This quarter I decided, instead of giving you my thoughts, to excerpt a very interesting article written by Shoshana Zuboff of McKinsey Quarterly:
As mass consumption gives way to the wants of individuals, a historic transition in capitalism is unfolding.
Capitalism is a book of many chapters—and we are beginning a new one. Every century or so, fundamental changes in the nature of consumption create new demand patterns that existing enterprises can’t meet. When a majority of people want things that remain priced at a premium under the old institutional regime—a condition I call the “premium puzzle”—the ground becomes extremely fertile for wholly new classes of competitors that can fulfill the new demands at an affordable price. A premium puzzle existed in the auto industry before Henry Ford and the Model T and in the music industry before Steve Jobs and the iPod.
The consumption shift in Ford’s time was from the elite to the masses; today, we are moving from an era of mass consumption to one focused on the individual. Sharp increases in higher education, standards of living, social complexity, and longevity over the past century gave rise to a new desire for individual self-determination: having control over what matters, having one’s voice heard, and having social connections on one’s own terms. The leading edge of consumption is now moving from products and services to tools and relationships enabled by interactive technologies. Amazon.com, Apple, eBay, and YouTube are familiar examples of companies solving today’s premium puzzle. Lesser-known companies like CellBazaar (in emerging-market mobile commerce), TutorVista (in tutoring), and Livemocha (in language education) also abound.
It would be easy to construe these as isolated cases of innovation and industry change, but I believe they represent much more: a mutation in capitalism itself. What’s the difference? Innovations improve the framework in which enterprises produce and deliver goods and services. Mutations create new frameworks; they are not simply new technologies, though they do leverage technologies to do new things. Historically, mutations have superseded innovations when fundamental shifts in what people want require a new approach to enterprise: new purposes, new methods, new outcomes.
In the same way that mass production moved the locus of industry from small shops to huge factories, today’s mutations have the potential to shift us away from business models based on economies of scale, asset intensification, concentration, and central control. That’s not to say factories are going away; their role in supplying quality, low-cost goods, including the technologies underpinning the shift to more individualized consumption, is secure. Yet even mass production is becoming less homogenous (consider the ability to order custom sneakers from Nike). And for many goods and services, new business frameworks are emerging: federations of enterprises—from a variety of sectors—that share collaborative values and goals are increasingly capable of distributing valued assets directly to individuals, enabling them to determine exactly what they will consume, as well as when and how. This shift not only changes the basis of competition for companies but also blurs—and even removes—the boundaries between entire industries, along with those that have existed between producers and consumers. The music and newspaper industries ignored this shift, to their great detriment. I believe all businesses will have to find ways to adapt to this new world if they want to grow.
The economist Joseph Schumpeter cautioned his readers not to expect new forms of economic development to announce themselves with a grand flourish. “The ‘new thing,’” he wrote, “need not be Bessemer steel or the explosion motor. It can be the Deerfoot sausage.” My hope is that this article will help executives see the links between today’s “Deerfoot sausages,” recognize the magnitude of the economic transition these mutations portend, and begin setting—or at least contemplating—a new course in this changing world.
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