Strategic Principles for Competing in the Digital Age

Digitization is rewriting the rules of competition, with incumbent companies most at risk of being left behind. Here are six critical decisions CEOs must make to address the strategic challenge posed by the digital revolution.

INN Breaking News, May 21, 2014

Martin Hirt and Paul Willmott

The board of a large European insurer was pressing management for answers. A company known mostly for its online channel had begun to undercut premiums in a number of markets and was doing so without agents, building on its dazzling brand reputation online and using new technologies to engage buyers. Some of the insurer’s senior managers were sure the threat would abate. Others pointed to serious downtrends in policy renewals among younger customers avidly using new web-based price-comparison tools. The board decided that the company needed to quicken its digital pace.

For many leaders, this story may sound familiar, harkening back to the scary days, 15 years ago, when they encountered the first wave of Internet competitors. Many incumbents responded effectively to these threats, some of which in any event dissipated with the dot-com crash. Today’s challenge is different. Robust attackers are scaling up with incredible speed, inserting themselves artfully between you and your customers and zeroing in on lucrative value-chain segments.

The digital technologies underlying these competitive thrusts may not be new, but they are being used to new effect. Staggering amounts of information are accessible as never before—from proprietary big data to new public sources of open data. Analytical and processing capabilities have made similar leaps with algorithms scattering intelligence across digital networks, themselves often lodged in the cloud. Smart mobile devices make that information and computing power accessible to users around the world.

As these technologies gain momentum, they are profoundly changing the strategic context: altering the structure of competition, the conduct of business, and, ultimately, performance across industries. One banking CEO, for instance, says the industry is in the midst of a transition that occurs once every 100 years. To stay ahead of the unfolding trends and disruptions, leaders across industries will need to challenge their assumptions and pressure-test their strategies.

Opportunities and threats

Digitization often lowers entry barriers, causing long-established boundaries between sectors to tumble. At the same time, the “plug and play” nature of digital assets causes value chains to disaggregate, creating openings for focused, fast-moving competitors. New market entrants often scale up rapidly at lower cost than legacy players can, and returns may grow rapidly as more customers join the network.

Digital capabilities increasingly will determine which companies create or lose value. Those shifts take place in the context of industry evolution, which isn’t monolithic but can follow a well-worn path: new trends emerge and disruptive entrants appear, their products and services embraced by early adopters (exhibit). Advanced incumbents then begin to adjust to these changes, accelerating the rate of customer adoption until the industry’s level of digitization—among companies but, perhaps more critically, among consumers as well—reaches a tipping point. Eventually, what was once radical is normal, and unprepared incumbents run the risk of becoming the next Blockbuster. Others, which have successfully built new capabilities (as Burberry did in retailing), become powerful digital players. The opportunities for the leaders include:

  • Enhancing interactions among customers, suppliers, stakeholders, and employees. For many transactions, consumers and businesses increasingly prefer digital channels, which make content universally accessible by mixing media (graphics and video, for example), tailoring messages for context (providing location or demographic information), and adding social connectivity (allowing communities to build around themes and needs, as well as ideas shared among friends). These channels lower the cost of transactions and record them transparently, which can help in resolving disputes.
  • Improving management decisions as algorithms crunch big data from social technologies or the Internet of Things. Better decision making helps improve performance across business functions—for example, providing for finer marketing allocations (down to the level of individual consumers) or mitigating operational risks by sensing wear and tear on equipment.
  • Enabling new business or operating models, such as peer-to-peer product innovation or customer service. China’s Xiaomi crowdsources features of its new mobile phones rather than investing heavily in R&D, and Telstra crowdsources customer service, so that users support each other to resolve problems without charge. New business or operating models can also disintermediate existing customer–supplier relations—for example, when board-game developers or one-person shops manufacture products using 3-D printers and sell directly to Amazon.

The upshot is that digitization will change industry landscapes as it gives life to new sets of competitors. Some players may consider your capabilities a threat even before you have identified them as competitors. Indeed, the forces at work today will bring immediate challenges, opportunities—or both—to literally all digitally connected businesses.

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