Internet: Disruption Happens Slooowly

Locomotive in Tioga, North Dakota

Those of you who work at newspapers, TV & radio stations or networks, magazine or book publishers, advertising or public relations, telephone companies — or any of a myriad number of threatened industries being “made more efficient” (i.e., disrupted) by the Internet — may not be fully grasping how a culture of participation, social media offerings and a techno-savvy world is embracing new technologies and forcibly choosing something different or simply no longer paying attention to what you do.

Major disruptive changes happen so slowly that most of us don’t react quickly enough or are uncertain and thus take little or no action.

My grandfather was employed with the Great Northern Railroad beginning in the early 1900’s and lived and worked through the heyday of the railroad. He found himself beyond delighted to have a stable, good job (especially through the Depression) that lasted without interruption for 44 years.

Grandpa also experienced first-hand the massive changes in the last century which caused him to slowly become concerned that “his railroad” was being disrupted by the automobile, the trucking industry and the Interstate highway system and later on by the airplane. If you would’ve told him in 1930 that the railroad wouldn’t be the be-all, end-all transportation system in America today he would’ve laughed at you. I suspect he was tickled to have retired and had his pension before mergers and consolidations happened in the railroad system during the ’60’s and 70’s.

In my short worklife I’ve seen my share of disruption and I can confirm that it moves very slowly:

  • As a manufacturer’s rep in the early 1980’s, I called on strong and powerful consumer electronics retailers in my home state of Minnesota who went out of business as Best Buy grew, but it took 15 years for most of them to close their doors
  • How over the last 20 years I saw small towns whose Main Street clothing and sundry retailers were decimated by the entry of Walmart in their selling area. They boarded up their windows or were replaced by some cheesy craft shop
  • All the Mom-n-Pop hardware stores which have all but vanished in metro Minneapolis/St. Paul due to  the entry of superstores like Home Depot and Lowes
  • I called on several major printing and publishing companies in Minnesota in the 1990’s while at Apple that now are either downsized or liquidated as demand for dead trees with ink on them has slowly dwindled as the Internet has grown
  • Of experiencing Detroit for the first time in my 30’s and seeing first-hand the devastation of a formerly great city disrupted by global auto manufacturing and learning that its erosion took decades.

Though the focus of my work has been in technology throughout my career, over the last 20-25 years I’ve sometimes painfully (and often) reinvented myself, our small business and its products, my consulting work, all in order to stay competitive as well as to seize new opportunities. Part of that need to reinvent is that I get bored quite easily, but mostly it’s been the history I’ve had and the sense I’ve gained as to what’s next.

Some of my choices haven’t been perfect and a few I regret (and sometimes I had to experience the pain fully before I got off my ass to take action) but I had to reinvent or I’d shrivel up and die.

Case in point: In 1997 my Dad and I went around Germany to find our ancestors and have a Dad & Son Adventure. I took a Powerbook 3400C (The model I used has a 200 MHz CPU, 72 MB of RAM, and a 2 GB hard disk); an Apple Quicktake camera; Adobe Pagemill web site software; and an acoustic coupler so I build a web site on-the-fly and could upload my pages via Compuserve. The trip was such a profound experience on many levels…none the least of which was publishing pages that others could instantly see which drove home the point that this Web-thingy was going to be the biggest revolution in human history.

I was compelled to be in this emerging space and ended up reinventing myself and moved from Apple to Vignette (at the time the fastest growing software company in history) since I HAD TO be in the Internet space with a strategic vendor no matter what. At Vignette, I had an unprecedented window in to thought leadership, my team and I sold millions worth of software and services for amazing web asset creation, and I stuck through the post-dotcom-crash years too.

After Vignette I ended up at Lawson Software, a vendor of not-so-exciting enterprise resource planning software where I was VP of Strategic Alliances. Great spot to be as the tech sector slowly recovered from the crash and I amused myself and met my thirst for learning by staying abreast of new developments that were Internet-centric. I was compelled again and started blogging, podcasting, being involved in social media and  reading everything I could get my hands on and leapt into management consulting in Internet-as-a-platform and Web 2.0 two years ago.

The Internet will continue to grow and of that I’m certain. It’s just too important of a connection conduit that is bringing together humanity on a scale we’ve never seen. Now that the euphoria of the 1990’s is gone, the crash has happened, and many of us are pretty blase’ about the Internet, NOW IS THE TIME YOU SHOULD BE PAYING THE MOST ATTENTION since disruption is happening all around us.

Mark my words: it’s not “if” you or your business will be disrupted by the Internet in some fashion but “when”. Is it next year? 2009? 2012? I’m not going to predict time or dates, but what I can predict is that the Internet will continue to evolve as the participation culture pushes it forward and increases the efficiency of our global internetwork with more of humankind connected to it every day.

You can be assured that Internet speeds will continue to get faster and the “resolution” of virtual communications will slowly begin to rival in-person communications — or quite possibly the lines between real and virtual will be blurred enough that some in-person communications will be completely replaced by the virtual.

I guarantee that video and audio will become better; that the tools you’ll use to communicate and collaborate in 2010, for example, will be more robust than they are today; that personal and enterprise-class creation and publishing tools will grow more capable; that clusters of humans in virtual networks (be they social networks or some other creation) will connect us in new and increasingly more powerful ways making geographical separation irrelevant; and that virtual worlds will become more like being there in person and will be easy-to-use (unlike today where the learning curve is pretty steep for all but the most intent of us).

Are you paying attention to the slow but disruptive Internet forces?

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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