People as old as me can remember when the internet arrived and when companies created their first websites. Very quickly, it became obvious that some big companies could sell their stuff directly to end customers by electronic commerce, because websites could be developed to become online self-service machines. Orders could be taken, products could be configured and in some cases even parts of the delivery could be completed over the internet. It was true for airline tickets, hotel rooms, car insurance and a raft of other things. This process of applying this new ability to sell directly and cut out the middleman was called disintermediation by the management thinkers of those early e-business days. Traditional travel agents and insurance brokers lost out, sometimes badly. However, in many industries what quickly happened is that price comparison websites grew up to compare and contrast all of those producers who wanted to go direct to the end customer. New online intermediaries such as Orbitz,com and Moneysupermarket.com inserted themselves between the customer and the provider’s website – a process that was dubbed reintermediation.
The contrast between those two terms got me thinking recently, about another set of changes has been happening as a result of digital progress. Some products have been dematerialised by being remade entirely of bits and conveyed over the internet from the producer to the consumer. This has happened to newspapers, books and music CDs – with paper and plastic material being removed from the product. Now I think we are beginning to see a new trend I call rematerialisation. This is where a product is re-rendered in a different way, in a different form, using different materials, as a result of digital changes – but it remains a physical product. Examples of this are to be found in 3D printed jewelry, electronic cigarettes, Google’s rendition of the car, or the camera drone as a replacement for a helicopter plus video cameraman. In each case there is still a thing you can touch or hold, it is made of atoms and it serves a similar purpose – but it is utterly different and radically superior in some way because of digital technology.
So if your product or service today, exists in the physical world and its food or transport or something that cannot be fully dematerialized into bits – then you have a new strategy question to ask yourself. How could our product or service be rematerialized for the digital age?
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