Background Note | HBS Case Collection | August 2012 (Revised August 2013)

Competency-Destroying Technology Transitions: Why the Transition to Digital Is Particularly Challenging

by Willy Shih

Abstract

Some technology transitions are exceedingly difficult for incumbent firms to execute. The bankruptcy filing by the Eastman Kodak Company highlighted the difficulty companies faced when their core business transitioned from an analog to a digital world. Kodak's business was built on the sale of a complex manufactured product - color photographic film that was exceedingly difficult to manufacture - with correspondingly high barriers to entry. Over more than a century, it developed the complex chemistry and high speed coating technologies that enabled it to roll-coat tiny strips of plastic with as many as 24 layers of complex organic dyes and photosensitizers at thousands of square feet per minute. Its color film and paper products including Kodachrome and Kodacolor preserved many of the iconic images of the last century. Beginning in the 1990s, the company built a digital photography business, yet by 2012 the company was in reorganization and its prognosis was guarded. Kodak faced a particularly challenging analog to digital transition, like many companies that have faced the waves of creative destruction wrought by technological innovation. Why was an analog to digital transition in the core technology of a business particularly challenging? This note reviews some of the management research on how firms have fared with technology transitions, and then explains why the conversion of a technology from analog to digital is uniquely problematic. The challenge that faced Kodak is the same challenge facing companies like Panasonic and Sony, telecom equipment companies, and other industries now that the underlying technology through which products and services are built has changed.

Keywords: technology transitions; competency-destroying; digital; analog; digital transition; modular; modularity; technological change; radical innovation; incremental innovation; architectural innovation; modular innovation; disruptive innovation; sustaining innovation; competency-enhancing; noise propagation; perfect copying; digital music; digital media; consumer electronics; Kodak; Sony; Panasonic; Disruptive Innovation; Technology Adoption; Transition; Change Management; Consumer Products Industry; United States;

Citation:

Shih, Willy. "Competency-Destroying Technology Transitions: Why the Transition to Digital Is Particularly Challenging." Harvard Business School Background Note 613-024, August 2012. (Revised August 2013.)