Disruptors in the digital age and how to be one

December 07, 2016

Digital transformation executive, Vishy Narayanan, reveals the attributes of a digital disruptor and the keys to transforming your business.


What does it take to be a disruptor? Over the last three decades there has been a surge in the number of smaller and nimbler organisations that have successfully unseated larger, more established organisations (including government backed institutions) to offer alternative solutions, features, products, commercial models or entire value chains.

We have all heard the names, but worth repeating (in no particular order) are companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, Alibaba, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, Tesla, Mahindra, Apple, Xiaomi, IBM, Freelancer, Atlassian, Illumina, Salesforce, Philips, Cochlear, Bristol-Myers Squibb (and the list goes on). All are considered disruptors in their own right because they:

  • Offer new innovative solutions to solve existing unmet needs or problems that have traditionally been considered “too hard to solve” or “not worth solving”. For example, Cochlear (Nucleus Group) developed and commercialised the world’s first multi-channel Cochlear implant and in the process restored hearing to over 400,000 people. Bristol-Myers Squibb developed a drug to combat skin and lung cancer.
  • Offer a different, more compelling and/or commercially attractive alternatives to an existing solution. Xiaomi is beating Apple at its own game by offering technically comparable products at a lower price point, and is also well positioned to sell services directly to their customers or to Salesforce – beating Oracle in the CRM game.
  • Offer new solutions by creating the need (or better articulating the need) and providing engaging and addictive solutions to attract a whole new market. Google, Facebook, Uber and Spotify have all created completely new markets by offering solutions to meet the need for real-time mobile access to information or services, 24/7 connectivity with a social network and cost-effective solutions.

While all three categories above lead to disruption, the last two in particular have been happening more quickly and recently (over the last decade) and are typically attributed to  digital disruption. So then who can lay claim to being a digital disruptor? And is digital disruption a myth or reality?


To help understand this let’s start with an attempt at a definition. For me, digital disruption offers a fundamentally better alternative to the present approach for solving a customer problem; in a cheaper, quicker, more convenient and more efficient manner; with technology and data playing key enabling roles to encourage customer participation.

It is not evolutionary change, but radical in the way it changes businesses, markets and societies.

All industries are prone to digital disruption – what differs is the timescale and impact. Some industries, such as music, entertainment and travel, have been impacted overnight.

Others change over a longer period of time, such as transport and healthcare. So if you’re looking to add ‘disruptor’ to your job skills, here are some of the key steps that you may want to consider before proceeding much further.

5 key steps for becoming a disruptor

  1. Get a connected, easy-to-use technology platform – you don’t need to build the next Facebook or Slack, but it sure helps if you have one that customers want to use willingly and can connect seamlessly across their journey of needs.

  2. Use a data processing and insights engine – I was tempted to use big data – but data doesn’t have to be big in order to derive meaningful insights.

  3. Keep the customer at the centre – the customer is a willing, active and vocal participant in the solution, which is designed around them.

  4. Ensure products and services are blended together – this is an area where many organisations falter – recognising when and how to offer products, services or a blended mashup of the two to meet customer needs.

  5. Use business and commercial models that make sense – the final hurdle for most larger companies looking to leverage digital disruption is that they focus on grabbing a bigger piece of the pie to offset their “disruption investment”, or too often pass on the cost to others down the value chain.

Having worked for businesses of different sizes, shapes and scale across the digital disruption spectrum, I have been fortunate enough to observe and actively influence the capacity of an individual, team, business unit or organisation to leverage digital disruption.

How do we leverage digital disruption?

By recognising, managing, mastering and exploiting nine key factors at play.

The following questions are designed to help you better understand your environment in order to be a positive disruptor, and manage the risks and issues it invariably creates.

Let’s start with the external factors

1. Your stakeholders and/or customers – Do you know who they are and are they happy with their current relationship with you; what relationship do they aspire with you; do you/they value that relationship; are you aware of their critical needs; do you give them opportunities to voice their opinions; do you act/respond based on their opinion?

2. Your offering – Is it meeting the critical needs of your stakeholders and customers; is it obvious why your offering makes sense; is it superior to other offerings; is it important/good enough to generate loyalty and advocacy; are the benefits visible and shareable; does it evolve with the customer needs?

3. Business and commercial model – How many intermediaries exist between you and the stakeholder/customer; who creates the most value; who are the primary beneficiaries in this business model; are there commercial incentives for all the players; is the commercial model sustainable?

4. Market Players & Competitors – Who are the main market players; who are the key competitors; how differentiated are their offerings to yours; who are the likely disruptors?

Now let’s investigate the internal factors

5. Clearly articulated sense of purpose (sometimes referred to as vision) – Is the statement of purpose clear; what can you do to contribute to this; is there universal buy-in on this sense of purpose; does it pass the reality test; is there a clear mandate for change?

6. Culture of innovation and experimentation – Is innovation seen as a niche role; how easy is it to experiment on yourselves/stakeholders/customers; do the people, processes and systems support innovation; speed and experimentation; how far can you take an idea before it gets stopped/scrutinised; how high is the risk appetite to disrupt yourselves?

7. Collaboration with partners and experts – Is it easy to collaborate; are there incentives for collaboration; do you have well identified customer champions; do the people, processes and systems support collaboration; do you have access to experts from similar/different industries?

8. Resources and Experience – Do you recruit from outside your industry; do you have a good mix of digital natives and “status quo” folks; is digital seen as a new and exciting capability or as an integral part of your business; is it hard to get funding, resources or sponsorship for new initiatives? 

9. Platform and Data – Have you created a platform for your offerings; is it easy to use; can you plug-in services from other providers; do you have an active plan to manage the data and derive insights from it?

Once you answer these questions you are on your way to joining the ranks of a digital disruptor transforming the marketplace. The often used mantra in the modern business lexicon is “Change is the only constant”. Digital disruption is no exception as it drives and demands significant changes to fundamental assumptions, the status quo, customer expectations, competition, technology, organisational design, complacency and the value chain. In doing so, it creates a new set of risks such as:

  • the potential to disrupt yourself;
  • competition from smaller and more agile players;
  • a whole new level of scrutiny around privacy, security and legal issues;
  • the ability to manage and protect Intellectual Property; 
  • creating inertia driven by uncertainty.

But if you can overcome them the opportunities are significant:

  • opening up new models for value creation;
  • reduce the cost/time for success (or failure);
  • building direct relationship with customers (and build loyalty);
  • being able to compete in a global economy regardless of location;
  • attracting and motivating a high calibre team.


In summary, digital disruption is real. A disruptor is no doubt emerging near you and your industry and will result in significant changes to how you interact with your customers and stakeholders.

How can you be a disruptor?

  • Know and build a meaningful relationship with your customer;
  • Accept the blurred lines between product and service;
  • Adopt an ecosystem approach to delivering products and services;
  • Taking a long-term view of success with short term milestones;
  • Be willing to make mistakes and change course;
  • Be prepared to partner and make clear and timely decisions;
  • Build an agile, multi-disciplinary team capable of moving fast;
  • Use data to deliver insights and inform decisions but don’t be a “data-slave”;
  • Stay authentic and relevant in an increasing connected and fragmented world.

The next question is whether or not businesses of today will choose to adapt to this new world or die a slow death by a thousand digital cuts. 

Vishy Narayanan 

Global Digital Transformation Executive


Read next: Swinburne University’s Beth Webster, Mitchell Adams and Stephen Petrie track the impact of digital disruption on industries that were once considered impervious to technological takeover.

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More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Women in STEM Thought Leadership Series here.

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