Every generation needs a new revolution, and this generation’s is here: the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We’ve been hearing about this latest disruption to the status quo since the World Economic Forum’s executive chairman, Klaus Schwab introduced us to the term in 2015—yet businesses continue to be challenged by how difficult it will be to adapt.
Previous industrial revolutions were characterized by innovations like the steam engine, mass production and the internet, all of which profoundly impacted humanity. Yet the Fourth Industrial Revolution is poised to fundamentally change how we live and work, blurring the lines between the digital, physical, and biological worlds. Think of how robots, enabled with artificial intelligence, now collaborate with human surgeons. That’s just one example of the many tasks and processes that will change as technologies become seamlessly integrated into our lives—and navigating this evolving climate will create challenges for companies, whether they are rising stars or legacy stalwarts.
Challenges in a new era
In business, as in nature, failure to adapt leads to extinction. In 1965, the average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 was 33 years. By 1990, it was 20 years, and the trend is expected to continue, with the average tenure forecast to be 14 years by 2026. A review of the Fortune 500 reveals similar statistics. More than 1,800 companies have made the list since its inception in 1955, but just 52 of the original Fortune 500 remain on the list in 2019. While there are many reasons that companies come and go from the list, the one constant is that all of these businesses have been affected by change.
Yet just because the technologies and methods we use in business—in other words, the “how”—are going to drastically change, the “why,” or how we support customers’ needs with relevant, high-quality products and services, should not.
As a 155-year-old business, RRD has weathered many storms; in fact, we were there for the Second and Third Industrial Revolutions. Our company knows firsthand that to continue to be a leader throughout times of disruption, companies must constantly strengthen and leverage their core while adjusting to new technologies and customers’ changing demands and expectations.
Lessons for relevance
RRD’s long history has taught us some important lessons that business-to-business (B2B) companies can use to stay relevant during the Fourth Industrial Revolution:
Keep customers in the middle of everything you do. The first three industrial revolutions focused on increasing the productivity and efficiency of the company. The fourth is increasing the power of the customer. This sometimes means thinking beyond current business capabilities and creating new ways to serve direct clients, as well as the clients’ customers.
Every brand interaction represents an opportunity to deliver relevant, meaningful experiences for the customer and consumer. Help your clients strengthen each touchpoint along their customer’s journey, and act as their advocate. This will ensure you remain their trusted, valued partner.
Be true to your values, but also embrace change. Maintaining focus on your company’s core values doesn’t mean ignoring new technologies, processes, or ideas. It also doesn’t mean that you should retain a strategy or business model that no longer meets the needs of your customers. As you make adjustments, align those changes with the needs of your clients and the values of your company.
For RRD, this realization happened more than a decade ago, when we noted how our clients’ businesses and pain points were shifting. They were being challenged to reshape their customer experiences, and we realized we had a part to play in that.
While your technology and products will, of course, always be evolving—and some may become irrelevant—your desire to create value for your customers should never go out of style. Stay in tune to their needs, and you’ll earn the right to partner with them over the long term as they modernize their own strategies and business models.
Explore how to make new ideas work. If you give an inexperienced carpenter a new set of power tools, they probably won’t immediately make better furniture. A good idea executed poorly is indistinguishable from a bad idea. Your success won’t be based on how original your vision is, but, rather, on how effectively you execute the idea. Know your core strengths and competencies, and determine how they can be applied in new, modern ways. You don’t always need to reinvent them, but you may need to reinvent the way you apply them.
Over more than a century and a half, RRD has evolved from a traditional printer to a printing services company to a leading global provider of integrated marketing and business communications solutions. Today, we help more than 50,000 clients better connect with billions of people through the power of words and images. As our clients advance into new areas, we’re going with them.
While we’ve constantly changed our processes and methods since 1864, we’ve never wavered in our commitment to our clients, our values, or our purpose—and that’s the kind of mentality we believe will help businesses survive and thrive during this next industrial revolution.
Dan Knotts is president and CEO of RRD, a leading global provider of integrated marketing and business communications solutions.