Russell Davies: Businesses cannot afford to be snails in the long digital fight

By Russell Davies, campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 14 June 2012 08:00AM

I'm sure I've mentioned this before. I apologise if it bores you. But it's one of the most illuminating analogies I've ever heard about the "new media revolution" and so I'm going to keep throwing it at you until you're sick of it.

Russell Davies: Businesses cannot afford to be snails in the long digital fight

The blogger and designer Tom Coates first coined it back in 2006 and it has come to my mind at least once a month ever since. It's the snail. The snail! Ringing any bells? He suggests that media organisations complaining about the pace of change are behaving like they're being attacked by a snail. And, as Tom says: "There's nothing rapid about this transition at all. It's been happening in the background for 15 years. So let me rephrase it in ways that I understand. Shock revelation! A new set of technologies has started to displace older technologies and will continue to do so at a fairly slow rate over the next ten to 30 years!"

It's just that lots of businesses seem really, really slow and bad at adapting. Not because they're full of dumb or indolent people, but because, well, I don't know why - that's one of the more interesting mysteries of organisational physics.

I was reminded of the snail (again!) the other week when I went to see a splendid talk by Tim Brooks. Brooks was the managing director of Guardian News & Media for a number of years (soon to be the chief executive of BMJ Group). At GNM, Brooks saw lots of that disruption first hand. And, for the past year or so, he has been studying these changes more closely at the London Business School.

The snail came to mind because Brooks' talk was, basically, a history of the internet's disruption of advertising and media - add some unsettling camera work and 90s period costume and it could have been one of those history programmes on BBC Four. Personally, having lived through the whole thing, I've never thought of it as being old enough to have a history, but it is. And it has distinct phases and "lessons learned" and memorable quotes - all the traditional baggage of history.

And it turns out to be incredibly useful to step back and look at these things. Brooks, for instance, points out five distinct structural responses that organisations construct to "cope" with "digital" - from the separate company through to the separate division to the attempt at "infusion". Thinking that through might be a handy shortcut for some current chief executives. I urge you all to talk to Brooks.

Overall, though, I couldn't help thinking about the snail. Our challenge is not "the internet" or "digital". This is a hundred-year war, not a skirmish. It's about continuing, relentless technological change and how we construct organisations that can deal with snails, not ones that panic about trends.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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