As an author, analyst and futurist who has worked in the tech industry since before technology was consumerized, Brian Solis knows a thing or two about emerging technology and digital disruption.
He began his career working as a database architect, before moving to Silicon Valley with the aim of getting a job in technology. Despite not having a background in marketing, he took a role with a marketing agency advising technology companies on how to reach consumers, which gave him a front row seat to the evolution of technology both from a business and from a consumer perspective.
“I grew up in a time when the world was gaining access to personal technology,” Solis says of what attracted him to working in the technology industry. “I was an early adopter, if you will – I always have been. I started by punching in Fortran cards, and eventually learned basic programming on things like a Timex Sinclair or a Commodore VIC-20, and have embraced computers ever since.
“But where that passion translated into work, and where that work really started to gain traction, was not just about in talking about new technology, it was talking about its applications. That work then eventually translated into humanizing technology – and I started to connect the dots between technology and human behavior, how it was going to change the way we work and live and discover and share things. That’s when I started to develop a sense of urgency around how much people were changing, and how much change still lay ahead.”
This understanding of how technology impacts the lives and work of ordinary people has been at the core of Solis’ professional career. He considers himself to be a digital anthropologist, and believes that social science is important to the future of business – and nowhere more so than in the context of digital transformation.
“If we’re making decisions about technology, about investments and about the future of business, we need to understand the whole story. Technology is just part of the equation. Mostly it’s a story of personal transformation: it’s about understanding how the world is changing and what to do about it.”
The accidental marketing celebrity
In spite of his status as a near-legendary figure in the marketing community, Brian Solis considers himself to be more of a technologist than a marketer.
“I was never a classical marketer,” he says. “I was always a technology person – if you’d told me when I started that this would be my career path, I would have laughed it off! Which is funny considering that as a budding futurist, I should have foreseen it.”
He jokes, as the notion that futurists are able to predict the future is a misconception – in reality, they track trends and hypothesize possible future scenarios in specific contexts.
Not having a “classical” marketing background didn’t stop Solis, as a marketing advisor to technology companies in the 90s, from devising revolutionary new ways for technology brands to reach consumers using the very products that they developed.
“I started to experiment with how these technology companies could reach their markets using their new technologies – bypassing traditional intermediaries, and going through digital to reach their audience. I was inventing as I went, and I ended up inventing a lot of original – for the time – strategies that inspired a lot of other would-be digital marketers.
“Then, in 1999, I opened up a company dedicated to digital-first marketing for technology companies. Since a lot of that was being created as we went along, I wound up writing a lot about it, sharing all of my thoughts. In the process, I discovered that there were others out there like me, and that created a whole digital community.
“A lot of my work gained notoriety, and created a name for me, and it wound up putting me on a platform that just kept growing. Over time, I realized that this was powerful, this was the future, and that this was only going to continue to evolve.”
Books, research and bigger and bolder projects followed on the heels of this success, and Solis began working with major brands and major names in the marketing community. This led him to a crucial realization about the impact of technology on people’s daily lives, and how his work could change the future of business.
“One day I realized that we had the potential to change everything about the way businesses operate. Consumers, customers, employees were all gaining access to these technologies, and it was changing their mindsets, it was changing their behaviors. I realized that my life’s work was going to be to take those insights up to the executive level and try to get companies to modernize from the top down, and embrace new ways of operating and working.”
How mobile has reshaped the world
Solis’ long history with digital technology gives him a keen insight into the way that it can impact not just businesses, but society as a whole.
He believes that the rise of mobile rivals the dawn of the internet for disruptive impact, and that it has actually had a greater effect on our behavior. Therefore, in order for businesses to survive in the new mobile era, they have to understand the extent to which mobile has reshaped society, and adapt their business models accordingly.
“When we gained access to the internet, we became more connected; things were rather different as a result of having online access. But now, with completely pervasive online access – with social networks, with apps that bring you cars when you need them – these things have completely transformed humanity. Everything from preferences, behaviors, values, belief systems – we are literally watching people reprogram their brains as they use their mobile devices.
“The impact of this on the market is still taking shape. For example, over the last several years we’ve watched the rise of what Google calls ‘micro-moments’: those moments of search intent that arise when people are out and about. Google and I have done a lot of research into this, and we’ve partnered together in spreading the word to companies about how mobile has single-handedly changed the way people make decisions.
“Google’s business model itself has had to evolve with the times. So they’ve been trying to reach out to brands and say, ‘If we, Google, have to change because of how users are changing, so must you, and here’s what to do.’
“As for the emerging technologies I’m interested in watching the rise of going forward: augmented reality is going to be very interesting as it further blurs and transcends mobile’s effect in our world. I’m paying attention to artificial intelligence as well, and the same with autonomous technology like self-driving cars.”
In the midst of so much change, what is the secret to businesses being able to adapt and survive? Each of our digital leaders has had a different perspective on the answer to this question, from adapting at speed to being willing to take risks. For Brian Solis, the answer lies in understanding the human side of the story.
Digital Darwinism: Survival of the fittest
Solis has written a fair amount on ‘Digital Darwinism’, a concept which, in his words, encompasses “the evolution of technology and society”. At base, Digital Darwinism is just another way of framing digital disruption, but with a narrative that focuses more on evolution and on how businesses can change with the times.
“Like any form of change, you have to first accept that something’s happening,” he says. “The main thing is to understand what is happening, and to understand where you are in the cycle of change. Most of the time, organizations don’t see it – it’s like the old parable of the frog in the boiling water.
“This change doesn’t happen overnight; it’s happening every single day that you go to work, while you’re operating on principles and paradigms that are all rooted in the past. And all the while, the world is changing while you’re operating in this regard. This is why you see what appears to be sudden – but it’s long in the making – disruption in almost every industry.
“Pick an industry, and it’s being disrupted, but it’s all because of everything we’ve talked about: people changed. Businesses didn’t.”
Are there any industries which are exempt from digital disruption, or is it an inevitability regardless of industry? “It’s an old economic phenomenon. In the early 30s, economists called it ‘creative destruction’: what’s new replaces what’s old. We see it time and time again; we just have different words for it now.”
Solis highlights that the businesses who have been most successful are the ones that prioritize customer experience as a focal point for digital transformation. But while a lot of businesses understand the importance of the customer experience in theory, they fail to practice what they preach.
“According to my 2017 State of Digital Transformation report, only 35% of those businesses who prioritize customer experience have studied the customer journey, to see what’s broken and where the opportunities are. If all of these companies are investing in customer experience, but only 35% of them know why, then you have a big problem.
“This is why I believe that social science is so important to the future of business. Every organization wants to be ‘customer-centric’. But how do you define that? So many businesses define being customer-centric in a way that barely talks about the customer: they talk about investments in CRM technologies, in platforms that integrate channels, in personalization.
“You can only be customer-centric if you’re looking at the human beings on the other side of the screen, on the other side of your policies and processes and systems. And when you point that out to people, they often start to realize that they’ve been looking at digital transformation the wrong way.”
As a futurist and digital anthropologist, Solis is acutely aware of both the positive and negative potential of emerging technologies. He admits that there are times when he is more apprehensive than excited about the future of technology.
“There’s really nobody out there steering parents, teachers and children on how to best use these technologies in ways that are not only productive but complimentary and inspiring to others. We’re sort of learning as we go, but they’re having a tremendous impact along the way.
“While I’m excited by all of the cool tech that lies ahead, I’m also passionate about navigating technology in ways that don’t steer things to the dark side.”