Professor Iansiti’s New Book Provides Strategies for Competing in the Age of AI

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on March 13, 2020


The age of AI is being ushered in by the emergence of a new kind of firm.


In Competing in the Age of AI: Strategy and Leadership When Algorithms and Networks Run the World, Harvard business professors Marco Iansiti and Karim R. Lakhani show how reinventing organizations around data, analytics, and artificial intelligence (AI) removes traditional constraints on scale, scope, and learning that have restricted business growth for hundreds of years.


Professors Iansiti and Lakhani discuss many points from their book in a recent Harvard Business Review article by the same title. Below are a few take-aways from “Competing in the Age of AI”.


Brick-and-Mortar Business Constraints No Longer Apply


The elimination of traditional [brick-and-mortar business] constraints transforms the rules of competition. As digital networks and algorithms are woven into the fabric of firms, industries begin to function differently and the lines between them blur. The changes extend well beyond born-digital firms, as more-traditional organizations, confronted by new rivals, move toward AI-based models too. Walmart, Fidelity, Honeywell, and Comcast are now tapping extensively into data, algorithms, and digital networks to compete convincingly in this new era. Whether you’re leading a digital start-up or working to revamp a traditional enterprise, it’s essential to understand the revolutionary impact AI has on operations, strategy, and competition.


The AI Factory


At the core of the new firm is a decision factory—what we call the “AI factory.” Its software runs the millions of daily ad auctions at Google and Baidu. Its algorithms decide which cars offer rides on Didi, Grab, Lyft, and Uber. It sets the prices of headphones and polo shirts on Amazon and runs the robots that clean floors in some Walmart locations. It enables customer service bots at Fidelity and interprets X-rays at Zebra Medical. In each case the AI factory treats decision-making as a science. Analytics systematically convert internal and external data into predictions, insights, and choices, which in turn guide and automate operational workflows.


Four components are essential to every factory. The first is the data pipeline, the semiautomated process that gathers, cleans, integrates, and safeguards data in a systematic, sustainable, and scalable way. The second is algorithms, which generate predictions about future states or actions of the business. The third is an experimentation platform, on which hypotheses regarding new algorithms are tested to ensure that their suggestions are having the intended effect. The fourth is infrastructure, the systems that embed this process in software and connect it to internal and external users.


Removing Limits to Scale, Scope, and Learning


After hundreds of years of incremental improvements to the industrial model, the digital firm is now radically changing the scale, scope, and learning paradigm. AI-driven processes can be scaled up much more rapidly than traditional processes can, allow for much greater scope because they can easily be connected with other digitized businesses, and create incredibly powerful opportunities for learning and improvement—like the ability to produce ever more accurate and sophisticated customer-behavior models and then tailor services accordingly.


In traditional operating models, scale inevitably reaches a point at which it delivers diminishing returns. But we don’t necessarily see this with AI-driven models, in which the return on scale can continue to climb to previously unheard-of levels.


AI-Driven Firms Compete with Traditional Firms


Now imagine what happens when an AI-driven firm competes with a traditional firm by serving the same customers with a similar (or better) value proposition and a much more scalable operating model.


We call this kind of confrontation a “collision.” As both learning and network effects amplify volume’s impact on value creation, firms built on a digital core can overwhelm traditional organizations. Consider the outcome when Amazon collides with traditional retailers, Ant Financial with traditional banks, and Didi and Uber with traditional taxi services. As Clayton Christensen, Michael Raynor, and Rory McDonald argued in “What Is Disruptive Innovation?” (HBR, December 2015), such competitive upsets don’t fit the disruption model. Collisions are not caused by a particular innovation in a technology or a business model. They’re the result of the emergence of a completely different kind of firm. And they can fundamentally alter industries and reshape the nature of competitive advantage.


Rebuilding Traditional Enterprises


For leaders of traditional firms, competing with digital rivals involves more than deploying enterprise software or even building data pipelines, understanding algorithms, and experimenting. It requires rearchitecting the firm’s organization and operating model. For a very, very long time, companies have optimized their scale, scope, and learning through greater focus and specialization, which led to the siloed structures that the vast majority of enterprises today have. Generations of information technology didn’t change this pattern. For decades, IT was used to enhance the performance of specific functions and organizational units. Traditional enterprise systems often even reinforced silos and the divisions across functions and products.


Silos, however, are the enemy of AI-powered growth.


Rethinking Strategy and Capabilities


As AI-powered firms collide with traditional businesses, competitive advantage is increasingly defined by the ability to shape and control digital networks. (See “Why Some Platforms Thrive and Others Don’t,” HBR, January–February 2019.) Organizations that excel at connecting businesses, aggregating the data that flows among them, and extracting its value through analytics and AI will have the upper hand. Traditional network effects and AI-driven learning curves will reinforce each other, multiplying each other’s impact. You can see this dynamic in companies such as Google, Facebook, Tencent, and Alibaba, which have become powerful “hub” firms by accumulating data through their many network connections and building the algorithms necessary to heighten competitive advantages across disparate industries.


The advice to executives was once to stick with businesses they knew, in industries they understood. But synergies in algorithms and data flows do not respect industry boundaries. And organizations that can’t leverage customers and data across those boundaries are likely to be at a big disadvantage. Instead of focusing on industry analysis and on the management of companies’ internal resources, strategy needs to focus on the connections firms create across industries and the flow of data through the networks the firms use.


We’re moving from an era of core competencies that differ from industry to industry to an age shaped by data and analytics and powered by algorithms—all hosted in the cloud for anyone to use.


The Leadership Challenge


Digital scale, scope, and learning create a slew of new challenges—not just privacy and cybersecurity problems, but social turbulence resulting from market concentration, dislocations, and increased inequality. The institutions designed to keep an eye on business—regulatory bodies, for example—are struggling to keep up with all the rapid change.


Read the entire article, “Competing in the Age of AI” by Marco Iansiti and Karim R. Lakhani (Harvard Business Review, January–February 2020).


And enjoy the book, Competing in the Age of AI: Strategy and Leadership When Algorithms and Networks Run the World by Marco Iansiti and Karim R. Lakhani (Harvard Business Review Press, January 7, 2020)


Marco Iansiti is the David Sarnoff Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He is also a co-director of the Laboratory for Information Science at Harvard and of the Digital Initiative at HBS. Professor Iansiti’s research examines the digital transformation of companies and industries, with a special focus on digital ecosystems, AI-centric operating models, and the impact of AI and network effects on strategy and business models.


Karim R. Lakhani is the Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration and the Dorothy and Michael Hintze Fellow at Harvard Business School and the founder and codirector of the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard.