The road less travelled paves the path to stealth disruption

During the recent Ocado Re:Imagined event, the company’s founder and CEO, Tim Steiner, discussed how stealth disruptors were used to invent something he described as “really radical”. Really radical, in Ocado’s case, is embodied in its 600 series grocery fulfilment bot. The headline figure is that half of the parts it uses are 3D printed.

This is not about making 3D printed prototypes. It is about manufacturing production grade robots that are destined to be deployed in warehouses to fulfil customer grocery orders. Ocado has the ability to “print” bot parts on site, or at manufacturing sites equipped with 3D printers.

As Jame Donkin, the company’s CTO, pointed out in Computer Weekly, it is very important to lower the level of specialist skills required in Ocado warehouses. This is why the company has tried to drive down maintenance costs of operating these bots.

Disrupting open souce

Exploring the idea of stealth disruptors further, Computer Weekly recently spoke to Nicolas Forgues, former CTO at the supermarket chain, Carrefour. When the company found that the maintenance of one of the open source components it needed would become prohibitive, the company formed Tosit, the Open I Trust alliance, with several other French businesses including EDF and SNCF. Their objective was to maintain the open source code themselves. In doing so, alliance members have been able to free themselves from costly support and maintenance fees normally associated with open source software.  Support is effectively at no cost. Instead, each organisation agrees to commit a certain number of people to work on the open source code.

On its own, supporting open source code in-house is not disruptive. Some may argue that it defies logic, since experts in the open source community are primed and ready to offer such services. But sometimes, as Forgues and members of Open I Trust, realised, the pricing of open source support contracts is not necessarily a good match for the business model of the customer. When the cost of support is growing faster than the business benefit derived from the open source software, then it is time to take a look at a different approach. By sharing best practises and contributing code and human resources, alliance members are able to maintain the open source code among themselves. This is stealth disruption.

What these examples with the CEO of Ocado and former CTO of Carrefour illustrate, is that stealth disruption is not about evolving an existing good idea. It’s about difficult choices and taking the road less travelled.

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