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Incumbent vs. newcomers

Haji 2003

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In this post what I will argue is that the more material something is the more ephemeral it is.

The more we invest in ideas, activities and resources that are closely bound with the mundane aspects of everyday existence the more we will have to accept that our endeavours will be short-lived. This is not to say that they will be less valuable - but they will be inherently bounded by time.

In contrast, those aspects of our daily activities that are related to ethics and morality transcend the activities to which they are related. In practical terms the processes I use to serve a customer offline (in a shop) are fairly specific to that material context. How I lay out the goods in the store is specific to running a shop. Knowledge of the physical aspects of our existence is therefore, the most constrained in terms of its application in different time periods and different places.

At a higher level of abstraction, my recognition that the way my customers process information can be important to store design and layout is an important piece of knowledge that is applicable beyond the confines of a physical store and could be applicable (to some extent) in my online sales operations.

But the ethics of my transaction for example in terms of the fairness of the exchange has broader implications than the above two examples. Issues to do with how I take advantage of the limited information the customer has, their lower level of bargaining power, whether the benefits of the purchase are obvious in the short-term but outweighed by longer-term disbenefits are issues that are just as significant offline as they are online.

Morality and ethics thus transcend both the physical and process aspects of everyday existence.

The British company Ocado is about to join the list of the country's 100 most valuable companies after a string of deals signed with international grocers keen to use its online food ordering and delivery systems. Making way for Ocado in that list of 100 is likely to be Marks & Spencer which has been on the list since it was first started and has recently been falling out of favour with consumers.

Intuition would say that large successful firms should persist in their position at the top of the commercial ladder. They have the money and know-how to beat firms who are smaller and not currently as successful as they are. If a smaller firm has a great idea surely the incumbent could simply copy it. Why didn't Walmart simply copy what Amazon was doing when Amazon was much smaller than it is now?

The problem that the incumbent faces is that they have too much invested in the material aspects of what they are doing now. They have property, machines and people all tied up in the existing way they have of doing things. Change is expensive. It can mean the organisation giving up what it has now in order to venture out into something risky and new.

So repeatedly we find that being an incumbent ultimately becomes a disadvantage. The knowledge about the marketplace that a firm has painstakingly acquired becomes a liability rather than an asset.

This is particularly the case in a dynamic world. The world no longer works the way in which the firm thought it did. In no small measure that change is brought about by newcomers, who at the start of their lifecycle, appeared to be entering a world dominated by others who knew the rules of the game and what it needed to succeed. Changing the rules of the game takes time and resources, but clearly, it has been done over and over again.

How we buy things and what we look for when we buy were all lessons that Amazon learnt from scratch. Walmart thought they knew, but their knowledge had been constrained by their observations of customers' behaviour in shopping isles. When it came to shopping isle layout designs perhaps no one knew better than they did how to execute. But when someone is online there is only a very very limited extent to which those lessons are of use.

Incumbent firms that had mastered the rules of retail were at a loss when newcomers created the rules for online retail and the latter become the reality of shopping for more and more consumers. Abstracting from the above context is the issue of knowledge and its limitations. For whichever field of human endeavour we look at the same issue applies. Experts in any given field seem encumbered by their incumbency and unable to make the advances in emerging areas of science and technology.



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