Innovation of Communication: The Power of Imagination

Just over 10 years ago, in June 2007, Apple launched the iPhone. As transformative products go, it’s hard to find anything else that’s had such a remarkable impact on society so quickly. Now, in 2018, there are an estimated 48 million Smartphone users in the UK alone, and 2.3 billion worldwide. That’s effectively from nothing to quite something in just 10 years – just one decade to take a product category from largely unimagined to more or less ubiquitous.

I would like to expand on that a little with my personal experience. Over 20 years ago between 1994 and 1997, I worked in the technical repair centre of Martin Dawes Telecommunications in Warrington. We had highly skilled engineers working there who saw – and fixed – every type of mobile phone from old Alcatel brick phones that would have been an ‘80s Yuppie’s pride and joy to the futuristic Star Trek communicator that was the Nokia 8110. We marvelled at the achievement that was someone getting the ‘Snake’ game to run on a phone, in blocky monochrome, for the first time. We had experts that knew more about the inner workings of mobile telephones than just about anyone else did in the UK at the time.

But, if you’d brought that first iPhone back from 2007 to show us, we’d have probably had to invoke Arthur C. Clarke’s third law:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

We wouldn’t have believed it was possible.

And look at the changes that the iPhone, that sleekest of wrecking balls, has brought to the marketplace and to life in general. Touch screens have become so commonplace you can even find a selection of wine coolers on Amazon with them fitted. A $77 billion industry creating and servicing mobile apps has been created from nothing. Software firms have developed solutions to integrate Augmented Reality overlays onto maps. US chewing gum sales have fallen by 15% because people have got something else to consume. Streaming music services have almost replaced traditional physical product. The old, dominant forces in the mobile phone market – Ericsson, Nokia, RIM – have been all but destroyed and replaced by those like Samsung, who jumped onto Apple’s coat-tails and generated similar tech of their own. We’ve seen accelerated digitalisation of news, of books, of online shopping. You could even argue Apple are responsible for the Hipster phenomenon of millennials kicking against all that virtualisation…

There’s key lessons for any business in what happened. The new victors didn’t stick with outmoded products and ideas. They gambled on new technology, even when existing market commentators and CEOs dismissed it. One of the potential winners, Microsoft, missed out at the time. Here’s then CEO Steve Ballmer on the first iPhone:

“You can get a Motorola Q for $99. Apple will have the most expensive phone, by far, in the marketplace. There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share."

Time for Arthur C. Clarke’s first law:

“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

Apple themselves checked market requirements and made key design decisions that supported them. The most important was that users would need different inputs depending on the applications in use – after all, you wouldn’t want to carry a phone, a keyboard and a stylus to get your portable phone to work the way you wanted it to. It was this decision that led them down the path of a touch screen, and forced them to develop a whole new User Interface, but that also freed up space for a larger, more useful screen.

In the end, Steve Jobs’ original vision of providing a small, portable computer that anybody could carry with them wasn’t realised because of the compromises Apple had to make for the device to be saleable. Smartphones haven’t replaced home computers, or home music systems, or even bookshelves, but what they have done is provide greater accessibility to information and media, while key apps have taken further advantage of this new platform. Music services – Spotify, Deezer and so on – and social media like Facebook could not have been so successful without the iPhone giving them, literally, a mobile platform.

So, what has all this got to do with a blog on a print and communications company website, I hear you ask?

Well, it’s this...

Finding new and innovative ways of doing things doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because companies remain focussed on their customers’ requirements, desires and behaviour, and don’t just rely on their perceptions of these things. It happens because companies challenge the need to hang on to legacy methods and rules. It happens because companies focus on what is possible, rather than what is not.

These approaches are perhaps even more important in print, email and online communication in a world changed by the advent of the Smartphone than they were before. Are your perceptions of how people want to access and interact with their data still relevant in a world where 80% of the UK adult population is used to being able to access information immediately through a few swipes of their fingers? Are your views of what is possible when communicating with your customers still current when personalised messages can be delivered in video, in apps and on interactive web pages, as well as by paper and email? Is your understanding of what can be done, and how you can do it, ready to innovate, or to take advantage of others’ innovations?

Of course, there are challenges to innovating communications output that a luxury electronics manufacturer like Apple didn’t have to face – but, perhaps, overcoming the challenges needs new thinking too.

  • Cost – new communication methods may increase costs, but can you reduce the Total Cost of Ownership (TC0) by reducing inbound customer queries or through increasing loyalty by offering a better service?
  • Regulators – regulatory requirements can add lots of background noise to the key information that you’re trying to pass on, but will greater clarity and transparency persuade the regulator that the changes are positive for customers?
  • Institutionalisation – some things are done that way because, well, they have always been done that way, but can proof of concept exercises and focus groups help show that the new ways will produce better results?
  • Time and specialisation – innovation isn’t necessarily quick, and might need specialist knowledge of new technologies, but can some of these issues be overcome by working in partnership with others?

Indeed, that initial burden which appears to come tied to innovation can be reduced by working collaboratively with service providers who are trying to open access to these new ways of doing things themselves. Their specialists see the same risks and challenges come up again and again and find common solutions for them. Their knowledge gets you to the change start line quicker. Their experience can help identify not only the right way to use innovative product in your organisation, but the right way to sell innovation internally as well. Best of all, they can help challenge old ways of thinking because their primary goal is the success of both organisations moving forward, not protection of the way in which things were done in the past.

Arthur C Clarkes 2nd law, unadulterated, might be a step too far for most companies but, paraphrased and softened, it seems the right way to end an article that is really about suggesting that finding a way to embrace change can bring positives to your customers’ experiences:

The only way of discovering the limits of what you can do for your clients is to venture a little past them into what you and others have said can’t be done in the past.



Written by

Tony Lynas, Head of Project Management

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