And the Band Played On: What the Titanic Can Tell Us About the Current State of Business

See how the “Digital Trinity” is changing how we interact with the world and what we expect from it.

On a chilly April 15, over one hundred years ago, what was then a world-wonder began its final journey into true icon status.  On that day, in 1912 the HMS Titanic met her fate on her maiden and final voyage; the victim of hubris, greed, executive ambition, marketing hype and a dramatic absence of real-time intelligence.

After its rather rude reception by the ice floes of the North Atlantic, the Titanic began its slow plunge into the deep. As it did so, many officers, crew and passengers remained relatively nonplussed; at least at the start. After all, according to White Star Line, the owners of Titanic, she was unsinkable. She was the pinnacle of early 20th century technology; the best engineering then-available. She was designed by the best naval architects, built by the best engineers, operated by the best crew. Nevertheless, that evening she slowly sank into the North Atlantic, with most aboard disbelieving the facts all around them.

As if to punctuate the denial of the rank and file on board, the ship’s band, led by Wallace Hartley, assembled on the deck of the Titanic and began to play, ostensibly to calm the nerves of the First Class passengers as they boarded their life boats; merely as a precaution mind you.

Not long after, it became clear to all aboard that Titanic was going down, regardless of the prior boasts of White Star’s executives. Survivors of the sinking generally agree that the last song the band played was, prophetically, “Nearer My God to Thee.”

None of the eight members of the band survived. Nor did the captain, the ship’s architect and roughly seventy percent of her crew. As-built, Titanic had lifeboats sufficient for only half of her passengers, as her designers felt that more lifeboats would block the view of the ocean, and were unnecessary given her invincibility.

Despite warnings of icebergs in the immediate area, Titanic drove across the Atlantic at top speed; White Star management and Titanic’s captain wished to set a new cross-ocean speed record on her maiden voyage and would not accept failure at any cost.

Hubris, Incorporated

As a human, I am sadden by the story of Titanic, as it truly is a tragedy. As a business writer, I love the story of Titanic, as most people are aware of it and I can get a lot of mileage out of the story. Amongst the themes that resonate most is the sense of invulnerability in all of the characters involved. From White Star Management, to the designers and engineers, the captain and crew, even the passengers and the news media, everyone believed that Titanic was indeed invulnerable; too big to be damaged, too well designed to be compromised, above the rules of the environment around her, unsinkable. As stories of the consequences of hubris go, Titanic is a whopper.

The Digital Trinity

I frequently see similar hubris amongst contemporary organizational leaders in the face of our newest technical leaps: Social Media, Mobility and Data Analytics. I call these the “Digital Trinity,” and they are disruptive, persuasive and pervasive. When discussing the Trinity with leaders of larger organizations the responses range from, “Social Media is for teenage kids wasting time,” to “Mobility isn’t real business.” Occasionally I hear, “Big Data is just hype,” and then there’s my favorite, “I don’t need data to tell me how to run my business.”

Time and again, I hear business and political leaders questioning the facts that surround them, while they continue to operate the same old way, playing the same old songs.

Nearer My God to Thee.

Big Data and Disruption

As an engineer, I can appreciate the technical side of Big Data. After all, it is Big and sexy and popular and relevant; things not normally associated with engineers. However, Big Data isn’t about technology. Rather, it’s about sociology. It’s not about bits and bytes; it’s about behavior. In Information Technology (IT), we have a new technology wave every ten years or so. We’re used to change. But this time it’s different. Unlike prior technology waves in IT (think mainframe, Client Server, Internet, etc.) Big Data is intimate, immediate, and invasive. It’s right there on our hip or in our bag 24/7. And we dig it.

The Digital Trinity is literally touching every aspect of our lives, every single day. It is changing how we interact with the world, and what we expect from it. I’ve worked to characterize what these changes are, and I’ve identified six main impacts that the Trinity is having upon us and our world.

These are:

  1. Quality
  2. Ubiquity
  3. Immediacy
  4. Disengagement
  5. Intimacy
  6. Purpose

Let’s view these in turn, and see how the Trinity may prove to be the iceberg to your Titanic.

1.    Quality

After half a century of constant incremental improvement, customers now simply expect perfection. With everything we consume we expect our needs to be met first time, every time. There are no excuses for missing the mark, and in a world where switching costs have fallen to zero, there is no reason not to jump ship the second a vendor misses your expectation. Indeed, that’s what most of us now do. In a world where there are now apps that automate switching between apps (from one bank to another, one insurance carrier to another, one doctor to another) you better be perfect 100% of the time. If not, I’m gone, and I’m never coming back.

“The power of the trinity means that people can now expect everything, everywhere, all of the time.”

2.    Ubiquity

The power of the Trinity means that people can now expect everything, everywhere, all of the time. In fact, the more irrational the expectation, the worse this effect becomes. If you want a cronut at 3am in midtown Manhattan, someone will deliver it to you; then you and your Facebook friends are ruined for anything less. Through just-in-time-lean-six-sigma-supply-chain-optimization we have now made a world where just about everything is available just about everywhere; as if this were a good thing.
Time will tell.

3.    Immediacy

If you look to your own use of your own smartphone, you may have noticed a disturbing trend; you lose your patience really, really quickly. In fact, you may not even be willing to finish this sent…

The Digital Trinity is all about delivering instant gratification. I call this “appification,” and we’re all appified. In an appified world you have 30 seconds or less, and $.99 or less, to solve my problem, otherwise I’ll just move on. As a result of this behavior, just-in-time, isn’t. Indeed, most of us have become so appified that we now expect prediction; hence the explosion of interest in predictive analytics.

Once a customer has experienced something that they wanted magically appearing in their life before they even knew they wanted it, potentially by drone, they’ve crossed a threshold that they will never re-cross. It will be like moving from Steerage to the Queen’s Grill on the Titanic, and the feather bed of predictive fulfilment is too comfortable to give up.

4.    Disengagement

Of the six forces presented, Disengagement should be the most worrisome to all organizations. Because of the prior three forces, we as consumers care only about the ends that we seek, the means are irrelevant to us. I don’t care how hard, complicated, expensive or impossible it is to give me things perfectly, ubiquitously and immediately, just do it. For better or for worse the Digital Trinity disconnects all of us from the value chains that deliver what we want. We are disengaged from capital, organizations, processes, procedures and politics. We simply want what we want, and we don’t really care how irrational those expectations are.

The challenge of this disengagement, is that you and your organization must rise to this challenge. And you’re not competing only with other similar companies in your little market segment; you’re competing with ANY and EVERY organization that makes an app. All of them. Because I’m disengaged, the awesome experience I receive from a local florist who just made a new, innovative app for $5,000 is the same experience I expect from my Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net Bank (nod to Homer Simpson). And I don’t care if delivering that same experience costs said bank $100 million and might technically be illegal in their industry. How’s THAT for disruption?

5.    Intimacy

If there’s a dark side to the Digital Trinity, and there always is, it is that all of this disconnectedness leaves us hungering to feel connected and part of a community. Why else would we re-friend old high school buddies on Facebook who, honestly, we really didn’t like when we were in high school? When our material wants and needs are so readily fulfilled we hunger for something more, and the next few steps up Maslov’s hierarchy of needs are all about feeling connected. Instant gratification is great, but I want to be understood, and I’d like a hug every now and then.

There’s no app for that hug…or is there? As we collect ever-more data and develop ever-smarter mathematics, we are fast moving from predictive analytics to persuasive analytics. Indeed, we’ve reached the point where we can implant memories in peoples’ heads, and they stick. Such is the state of our world. That being said, if you are collecting tons of data on my behavior, wants and needs, you better be acting on it. And acting on it means showing me that you understand me intimately. If this sounds creepy, you’re starting to get where we are these days. I call it the creepy-intimacy continuum, brought to you daily by the Digital Trinity.

If you want to stay relevant to me as a customer you better be dancing on the hairy-edge of my creepy-intimacy line. Otherwise, I’m moving on to someone whose band is playing a better love song.

6.   Purpose

Finally, disruptive force six is our need for purpose. This is one of the highest levels of Maslov’s hierarchy of needs and is a deeply personal, deeply human need in all of us. People crave a sense of purpose, particularly in a world where we aren’t running from lions or bears, we’ll be running from drones trying to deliver gadgets to us predictively. As a business person in the 21st Century, your mission, and you MUST accept it, is to figure out how to use the Digital Trinity to help me feel engaged and to help me find a purpose to my life.

If you can help me figure this out, I might very well give you my first born, or at least my second born for sure. In all seriousness, aligning your business strategy, vision and purpose with mine will be the definition of customer engagement in the coming decade; or you can simply continue engaging in a commoditization pricing death-spiral as the band plays on. Nearer My Drone to Thee.

Reverse Your Rudder

This all may sound a bit scary. You and your band know your instruments and you know them well. Your flutes play as one, your oboe reeds are just moist enough, your first chair violin sounds oh so sweet. Likewise, you all know your music by heart and you play it WITH heart, too. You’ve been doing what you do for a very long time and you’re likely very good at it.

This is all good and well. But, you must ask yourself if perhaps the Digital Trinity is creating a sea of icebergs all around your ship and while your band plays on your stage is sinking beneath you. The changes described above are not some abstract view of the world; look at your own behavior with your own smartphone. In all likelihood you recognize in yourself the six forces described above. And that, more than some abstract and novel idea out there on the horizon, is the reason the world is changing around you. YOU are creating these changes, and you must respond to them while there is still time.

Your boat is listing. Right now, it seems minor; an annoyance. It’s difficult to keep your sheet music on the stand, and the audience is milling about, heading for the lifeboats while you play. However, sooner rather than later that list will become a slope, and that slope will become a plunge. And in the end, the Digital Trinity may drag your organization Nearer My God to Thee than you ever intended.

Contact HP if you’d like assistance in making a course-correction in your use of Big Data and the Digital Trinity, while there is still time to turn the rudder.



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