Disruption is (not) a fairy tale

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If we look at the digital transformation from the perspective of individual sectors or specific disciplines, we find: In most cases, changes take place very slowly. Disruptive change is almost not observed at all. So is disruptive digitalisation a fairy tale? The countless verbal reports on the topic are rather dissonant. Many talk about disruption. Many claim the opposite, that everything remains the same. That alone would not be dissonant. But within the group of those who talk about disruption, many statements are characterised by disbelief in disruption. This results in a disturbing pattern. If you ask digitalisation supporters what is really new, they usually fail to give examples. If you then drill deeper, you come up with digitally distant concepts from the social sciences and recipes from the consulting industry. It sounds like a musical performance in which the conductor conducts a different composition than the musicians play – and doesn’t notice! A few evangelists of disruptive change at least actually address one of the new business models: business ecosystems. But even they mostly fail to mention the essential characteristics and success factors of these new business models. The many other new digital business models and practices, especially those with an affinity for mathematics and culture, are addressed even less frequently. If you mention them, you are stared at without understanding. What does this weirdo want with “digital twins” or “digital curation”??? Conversely, one also hears many dissonant arguments from those who speak of non-disruption. There are the cluster-like rapid fireworks of scientific enumeration of forms of transformation, but also the lateral thinking stories that follow the principle “everything should stay the way it is, therefore (almost) everything must change. “. I myself have been putting this motto in front of many of my lectures for years because I like paradoxes. In addition, I occasionally write about practices like de-digitisation and am happy when colleagues in funky places pick up on it. Setting trends now and then is just fun. And in doing so, I hope it is understood as just that: Fun with a grain of seriousness. All this is, admittedly, just playfully dissonant. Much more irritating, because emotionally off-centre, are the back-to-nature calls in discussions about the digital future. Especially when, for example, theses such as the one that digital natives need to learn more empathy are put forward. This implicit accusation is neither right nor wrong, but an expression of a cultural lack of understanding. The emotional intelligence of digital natives functions differently from that of baby boomers. Admittedly, this has only very indirectly to do with digital transformation. As a topic, it would therefore be best placed in a philosophical quartet on late-night television. My conclusion from all these contradictions and dissonances is: disbelief in digital transformation is widespread and strong. A very strong disbelief! Many think that digitalisation will finally show how right they are. Let us therefore return to the starting point of this column: In most contexts, digitally induced changes take place only very slowly. It is easy to draw the wrong conclusions from this correct observation. If you first take the sum of all contexts (market sectors, disciplines) and then the sum over the years, you are supposedly left with zero. If, on the other hand, one first takes the sum over the years in each context (market sector, discipline) and then calculates the sum over the contexts, a completely different picture emerges, namely a torrential stream of change that is constantly digging up its riverbed. This phenomenon is not an abolition of the rules of integration (mathematicians often call summation integration), but an expression of the fact that humans have difficulty integrating observations. In mathematics, it took 2000 years until this was achieved. Without mathematics, it probably doesn’t enter our heads at all. And economics has not yet managed to model it formally. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that digital disruption is not only a reality, but also a reality. We can increase efficiency so much through digital transformation that companies and markets change from the ground up. We can do business completely differently than before and thus change the logic of the markets. And we can permanently place companies in the various coffin corners of the economy, with consequences that are difficult to foresee for the time being. For large companies – and presumably also for SMEs in the future – this means that management must act in a controlled schizophrenic manner. In the past, this was called “beingable to endure contradictions“. Digital disruption does not have to be implemented here and now(hic et nunc), nor does it require the war machinery of change management. Focused, well-prepared and agile projects are enough. Creativity and discipline are quite sufficient. Calmness and composure even help greatly when accompanied by a sense of urgency. The ideal time horizon is 10 – 15 years. Existing companies that make every effort to still exist in 15 years are acting in an entrepreneurially sustainable way and have a good chance of achieving their goal. Start-ups that aim to be extremely profitable in 15 years make the best use of their opportunities. In both cases, what you aim for today for the time after the next 10 years is decisive. Those who think in the short term have little chance of creating something lasting. Those who think in the long term have to ask the taxpayers or philanthropists to pay for it and risk getting comfortable in debt financing. On the other hand, those who act with a time horizon of 10 to 15 years can actually realise digital disruption – with creativity plus discipline plus the necessary bit of fortune. It is not a fairy tale. Or more precisely: it is a fairy tale that tells of fundamental experiences that are part and parcel of digitalisation.

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Reinhard Riedl

Reinhard Riedl heads the BFH Centre Digital Society and edits the online magazine SocietyByte. He was president of the Swiss Informatics Society and the International Society for New Music Bern IGNM.

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