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  • Concerned About Being Disrupted? Instead, Prepare To Be Transmuted
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  • I noticed that the term “transmuted” appeared near the end of a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article about how journalism is changing. In my view, however, since changing technology is reshaping many industries, the concept of being transmuted not only applies to journalistic businesses like newspapers, but to other industries as well. And, based on my decades studying business success and failure patterns, what is now referred to as being transmuted represents a route to an organization’s successful future.

    The article about changes in the journalistic sector was in Bloomberg Businessweek’s May 7, 2018 issue. It is titled “The Future of News – Subscribe”, written by John Micklethwait. Near the article’s end it said, “The newspaper has not so much died as transmuted. News is in a state of transition – and what’s emerging is molded by both new technology and old verities.”

    As someone who researches and writes about the patterns of business success associated with strategic choices, I see this “not so much died, as transmuted” concept frequently appearing in other areas of technological change. It is not limited to news reporting. For example, I’ve written often about retailing, where much like in the newspaper business, traditional bricks and mortar stores have not died with the advent of ecommerce. Like newspapers, bricks and mortar stores have transmuted to where physical stores and online selling are integrated.

    In his future of news Bloomberg Businessweek article, author John Micklethwait recalls a popular cover featured on The Economist back in 2006 when he was its editor. That cover said “Who killed the newspaper?” His Bloomberg article goes on to point out that there were then many “predictions that ‘old media’ would be swept away by newcomers such as Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Business Insider.” And, there were “papers giving up print production, … or laying off journalists as advertising disappeared to Google and Facebook.” But, the article explains that, although technology has changed how journalism is produced, there is now an emerging resurgence of quality journalism. And, to make up for lost advertising revenue, publications are now putting up pay walls, charging subscription fees, essentially reinstituting revenue that more closely resembles what characterized newspapers of the past.

    As I see it, the journalistic sector also parallels other technology impacted industries in terms of the waves of pessimism followed by resurgence. At first, the traditional forms of the industry are perceived as dying. At this point, industry players, especially if they struggle financially, may cut back on traditional aspects of their business, essentially treating these areas as if they really were at death’s door. But, their counterparts who did not give in to dire predictions often fared much better than those who seemed to act as if their industry was truly near death.

    And, just like journalism’s emerging resurgence of quality reporting, the value of traditional ways in other industries wasn’t always obvious up front. For example, a retailer — like Penney’s for instance — that once had a paper catalog seemed to initially see ecommerce’s rapid growth as an indicator that online would be the future of retailing. This seems to be a logical conclusion at a time when the rapidly growing online sector was increasingly perceived as an attractive business. However, Penney’s apparently later learned that, although online sales were growing rapidly, paper mailings were still valuable as a way to further stimulate those online sales. Thus, the old ways weren’t dead after all. So, Penney’s eventually brought back a smaller version of its paper catalog.

    Furthermore, even ecommerce stars, like glasses retailer Warby Parker, have done paper mailings, along with opening physical locations. And, after experimenting with store closings so typical of an industry said to be dying, Kohl’s discovered that having physical locations led to higher online sales nearby.

    But initially, as areas tied to new technology exhibited spectacular growth, it was not always obvious early on that traditional pieces of the industry would warrant resurgence. Like in journalism, that realization tended to come later since it took a while to see that the older version of the business was not dying; it was merely being transmuted.

    So, what does this mean for those concerned about possible threats of disruption? It means don’t necessarily consider the old form of the business to be dying. In fact, treating the business as dying can amplify difficulties by becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Furthermore, don’t panic. Instead, rather than perceiving an earlier version of the business as completely dead, think in terms of how it might change to combine traditional ways with the latest technology.


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