The new competitive advantage: There’s an app for that

There seems to be this new genre of media out there meant to scare the crap out of you.  The techno music starts to pulse and then these animated slides whiz these amazing facts at you like “Did you you know that the average worker now spends 26 hours a day on Facebook?” <next slide> “And that rate is growing at a rate of 1,120%” <next slide> PER MONTH??”

These “scare slides” are meant to impress you with social media’s omnipotence and power. Through the pounding music they want you to think that change is coming at you so fast that you might as well just call it a day … unless you buy their consulting services.

I don’t know where they come up with these facts, but here’s one that caught my attention: “For a college freshman, half of what they have learned will be obsolete by their junior year.”

While that “fact” seems improbable, it did make think about the accelerating rate of change and the impact on indivudals as we try to remain effective leaders.

A hypothesis:  Personal “technological adaptability” is going to be an increasingly important life skill.

Here’s what  I mean.  The rate of technological change is occurring so fast that an ability to quickly assess, process and deploy new apps will be a source of competitive advantage not only for companies, but for individuals.

Let’s say we had two employees, equally educated and experienced. Both are given a task. Employee One begins the task, as assigned by the boss. Employee Two first assesses free tools on the web that can sort, organize and automate that task.  Ultimately that employee will provide a better, faster and cheaper result for the company. And get a promotion!

Even two years ago this would not have been an issue. Both employees would basically have access to the same company-issued and approved technology — Excel, Access, Word, etc.  But now, for almost any work task, somewhere, there’s “an app for that.”  The ability to find and apply these free and useful ideas will become an increasingly critical skill.

So what does this mean for me and you?   How do we keep our edge at this incredible rate of change?   Where do we find the time to do explore and learn new applications?  How do companies enable this skill in employees?

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  • This is definitely an increasing challenge. I just got back from a 1.5 hour meeting and I have tons to catch up on. I watch rebroadcasts of presentations during lunch, listen to podcasts during my commute for work, add interesting articles to delicious to read when I get home. We often chat over breakfast and spend nights out at the bar on the weekends just catching up on what happened this week. Our iphones certainly get a workout!

    For me, one of the best ways to give myself an edge is to surround myself with smart people. I have a friend that I turn to when I want to know about the latest mobile trend, and a colleague that knows CPG inside and out, and another that keeps up with PR, etc. And hopefully, I fill in some of the technology gaps for them too. It’s my ecosystem of colleagues and friends that gives me my edge.

  • Mark

    @ Jody I’m impressed with your strategy and jealous of your learning eco-system. Seems like you are all set for the learning economy.

  • @Mark – hardly! I still get distracted by client fires, biz dev endeavors, PR emergencies, family commitments, and, you know, attempting to enjoy life a bit as well 😉

  • Mark, this topic has really piqued my interest. Thanks for advancing it.

    I find “use case” is the best determinant to understanding whether its a skill that’s relevant.

    It’s a difficult reference point to digest for iPhone afficionado’s because it almost always leads to the criticism of Apple’s business scheme, and the way it chains you to them and a badly overpriced lifestyle and image.

    But what about the time dump factor? All the time being spent towards downloading, tinkering with apps and very little opportunity to actually “use” what you’ve learned in a business case setting.

    But this is really nothing new from the kind of tinkering I did learning 3D software development, every graphic design application known to man, Web dev/coding/programming skills, and a mish-mash of IT/network related knowledge and expertise.

    Have I been able to apply everything I’ve learned? Yes and no, but if I had to tease out some value from the mind-stretching learning that came from it all, it’s probably best reflected through intangible skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and an ability to understand quirks in a hardware/software environment that can’t always be properly documented in knowledge bases or training manuals.

    But the business “use” and time aspects are where a lack of focus or direction in learning can begin to unravel at the seams. No IT department worth their salt would allow any employee to disrupt the network ecosystem by installing applications at whim. Putting budgetary considerations aside for a moment, making a business case for applications not part of a standard configuration are a tough sell.

    Today, I don’t have anywhere near the time I did when I was eager to learn about software, but had I applied a “use case” to every decision, I might have chosen to learn some things which at the time seemed less cool and fun.

    The lesson here would be to make it fun, but at the same time, keep it practical and real.


  • Mark

    @ Joseph – your bring up a couple of excellent points (as usual!)

    First, the tinkering you did was part of yrou job — you had to know the technology because you’re a technologist. What I’m suggesting (and this is new) everybody has to be a technolowill have to be a technologist to do nearly any job.

    The other excellent point is about the IT dept and the firewall. I thought about addressing this too but it would have made the post too long. Some compromise will have to be allowed somewhere because companies (and individuals) that can rapidly absorb and deploy new apps will have an advatage.

    I am working with a client now who has a theory that you could successfully run a small business on free apps and crowd-sourced processes and content. A new competitive model!

  • @Mark,

    That is certainly an enthusiasm you don’t want to quell because I think it is possible if approached correctly.

    You know my position on “free” tools – but for your readers, generally there is always a cost in time and productivity.

    It isn’t always slam dunk on fiscal responsibility because the person writing/signing the cheques needs to be made aware of all available options, and this might mean deeming “free” as a credible approach in the face of staff needing twice the time to carry out a task that could be performed more cost effectively using a paid service or tool.

    The cost that’s most often overlooked is the inherent risk with opening up “free” software use among staff. Some of the ones that make corporate/IT most nervous happens in the form of leaks, proprietary disclosure, information walking out the door via Google Docs, or worse a customer/leads list ending up in the hands of a competitor.

    At the risk of sounding “too cautious”, these are real costs and internal risks which should not be overlooked, and ought to be tacked onto the human capital column along with all the proper safeguards to avert malicious intent and carelessness.


  • I’m always amazed at how much a little searching on the web can reveal–and how often people fail to do that. Part of the skill is the sleuthing…

  • Mark

    @Neicole Another important life skill!

    @Joseph Well said.

  • Well, you know my position on “Free” and it couldn’t be better defined than Joseph’s comments. The only thing I want to add is that you most certainly can run a small business using “Freeware” (heck, I do!). And, there are lots of “Free” tools that can also be used in the enterprise for specific projects. BUT if you are going to use them for decisions, you better be really sure they are tested out for accuracy, completeness and relevance. A quick decision based on freeware could be a lot more expensive than waiting for the results of corporately proven techniques.

    It is also very important to differentiate between “small business” and the corporate sector when having discussions like this. The small guy has nowhere near the fiduciary responsibility the corporate sector has. Small business can shift directions on a dime if they’ve made a mistake, big business cannot.

    I guess the net of this is to remember that there is a lot more to the decision process than just the tool itself. In fact the “tool” can be the least expensive part by far.

  • Great read, and great comments,everyone!!


  • Another interesting question and conversation, {grow} style.

    In my perfect world, we would be magically freed from the need to waste personal and business resources chasing the rainbow of perpetual obsolescence.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love me a good app as much as the next guy; but if I were to add up all the time I’ve spent researching, installing, and learning new software, widgets, apps, and various Web-based tools I’d probably want to cry.

    I think part of the battle is knowing when to put these tools to use, and when to set them aside in favor of some good old-fashioned brain power and elbow grease. At a certain point, many of these “tools” mutate into time-wasters. Mucking about with new apps is a great procrastination tool.

    Ultimately, it’s better to focus on the ideas first and apply the tools later and only after careful consideration to ensure that they will actually provide value.

  • I agree that the ability to quickly find and use free apps is a critical skill. However, this skill is no different today than it was two years ago, 20 years ago, or 200 years ago. It’s the ability to think outside the box. To take the tools at hand and use them creatively.

    To use your example of Excel. The same two employees had this tool. One employee kept repeating the same mouse clicks over and over for 6 hours. Another employee repeated the same mouse clicks for an hour, spent an hour writing a macro, and an hour running the macro. Both employees produced the same result, but one is heads and shoulder above the other.

    How do companies enable this skill? Education and training. Lifelong learning.

  • Mark

    @Mike Very interesting perspective — that this is a variation on a theme. I do think there is one important difference however. A few hundred years ago, the idea of technological change was non-existent. People lived off the land, rode horses for transportation, and wrote letters if they were literate — as they had done for centuries. There was no pressure to keep up with any type of change whatsoever because there was very little happening.

    The ability to process change is a modern challenge that can literally make or break a government, an industry, a company, and now I propose, the competitiveness of an individual. I think this is more than being resourceful or clever, although as you rightly point out, that is part of it, and always has been.

    Really great thinking Mike! Thanks!

  • Mark

    @Steve Superb points, well said!

    @Prince Loved Purple Rain. Thank you for your support and kind words!

  • Mark

    @ Jamie “I love me a good a app” — Sounds like a great blog post for you! : )

    I think your sentiments here sum this up far better than my own! Knowing when to research, how to research, how to apply, and when to stop — that’s a critical skill for the learning economy. Thank you for writing my post better than me — as usual!!

  • Interesting subject. While Apple touts something like 100,000 apps, BlackBerry talks about maybe 2,000. I can’t even image having the time to check out 100,000 apps nor finding that many are actually relevant. Meanwhile, as Apple attempts to take the high ground with the MOST apps, Verizon Wireless, quitely repositioned Apple’s lead in the app race changing the debate to 3G coverage maps — citing “there’s a map for that” in a dead on brilliant marketing campaign based on true competitive advantage.

  • Mark

    @Mark Good point. I’m not sure overwhelming content is a viable strategy. : )

  • I don’t know about you Mark, but I get excited when I read something like this. And even though this is an old post, it’s evergreen in terms of relevance.

    “For a college freshman, half of what they have learned will be obsolete by their junior year.” That sums up nicely why (or one of the reasons why) I don’t really feel like going to college haha.

    Instead of memorizing old stale facts for a test, it seems like now the standard is the capability of working hard *and* smart. Funny how many people fail to either work hard or work smart. That just means better chances for the rest of us, right?

    Oh, and I’ve got tons of cool apps on my iPod. 🙂

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