Who is your competitor?

Some time back, there was a popular article floating in the Web about the evolving nature of the competition by an IIM Bangalore professor. The article threw up hitherto noticed paradoxes in today’s business. Here are some of the snippets.

 Who sells the largest number of cameras in India?
Your guess is likely to be Sony, Canon or Nikon. The answer is: None of the above. The winner is Nokia, whose main line of business in India is not cameras but cellphones.

 Who runs the biggest music business in India?
The answer is Airtel. By selling caller tunes Airtel earns more than music companies do by selling albums.

The article succinctly brought about the dynamic nature of the competition, whereby the definition of business is recycled everyday with the advent of new incumbents tryling to topple David of their times. 

The article however left me asking for more .By the time I finished reading the article, I felt it threw up Zen Koans of business, without resorting to enlighten the readers from the paradox. For the uninitated, Zen koans are perfectly designed riddles by Zen Buddhists to make their disciples aware of the limitation of logic and reasoning. Here is one famous Zen Koan referenced in one of my favorite books, The Tao of Physics, You can make the sound of two hands clapping. Now what is the sound of one hand?

While I am typing this, I am reminded of another business Koan, written by Clayton Christensen in his famous book, Innovator’s dilemma, while he talks about disruptive innovations that were ignored for sound, rational reasons.
It would be foolish to assume that these paradoxes can be resolved by thinking and analysis.  The right answer is discovered when the disciple transcends the realm of intellect, wherein the koan ceases to be paradoxical and becomes a profound meaningful statement.  

One might argue that we could look at this strictly through marketing lens where the product’s definition undergoes a radical change to include not just the equipment but also the main value accrued to the consumer through the equipment. This would help us understand why Nokia started Music Store last year. However, this isn’t everything. There is more to it than it seems. This definition-shift simply skims through the surface of change while ignoring the seething cauldron happening at the dynamic marketplace.

While I was seeking to find the solution to this koan pointed by the IIM profesor, I stumbled upon few interesting facets of Greek Mythology. I was introduced to the famous The Ships of Theseus paradox. According to Greek legends, Theseus was a famous sailor who had a ship. The ship was well known and had 30 oars. When Theseus died, the ship was put up for public display. Over the years as the various planks and boards rotted out, the local caretakers would replace them with new, matching boards.
Over time, of course, ALL of the planks had rotted at one time or another, and had been replaced. So nothing remained of the actual "original" ship - and yet the ship was still called Theseus' ship and considered to be the authentic original.

A sudden Aha! moment occured. It suddenly dawned upon me that the answer to the “Who is your competitor” business koan can be resolved through this paradox. Only a paradox could provide the key to unravel the mystery behind another paradox. I am digressing too much into philosophy. Let me come back to business.

“Who is your competitor” is closely similar to Ships of Theseus paradox as in both these cases the nature of identity is examined. The nature of identity plays a vital role here as the product it manufactures and the business it proclams to be defines its identity. This premise however undergoes drastic change when technology enters this paradox as major protagonist. Note all the examples that were pointed in the article pertain to technology.  While mankind’s tryst with technology started several aeons ago, it has always been an instrument which sought to simplify things. It had relegated itself to increasing the productivity of humans until the early 90s brought about a change of lifestyle with digital revolution, conceived from the womb of networked computing. As businesses are becoming more networked today, technology is evolving to become a platform with no defined boundary. It is now a facilitator enabling diverse components to interface together. While the previous generation technology defined what you could do, today it leaves it to the consumer to figure it out from the plethora of possibilities it offers. Imagine business offerings like a kaleidoscope where solution providers have to simply offer tube of mirrors, containing beads and pebbles. The consumer is free to choose various patterns from the bewildering array of colours. The surging popularity of Apps Market in Smart phones can be very well appreciated when we understand this perspective.

Although the individual oars of the ship were changed to suit the caretakers, they would still call it Theseus ship. It is essential for companies to understand this inclusive nature of identity in this technological age as it has strong implications in their positioning and communication strategies. As we move towards the Convergence Era of the future, where technology becomes the invisible enabler of things, offering the consumer with a bewildering choice of possibilities to play with, companies will have no choice but to grapple with the delicate paradox of maintaining their identity as one single organism, while they remain omnipresent invisibly.

What does all this mean to competition of business?

Competition has no choice to evolve towards co-opetition where businesses have to form synergy with their rivals through integrating the value accumulated at specific node of the networks while competing with them at different nodes. This also offers infinite possibilities for the astute entrepreneur who is able to connect the various nodes available and deliver value to the customer.Recent news about Airtel’s talks with Vodafone showcase these winds of change. These enmeshed relationships could throw great challenges in monetising for the services that are offered through networks and building sustained loyalty for the brands which offer such services. There are also various challenges in maintaining these relationships as it could go awry when the times are bad.

Gone are the days when companies cynically looked at their rivals by closely monitoring every bit of their moves. Managers need to break the chains of their competitive thinking, conditioned from the recesses of the past century, and have a holistic, panaromic view of businesses to succeed in the future.