People are just nuts for digital which, based on popular usage, could be almost anything from apps to business systems.

And you can see why. Digital is the reason why companies derive what just a few years ago would have been fantastic efficiencies and economies of scale. Right here in South Africa the digital revolution is behind a large bank cutting thousands from its workforce and their commensurate salary bill. That’s not the only business whose books have benefitted, if not necessarily its human capital.

Customers love it, too. Who would like to queue in a bank for cash withdrawals on a Friday afternoon? Or take a wad of cheques to a friendly teller for clearing and cashing?

Customers love digital – but some are better at it than others

So, as customers, we love digital. But the problem is that it changes fast. Customers are getting used to new ways of interacting with companies. Most traditional banks now have an app that customers actually use. But even they’re under pressure from new market entrants who do things differently. Some use Uber or couriers to deliver credit cards, for example, without charging extra. Other banks still require customers visit a branch and perhaps even pay for a new card. But maybe even the cards will disappear soon altogether as they’re replaced by apps.

Dealing with employees’ challenges

All of this puts us employees in a difficult position. We’re tasked with ensuring that our businesses adapt quickly. We have to make the first move in the market or, when our competitors move and customers react favourably, we have to catch up. History has shown that we don’t have to be first and we don’t even necessarily need to be that much better. But we have to be in the game and at least as good as the next competitor.

The battle of the bookstores clearly demonstrates that. Everyone knows Amazon and that it got its start selling books. And most people have some vague notion that brick and mortar book stores either shrank enormously or were completely vaporised by Amazon’s aggressive new customer experience.

Already miles away and widening the gap

Barnes & Noble is an American bookstore that successfully weathered the Amazon online commerce storm. Borders is not. Barnes & Noble saw what Amazon was doing to the market and got its own online commerce underway. Borders invested in bigger brick and mortar stores instead and outsourced the online commerce to Amazon. Barnes & Noble even developed its own e-reader, just like Amazon, while Borders receded into obscurity and eventually ceased to exist.

Amazon was a bleeding edge innovator. But Barnes & Noble was able to hang in there through some internal innovations of its own. When the customer experience moved largely into the digital realm Borders was miles away and widening the gap until it eventually popped off with a whimper.

Ironically, while those days saw the scaremongers spin yarns about the imminent death of businesses if they did a Borders by eschewing online for physical, Amazon has itself now opened brick and mortar shops. And now Amazon, like many others, is talking drones, robotics, machine learning, and AI.

The poignant lesson

That’s particularly poignant in context given that most companies are still talking digitalisation, something Amazon and its ilk did some time ago. The lesson is that there will always be a new fad, a shiny new innovation catching the magpie eyes of customers everywhere, and businesses like Barnes & Noble can do better than play catch-up with their Amazonian competitors by incubating their own innovation capabilities and capacities instead of focusing on the monthly flavour.