Olympus has fallen: The rise and rise of digital innovation

Olympus — much like their photographic brethren before them, Kodak — both luminaries in their field, both innovators, both stumbled and then failed to get up again. If we take one thing from this, it’s this: Size is no insulation from failure, and a failure to foresee and then respond to what comes next.

While at college during the 90s, I had the chance to use Apple’s first venture into the then nascent digital camera market, the Apple QuickTake — and it was awful. But then, in fairness, most digital cameras at the time were.

Fast forward a few years and digital print emerged — and it was awful. But it served low-end print material, like fliers and leaflets, carving out an existence for itself. As the quality improved, it began eating into the other business collateral, and then came letterhead, business cards, so on and so forth.
In both cases, digital cameras and print started out like most other nascent technologies — terrible at first, but hinting st some promise and enormous potential.

As for Kodak, it’s mistake wasn’t that it failed to innovate per se, but that it believed it had created sufficient inertia from its vast portfolio of innovations to insulate itself from the inevitabilities — and vagaries — of change.

Olympus, on the other hand, zigged towards the mid-range market, when it should have zagged to avoid the vast assortment of mobile devices equipped with digital cameras that would devour that exact market.

Yes, hindsight isn’t a true guide to anything, but in each case, looking at technologies for clues as to the future of things was less revealing than considering the possible future needs of the customer — it wasn’t as if “transistorisation” hadn’t happened.
So what do these camera-related calamities reveal for thee and me?

  • In terms of digital transformation, put the needs of the person or the team first and then wrap the technologies around those needs, where the fit is best.
  • Now that artificial intelligence is on the cusp of becoming a commoditised service (both in terms of software-as-a-service, and the requisite hardware), consider what services within the business could benefit from or be threatened by it, and then begin making plans now.
  • Technologies are changing fast, it’s perhaps best to have a loose coupling of business activities to digital services and their providers, to insulate — or, to some degree, mitigate — against rapid and disruptive changes in the provision of those services.

How we respond to change is a measure of how good a job we’ve done in anticipating it, or accepting that change is the one constant in life, love, and business.

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