Today there has been a new offering on the altar of Digital Darwinism. The demise of Thomas Cook is extremely sad: a 178-year old institution that democratised global travel in the mid-19th century is now gone and 150,000 holiday makers are now awaiting the biggest peacetime repatriation exercise since the Second World War.
But it does have a certain inevitability (or at least familiarity) to it. Kodak, Blockbuster and HMV – all recent examples or organisations that were unable to escape the gravitational hold of their aging business models in a digital age and were overcome by a new generation of born-digital disruptors. For Kodak it was a digital camera, for blockbuster it was Netflix and for HMV Napster, iTunes and MP3s.
For Thomas Cook, its principal nemesis is the digitisation of the holiday industry, personified in particular by the likes of Airbnb. Over the past decade when Thomas Cook was wrestling with an accumulating debt burden as it ploughed millions into an ever-expanding high-street network of travel agencies, Airbnb was building the Uber of travel, with no buildings, a fraction of the workforce and a heavy emphasis on digital user experience.
For many years, technology has simply been a tool to drive efficiency into existing business models, to make them cheaper, faster and less error-prone. But the digital economy is different – it is the promotion of technology and data to being a first-class citizen, to being the principal means of doing business, of connecting consumers with suppliers.
The shift to digital commerce has happened organically, as consumers and a new generation of suppliers have realised that it is both expensive and inconvenient to have people stand in queues waiting to fill in a form and speak to an adviser.
And to be fair, it has been kind of obvious for a while now; a decade or two. There are very few situations left where consumers prefer to get in their car, drive to a building, park, pay, queue and speak to someone at length (possibly multiple times) just to complete a simple transaction. Even picking up the phone and being bounced from department to department by a loathsome automated answering system feels… well very ‘1985’.
Business has been on the receiving end of many ‘teachable moments’ in this regard recently. The question is where will it happen next? Betting, Banking, Healthcare, Automotive? It could be anywhere and probably is everywhere.
In the struggle to remain the fittest, don’t get left behind.