Saturday, June 9, 2012

Essential But Not Relevant

I spent yesterday at a meeting of a large company that plays an essential role in the world of telecom.

The company is more than 100 years old; it has always been at the forefront of providing and maintaining the best service in its segment of the industry. It is a company that is absolutely essential to the mobile world that we all depend on and take for granted. If you are in the world of apps, you need this company; it you are in the world of social media, you need this company; if you love your smartphone, you need this company.

But if I told you the company's name and asked you what it actually does, you wouldn't be able to tell me. And if I asked you how you felt about this company, you wouldn't have any emotional attachment at all.

This company is essential--like a utility--but not relevant--nobody actually cares about them as a customer.

It's a fascinating category, this EBNR (Essential But Not Relevant).

Think about the many old and respected non-profits and social service agencies that dot the American landscape. Essential in the services they offer; but not relevant in a world that is rapidly changing, a world where more and more of us give money or time or support to organizations that seem faster, leaner, more efficient, closer to the problem, less bureaucratic or out-dated.

Think of the organizations that date back 50 years or more that were created to speak to an emerging demographic segment, a specific problem set, or an emerging way of life. The world has changed; a person who is 65 today has a different attitude toward retirement than someone in the previous generation; a person who wants to learn to become a public speaker or hone their leadership skills doesn't think about learning the skills and developing the confidence the same way that someone did 50 years ago.

Old and dependable companies can be essential but not relevant--which leaves them wide open to two problems: Either they can be undercut by a lower-cost competitor (from say, China) or they can be made obsolete by a new, innovator entry (from, say, Silicon Valley). Either way, simply being essential isn't a protected position. In fact, it's often a precursor to extinction: right before you die, you remind yourself that, hey! we're providing an essential product or service! the world must need us!

And of course, sometimes we consumers are wrong: we classify a company, product or service as essential but not relevant, and disengage from it, only to discover too late that it was, actually, very relevant. Think "government" here: no sooner do we voters start treating our various governmental entities as not relevant, than they do something to remind us how very relevant they are--like cutting spending on public education, for instance.

But from the point of view of the leader in a company, the sweet spot is clear: essential and relevant. You can't live without us, and you love us!
When you find that combination, then you have to embrace continuous innovation and ongoing adaptation to make sure that you keep pace--or stay slightly ahead of--the changes in the world that can push you backward into the Essential But Not Relevant category.


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