Thanks to the iPad, more executives are embracing digital disruption

Of the many things Apple can justly take credit for making common–smartphones, touch screens, black turtlenecks–I’d like to add one to the list that you don’t hear about much. Thanks to Apple, there are thousands of chief executives and other c-level executives around the world who finally “get it”.

Two weeks ago I met with the head of a large division of a major Japanese consumer electronics maker. It was a perfunctory meeting arranged by his new-product innovation team. It had been a long day and his company is not in exactly the strongest financial position so I didn’t know what to expect. Despite the challenges facing his own product line, his energy was high, his zeal barely restrained as he described how his own behavior had changed in the past year. He described for me how amazing his own personal media experience was now that digital devices and services had dramatically altered his media options. He told it to me like he was doing me a favor – describing the industry I cover as if it was all new to me.

I didn’t correct him. My job in meetings like this is to persuade the highest-level executive that the future is about to be digitally disrupted and that he or she should invest significantly in creating new product experiences that will satisfy consumers. Until recently it was a tough job because, let’s face it, senior executives are not always in touch with the needs of the average consumer.

iPadBut this executive was a believer. His own experience with digital disruption had made him a believer not only in his own improved life but in the potential for digital disruption to improve the lives of his customers. This experience was an outlier, but only in intensity, not kind. More and more, I walk into meetings with executives to find that they’re already convinced that digital disruption is happening. They just need help to formulate a response.

It wasn’t always that way. In the late 90s, while trying to prepare companies for the coming impact of the internet, I met with c-level executives at companies ranging from automakers to retailers to insurance companies. Yes, they all agreed the internet was going to matter. They were even willing to create a web team dedicated to solving that problem. Did they shop online themselves? Not really. Sure, they had seen competitor websites, they had tinkered around with eBay, and of course they had personally signed off on their own corporate Web initiatives. But they weren’t converts in the true sense, they weren’t spending increasing amounts of their own money online, they would take years to learn how to send text messages, and – embarrassingly – many of them had their daily emails printed out and placed on their desks by their personal assistants.

When Google came along, these were the executives who were perplexed that it didn’t look like Yahoo – what was meant by all the white space? When Napster arrived, they only saw the greedy hand of thieving users at work. And later, when MySpace and then Facebook caught on, they wrote all of that off to youth culture and assumed younger brands would deal with that social thing.

I can mark the year that this all changed. It was in 2010, the year Apple debuted the iPad. In April the devices were shipping, by the end of the year more than ten million tablets were in use in the United States alone. Developers were energized, customers were thrilled, and Apple continued to appreciate in value. But a more significant shift occurred behind the imposing doors of corner offices around the world. For the first time, executives not only bought this new device, they bought into it. They became true believers.

Suddenly, c-level executives in all kinds of industries were afire with possibilities. Much has been made of the videos on YouTube showing two-year-olds playing with tablets as if they were born knowing how to pinch and squeeze. But maybe a better video would be the one that shows executives in the c-suite experiencing a similarly rapid embrace of the iPad. Both types of videos teach us a lot about the future.

In a day-long workshop with fifty employees of a major publisher just a few weeks back, I got the same question I used to get in the late 90s. “How do we persuade upper management that we need to invest in digital disruption?” I smiled, gestured across the room to the four members of the five-member c-team that were present in the room – the same people who had organized the workshop – and said, “I think they’re already on board.” Which I followed with the observation that thanks to the iPad, more and more executives I meet now accept digital disruption as an imminent reality and want to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

As if to underscore my point, the chief marketing officer raised two of the four devices she had with her – a tablet and a phone. There was no need for her to explain further.

Photo courtesy of David McKelvey via a Creative Commons license.