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Are you engaged in a war with the 21st century?

I saw a tweet the other day by Robert Colvile that made me laugh out loud:

‘Dear London taxi drivers, if you want to win your war with the 21st century, maybe stop using the phrase “Oh, you’re paying by card, are you?” as though you’re being presented with mysterious spices from the East.’

After the laughter came the reflection.

It’s so true, isn’t it? If you’re a taxi driver sitting smack in the middle of one of the world’s great cities and you’re reluctant to accept cards for payment, what is to become of you? Credit and debit cards have been around since I was a youngster. They have come into widespread use all over the world over the past two decades. Mobile card readers are everywhere. Why would you resist them?

Sure, when someone pays by card you, the seller of the service, have to pay a small percentage commission to the card-provider. This is a small deterrent, but you should be able to make it up in greater volumes if you accept easier payments. Or perhaps you worry about the taxman knowing exactly what you’re earning when your receipts are electronic?

Whatever the reasons for your reluctance, you have to get over them.

If you worry about plastic cards, what will you do about electronic payments that are made by the waving of a smartphone – or a watch? What will you say when a customer asks to pay you by sending you a message on an app?

Going further, what will you do when your fuel-guzzling traditional taxi faces suddenly cheaper electric vehicles? What will you do when you, the driver, become redundant, replaced by cameras, sensors and algorithms?

Here’s the thing. When new technologies emerge that increase convenience and reduce convenience for your customers, the last thing you want to do is resist. What you should actually do is this: first, understand what’s really going on. Is this thing serious? Will it spread widely? Will it be loved by customers? Do your research. Next, track the progress of the new tech. Who’s using it? How fast is it coming out? What are early users saying? Third, if it looks great for the consumer, embrace it. Be the first to offer it. Beat your customers to it. Lead the way.

If you do this, you might avoid getting ‘Uber-ed.’ Oh wait, did that already happen…

This isn’t just about mocking the poor old traditional taxi guys, though. Many, many senior executives, working for many, many large, rich, dominant organisations are also engaged in a ‘war with the 21st century.’ Rather than understanding, tracking and embracing the tech that might transform the lives of their customers, they are involved in outright resistance. They drag their feet, raise every conceivable objection and bury their heads in the sand hoping that the bad new thing will go away and the good old days will continue.

The truth is, every business model, every technology, every set of norms has its time. What works for a while doesn’t work forever. The far-sighted leader knows this, and keeps an eye always on the horizon, no matter how fertile the current fields of harvest are. Technology changes. Core customers age, and new ones demand new things. What made you money loses you money eventually.

I look around and I see banks ignoring data, still creating products on instinct; hotels persisting with the styles and menus of yesteryear; retailers doing nothing with new with bricks, let alone clicks; boardrooms lost in time, having the elderly conversations that hark to the past; and far too many leaders oblivious to the phenomenally large youth wave landing on everyone’s beach.

Stop fighting the 21st century. It’s been here for nearly two decades. Embrace the major trends of our time: mobile computing; data analysis; artificial intelligence; customer primacy. If you resist those, you will be just like that taxi driver; and you will face just the same fate: irrelevance. Be part of the new, not the old.

Easier said than done, though. There are many factors that militate against educated, competent people accepting change. Next week, let me show you how it might be done, by telling you the story of one giant corporation led to reinvention by a visionary leader. See you here, same time.

(Sunday Nation, 10 February 2019)

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