurels in this disruptive world. At the turn of the millennium, Apple probably thought iTunes would dominate online music for years to come – but that was before Swedish start-up Spotify launched its subscription-based streaming model in 2008. Although Apple Music, as the service is now branded, currently has 38 million subscribers, Spotify boasts 71 million paying customers.
The Asia-Pacific region is in the eye of this particularly disruptive storm. A case in point is China, where the ‘Three Barrels’ – the state-owned oil giants – face competition from the ‘teapots’, much nimbler privately owned refiners that are rapidly becoming an integral element in the nation’s energy sector.
Australia, an economy that has long been dominated by a small number of firms with an unusually high share of the market (in effect, oligopolies), is no exception.
Associate professor Kwanghui Lim, a specialist in business innovation at Melbourne Business School, notes: “Investment in Australia and elsewhere in the Asia Pacific has been diff icult and costly because these oligopolies have split the market among themselves.” But, as he points out, that’s changing rapidly as companies such as Amazon, ‘unicorns’ (companies with $1bn-plus market value), smaller start-ups, and Europe, UK and US firms with online subsidiaries, invade just about every sector from energy to hospitality.
WHAT IS TO BLAME?
But what’s causing the latest wave of volatility? Take your pick: automation, AI, a collapse in red tape reducing barriers of entry into many markets, changing consumer tastes, online competitors, globalisation, fragmentation of business markets, the boom in start-ups.
Actually maybe not globalisation, argues Douglas Dow, professor in business strategy at Melbourne Business School, though that’s been a long-running, much-blamed phenomenon. It was globalisation that was considered – wrongly, as it happens – to have triggered the Great Depression of the 1930s. “More likely, it’s automation and artificial intelligence that’s created this peak in volatility,” he says. For example, he cites research into the American steel industry that attributes the steady loss of jobs in the sector to increasing automation rather than imports.
Yet there’s no end in sight, not in the immediate future anyway. In any transformative cycle of change such as in the dotcom boom, Dow says, there’s an earthquake followed by ripples that produce incremental changes. “These incremental changes – aftershocks – can go on for years. And I think that’s what we’re going through right now.”
In the meantime, some of these incremental changes will not only be felt for years to come, but may also date back decades or longer. As Kwanghui Lim explains: “While the rate of change is getting faster, there are big changes going on beside automation and artificial intelligence.”
He cites the steady diff usion of electronic devices such as the (by now) old-fashioned computer and mobile phone that continues to transform entire economies, particularly in Africa where many western companies are now engaged. He also
cites the slow but inexorable spread of agricultural technology around the world. These and other late-stage incremental changes continue to run in the background, influencing markets in important but almost invisible ways.
And one of the most disruptive incremental influences is the steady fall in the price of technology. As Deloitte notes, the cost of a 3D printer, once found only in factories, collapsed from $300,000 in 2000 to $1,300 in 2012, and can now even be knocked together by tech-savvy individuals for a few hundred dollars.
Yet, there’s some consolation for harassed CEOs who feel overwhelmed by relentless forces disrupting their best-laid plans. According to Dow, we might be through the worst of the current bout of disruption. “We can measure change by the degree of volatility,” he explains, “and right now volatility is not going up. Volatility is probably at a peak.”
There’s other good news. As we see in the next article, volatility is manageable.
Q&A: DIGITISATION AND DATA IN A HYPER-CONNECTED ORGANISATION
Gareth Byatt, principal consultant of Sydney-based Risk Insight Consulting, sees three main, interconnected forces that will keep you on your toes.
WHAT DOES THE INTERCONNECTED WORLD MEAN FOR US?
Connectivity in business and commerce (as well as socially) has been progressing for millennia. But now it’s speeding up, with today’s products and services being designed, produced and traded all around the world. Competition is truly global. The World Economic Forum sees this “hyper-connectivity” as an opportunity that spurs innovation. But there are also dynamic risks to manage. These risks must be properly understood by businesses in order for them to prosper.
HOW DO ORGANISATIONS HANDLE THE HUGE AMOUNTS OF DATA – THE “NEW OIL” – AVAILABLE TO THEM?
The capturing and use of data is a vital element in today’s business world – the Economist described data as the “new oil”. Better data helps you make better and more risk-informed decisions. We’re still working on how to fully harness the increasing amounts of data we are capturing. The important thing for organisations is to be proactive in approaching their data.
WITH CYBER ATTACKS ON THE RISE, ISN’T THE DIGITISATION OF BUSINESS A SERIOUS THREAT?
We’re living in the age of the fourth industrial revolution where the Internet of Things (IoT) and AI are becoming the new normal. Businesses must embrace these developments but still be diligent about managing cyber risk.
I also want to highlight geopolitical uncertainty as an important area of uncertainty in our interconnected world. Regulatory and trading environments in different geographic regions and countries are changing constantly, in part to keep up with the digitised world. These bring new compliance requirements that can lead to sizeable ﬁ nes and reputational damage in the event of breaches.
Organisations also need to build in resilience to avoid major disruption to what are often complex supply chains such as from extreme weather or public health outbreaks. Scenario planning can help. Businesses can design scenarios that predict how risks would affect them and then agree on measures to work through them.
Overall though, it’s vital that businesses instil a constantly proactive culture that anticipates risk and uncertainty.
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