One thing I love about working with technology above all else is how it continues to evolve at pace. This means there is no shortage of opportunities to innovate and to explore how emerging technologies can help deliver business benefit.
The world of data, be it data science, big data, Internet of Things or artificial intelligence, provides unlimited opportunities to transform the way we do business in the future. There are many start-ups deriving massive value, or even building their business on data: these people are real innovators, agile enough to respond quickly to emerging trends and opportunities and use the latest tools to create business advantage. But for many of the larger, well established organisations, taking advantage of what big data can offer can be quite a challenge.
Most big corporate organisations are just at the beginning of their Big Data journeys … and for most it’s going to be a struggle. You see the problem is that, in general, big traditional companies aren't good at adapting to change - and they are even worse at adapting to disruptive technologies.
They are, however, starting to understand that it is a concern. 72% of Fortune 500 CEOs state that their greatest challenge is the rapid pace of technological innovation. However, while they might recognise the challenge, they still struggle to adapt and more than half of the companies on the Fortune 500 have disappeared since 2000. That’s quite a statistic. In many cases it's because they were not set up to cope with step change and were unable to harness new technologies and use them to their advantage. There are many reasons for that but the main one is probably financial. As a rule, large organisations are looking for a financial model or an estimated ROI to justify their investment. But in the case of a new technology that can be very difficult to produce. Big firms typically don’t want to hear “I don’t know”, "it might work" or “it’s uncertain”. They want to hear “this is what it will cost and these will be the benefits”.
This leads to a situation where it is far more likely to see funding given for incremental innovation, with step change innovation consequently being side-lined. The result is that when the big disruption finally occurs it's too late for the organisation to do anything about it.
There are countless business school case studies telling modern David and Goliath stories… Blockbuster and Netflix, the music industry and iTunes and the current struggle between the hotel industry and AirBnB.
However, for me the best example is Kodak – the Apple of its day. At its height it was responsible for 90 per cent of all film sales and 85 per cent of camera sales in the US. They had the brand name, marketing budget and dominant market share. They even invented the digital camera in their R&D lab. If ever there was a company that should have owned the future of photography Kodak was it - but the corporate approach was to focus on the company’s most profitable division - traditional film, and to oppose any support for digital photography. So the inevitable happened - slowly but surely the market for traditional film withered and in 2012 Kodak filed for bankruptcy. It's an extreme example, but it demonstrates how big, long established organisations are vulnerable to the advent of new technologies.
So if you recognise the challenges of innovating in a large, traditional organisation how do you ensure that your company doesn’t become a business school case study for the wrong reasons? I’ll share my thoughts on the subject…
I manage the applications development team at Aggreko. Aggreko is a real Scottish success story - you’ll know us from the work we do at events, such as the summer and winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, soccer, rugby and American football championships,athletics, golf and tennis tournaments, and races on land, sea and air, as well as major music festivals and TV and movie productions. We are Scotland's 10th largest company, we've been established for more than 50 years, operate in more than 200 locations worldwide and employ around 7,000 people.
In Aggreko there’s always been an appetite for innovation, for using technology to deliver step changes that provide unrivalled levels of customer service. I'm in the fortunate position that my boss, our CIO, gets it - and he puts his money where his mouth is to back us. He understands that an organisation needs innovation to survive, and especially in an IT function, that if you are not moving with new technologies then you are falling behind….doing your customers, your company and your shareholders a disservice. This attitude has allowed us to deliver some real benefit in the big data and IoT space that differentiates us from the competition and allows us to deliver excellent customer service.
But what if your organisation isn't quite so forward thinking? Then maybe this is your opportunity to become the innovative spark that drives new technology and opportunities for your company. I’d make three initial recommendations to get you up and running:
- A great place to start is to engage with peers to determine the art of the possible. There’s a thriving (and really welcoming) big data and data science community in Scotland - in large part driven by the great work that Gillian Docherty’s team at The Data Lab are doing. I’d recommend getting along to one of the meet-ups or events that those guys run – you’ll get lots of help.
- Think big, but start focused. Building a small proof of concept is a great way to demonstrate your ideas at minimal cost, and in my experience a prototype can sell an idea so much better that PowerPoint and promises.
- Find an excellent sponsor. I can’t stress this one highly enough. You ideally want someone at C-level who understands what you are trying to do, recognises the potential and has the clout and connections to make things happen.
I know this isn’t going to be the easiest thing you’ll tackle this year but there’s something contagious about bringing new ideas into an organisation. As well as knowing that you and your team are striving to ensure the long term success of your company, working with emerging and evolving technologies is a great way to motivate, retain and attract talent. Once you dip your toe into the world of innovation I suspect you’ll never look back.
Steve Faull, Applications Development Manager, Aggreko