Schumpeter: 2018 will be the year that big, incumbent companies take on big tech

, Internet, Modernización de Empresas

Conventional firms have at last got their technology act togetherACCORDING to Ginni Rometty, IBM’s boss, the digital revolution has two phases. In the first, Silicon Valley firms make all the running as they create new markets and eviscerate weak firms in sleepy industries. This has been the story until now. Tech firms have captured 42% of the rise in the value of America’s stockmarket since 2014 as investors forecast they will win an ever-bigger share of corporate profits. A new, terrifying phrase has entered the lexicon of business jargon: being “Amazoned”.
The second phase favours the incumbents, Ms Rometty believes, and is starting about now. They summon the will to adapt, innovate to create new, digital, products and increase efficiency. The schema is plainly self-serving. IBM is itself fighting for survival against cloud-based tech rivals and most of its clients are conventional firms. Yet she is correct that incumbents in many industries are at last getting their acts together on technology.
Enough time has elapsed for even the dopiest to see the threat. It is 11 years since Netflix began streaming video and five since Tesla unveiled the Model S. The evisceration by tech firms of some mid-sized businesses, such as department-store retail, has concentrated minds. Lagging share prices have helped. In 2017 Ford fired its boss, Mark Fields, despite near-record profits. Its board concluded he was complacent about technological change.
Taking a sample of America’s 20 most valuable non-tech firms, 14 now have a digital dimension to their strategies. Some blue-chip firms are mixing fashionable cocktails of e-commerce, big data and artificial-intelligence (AI) initiatives. But others are making comprehensive, multi-billion-dollar bets. General Motors is developing a suite of electric and autonomous vehicles. Walmart is in the midst of a massive online shopping push. Investors view such initiatives as central to these firms’ prospects.
A round of mergers and acquisitions has kicked off as firms respond to the threat from Silicon Valley. On December 14th Walt Disney said it would spend $66bn buying most of 21st Century Fox. One motivation for the deal is to counter the menace of streaming video services, most notably those of Netflix and Amazon. In 2019 Disney will stop distributing new films through Netflix and launch its own streaming services. On December 12th Westfield and Unibail, a pair of huge operators of shopping malls, joined forces with two main aims: to bulk up in response to e-commerce and to build a global brand with a digital presence.
Incumbents have lots going for them. They own 80% of the commercial world’s data, as Ms Rometty has noted. If AI is set to change civilisation by using data to make better decisions, most of the historical data-sets about, say, jet-engine performance or clothing supply chains belong to established firms, beyond the reach of Amazon and Facebook. Incumbents have vast resources: among S&P 500 firms, their total cashflow is four times that of tech firms’ and 18 times what venture capitalists invest each year.
Established giants also enjoy barriers to entry such as strong brands and lobbying skills, the latter being especially crucial in America’s money-driven political system. Also on December 14th, American regulators abolished “net neutrality” rules requiring telecoms carriers to treat all internet traffic equally—a victory for conventional telecoms and cable firms. Silicon Valley faces a global regulatory “techlash” over issues such as privacy and tax.
A typical approach by conventional firms is a blend of bolt-on acquisitions of startups and organic investment in new technologies. GM has invested in Lyft, a ride-sharing firm, and developed electric engines. On December 13th, Target, which operates discount stores, bought Shipt, a online-delivery platform. Walmart has bought, an e-commerce firm. Western banks have been busy buying fintech firms, although the cleverest incumbents in finance are Asian. Ping An, a Chinese insurance firm, has 265m users for its app. DBS, South-East Asia’s biggest lender, has set up online banks in both India and Indonesia.
A few firms are opting for huge deals. On December 3rd CVS, a drugstore and health-care benefits manager, said it would pay $77bn for Aetna, a health-insurance company. The idea is to bulk up and lock in customers before Amazon enters the business of selling medicines. Within the tech industry, IBM is not the only mature firm trying to adapt. In March Intel bought Mobileye for $15bn—it specialises in chips and software for driverless cars.
Conventional wisdom says incumbent firms are timid about technological change, scared to cannibalise profits and trapped in an unimaginative mindset. In 1997 Clayton Christensen laid out this view in “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. Kodak, which folded after failing to see that camera film would become obsolete, is the classic example. Yet for every Kodak there is a Marconi, that goes too far, too fast. Formerly called GEC, it was Britain’s largest industrial firm in the 1990s but collapsed after wrecking its balance-sheet with acquisitions of fashionable but flaky tech firms in 1999.

The stakes get higher
A few firms have already been indisciplined. John Flannery, General Electric’s new boss, has axed some digital projects after judging them extravagant. But no one is yet making existential wagers. Taking a sample of eight incumbents, on average their digital initiatives are worth 14% of the size of the firm (using a range of metrics, including sales, investment and market value). So for example, e-commerce eats up only a fifth of Walmart’s investment budget. Even Disney-Fox’s existing initiatives are small. Hulu, a streaming service that it will control, makes losses equivalent to less than a tenth of its parents’ annual spending on content.
Conventional firms’ digital bets will only grow larger, as more bosses note the rising share prices of pioneers such as Walmart and GM. Overall this makes sense, even if plenty of companies make an utter hash of things. For large incumbents, in 2018 digital strategy will stop being about trendy experiments and start being a matter of life and death.

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “The year of the incumbent”

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