The Next Industrial Revolution is Already Here

Few business leaders would disagree if I were to describe the current economic and business climate as a merry go round, spinning faster and faster with each revolution. While it’s tempting for companies to simply hold on tight and wait until the ride’s over, that’s not a viable option. In a period of volatility driven by rapid change like the one we’re experiencing, those who are simply holding on for dear life will, eventually, get thrown off the ride.

This breakneck pace can be disconcerting. It seems we’ve barely digested one innovation when another critical opportunity is upon us, and I’d say that perception is accurate.

Now, bear with me while I geek out a little here, but I want to set the stage by looking at transformational periods in our history before I start to discuss the trends and challenges facing businesses today.

Looking back at the first industrial revolution, we saw the movement away from manual processes to machinery powered by steam which accelerated manufacturing and boosted efficiency beyond what was thought to be possible. The evolution didn’t end there: steam-powered motors and engines also permitted the expansion of trade using rail and ships, bringing previously unattainable markets closer than ever before.

The period is widely viewed as the beginning of the modern age but the transformation didn’t happen overnight. This phase of change and innovation was evolutionary with its impact being felt from the 1760s to 1870s.

The lingering effects of that first industrial revolution were still making waves when the world took another leap forward marked by Faraday’s discovery of the operating principles of electromagnetic generators in the 1830s, leading to full-scale, global electrification. Early magnetic fields research, the discovery of the electric lightbulb and widespread electrification are hallmarks of the period, known as the Second Industrial Revolution from the early 1830s to the early 20th Century or the start of the First World War (1914).

The reason I think it’s important to look back at these significant world-changing industrial transformation and revolutionary periods in our history is to highlight the speed of these transformative changes. The full impact of these major milestones took almost a century each to be fully realized.

Unlike the previous life and business altering events, it won’t take 100 years or more for the revolution driven by digital transformation and innovation to take effect; it will be realized in years, not centuries. No doubt about it, the velocity of change has increased significantly.

How does the increased pace of change impact a country like ours that is often perceived to be lagging behind other nations in the adoption of new technology? Will it become detrimental to our future prosperity?

I believe we can look at it in one of two ways: The glass ½ empty view is that we are behind and we need to catch up or perish; or the glass-half-full approach is that we are in the perfect position to learn from what others have done, avoid the pitfalls they have seen, and go faster with only the good stuff and avoid some of the challenges that have befallen those who came before us.

Yes, it’s true that Canada lags behind most of the western markets in the widespread adoption of some pivotal technologies. We only have to look at the cloud infrastructure build out as an example, but we are starting to see major data centres being built out in this country by major players like Microsoft and Amazon Web Services, which I say is great news for the Canadian economy as a whole. International leaders are investing in Canada and see the growth potential for this marketplace.

The opportunity is ripe for Canadian businesses to learn from the global experience, leverage the build-out of the infrastructure being led by these major international players, and slingshot ahead of the competition by incorporating the best practices and successful models tried and tested before us.

So the fundamental question becomes, are we ready? Ready to become disruptive forces in our own marketplace?

The truth is that businesses have a choice: either you are going to be proactive and drive disruption and change your business model, or you are going to wait for someone else to come along and do it to you. I think there is a real opportunity in Canada to leverage the lessons learned by others and become a disruptive force in the market.

We live and work in a very dynamic business environment. You can’t rest on your laurels. It’s important to recognize that no one is immune from the need to transform. While a strong brand is a very important asset to have in the market, it cannot and will not make you immune from competitive pressures. Just look at the Fortune 500 list of leading companies. Nearly half the stalwart brands of the past have been replaced with health care, technology and financial companies.

I believe a majority of Canadian companies recognize the need to add value to retain customers and that they realize a significant transformation is afoot. The question remains as to whether we will lead the change or be swallowed up by it.

I am optimistic that we will continue to see leadership from Canadian companies and there are leading indicators that the local businesses can succeed in disrupting their marketplaces rather than waiting for competitors be disruptive forces to their operations. Retail franchise chain Boomerang Kids transformed the consignment clothing business to leverage big data to optimize pricing and technology to control and maximize inventory, but it also started the first online retail storefront to let customers conduct business when, where and how they want to do business.

Competitive pressures continue to rapidly impact businesses in all sectors. I believe the companies that will thrive in the future will be the ones that have already started to embrace the opportunities presented to them by advances in technology, and the ones that are willing to adapt to changes coming over the horizon. These businesses already see the value that digital transformation can deliver through advanced analytics, which allow them to personalize a customer’s experience and tailor specific offerings or respond dynamically to customer buying patterns… but more on the impact and the possibilities for personalization next time.