A drone’s eye view of the disruption economy

Kathryn Bice - AAP

4 minute read

The World Business Forum wrapped in Sydney on Thursday with a song and dance by Randi Zukerberg, former Director of Market Development for Facebook, who belted out a version of Ariel's "I want" song from Disney's animated feature The Little Mermaid.


The song featured lines such as "I want to go where the people meet, bookstores where they talk without using smartphones".

As well as revealing that she has finally fulfilled her desire to star on Broadway, Randi's song expressed her love-hate relationship with technology.

Not only does she applaud "digital detox", but she strictly limits the amount of screen time she allows her two young sons, she said.

After two days focused on the mixed blessings of digital disruption, a surprising degree of consensus emerged from the eight speakers - all from the US - and the panel of Australian leaders who discussed the benefits of diversity in the workplace.

For those who couldn't make it, here is a drone's eye view of the World of Business Ideas in 2017.

Q: What words were most often spoken from the stage?

A: Apart from digital disruption, you could hardly miss the repetition of "community", "ecosystem" and "partnerships". Speakers agreed that organisations that survive and thrive will need to become deeply involved with their stakeholders, involving them from the earliest stages of designing products and services and respecting their preferences.

Q: What will power the next wave of disruption?

A: Jimmy Wales, the man who ate Encyclopaedia Britannica for breakfast, says he simply doesn't know - and if he did he would be out there doing it. Mohan Sawhney, Director of the Center for Research in Technology & Innovation, is immersing himself in artificial intelligence and deep learning. Sawhney is also a director of Indian company Reliance Geo, which is rolling out a 4G network with US$25 smartphones and unlimited broadband for US$3 per month. If a company doesn't have an Asia strategy, he said, it doesn't have a strategy.

Q: What's wrong with failure?

A: Nothing, said the luminaries. In fact, failure is a vital step on the way to success, and one key to organisation renewal is to create a "safe space" for experimentation and risk-taking. Randi Zuckerberg told of how Facebook Live grew out of her (failed) trial of the idea at an all-night Facebook hackathon. Jimmy Wales listed his impressive roster of failed projects, including Wikipedia's predecessor, Nupedia, and said he was surprised at how quickly and Wikipedia had succeeded.

Daniel Goleman, pioneer researcher in Emotional Intelligence, talked about "the wandering mind", a state that ensues when people are bored and habitually turn to running over their grievances. Paradoxically, however, the wandering mind is also the one that solves problems that elude the conscious, focused mind that has reached a cognitive blocks.

Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter wants to give her name to "Kanter's Law", the notion that "everything looks like a failure in the middle." Every organisation that takes a new road will encounter roadblocks along the way, and the key to finding success is to be flexible and adapt. Out of temporary failure will emerge a new plan that, more often than not, leads to success.

Q: How fast is fast?

A: As fast as you can manage, it seems. Kanter told how Verizon was caught out by the Apple iPhone, but quickly regrouped and brought in Motorola and Google to create the Android phone. Verizon had "no idea" how to do it, but by bringing in partners it was able to cut its product development cycle in half, she said.

Jimmy Wales revealed that he will launch his new venture, WikiTribune, just a few weeks from now, even though the technology isn't ready. The fake news and post-truth world make the move urgent, he suggested, and the tech will catch up with the concept as they go.

Mohan Sawhney recommended that businesses adopt the Agile project management approach pioneered in Silicon Valley to develop new products through rapid iterations by small teams. Agile allows companies to avoid the "slow, expensive, rigid" innovation process and opt instead for collaborative innovation by "ambidextrous" companies. While one arm concentrates on exploiting the existing business, the other is focused on exploring new opportunities.

Q: Where do ideas come from?

A: Everywhere, of course, but primarily from the open, democratic, networked world in which every customer is linked in to a feedback loop that companies ignore at their peril. Ian Williamson, who holds the Helen Macpherson Smith Chair of Leadership for Social Impact at Melbourne Business School, said the product or service must shape the structure of the business, not the other way around. Disruption is not driven only by technology, the economy, demographics and regulations, but also by social challenges, he said.