The Decoupling Effect – And How Regulators Struggle to Keep Up

What happens when you take a world divided by distance and connect it with technology?

If you said massive disruption, you’d be right, but perhaps this is just symptomatic of an even bigger shift. What you have is a world that is becoming decoupled. In a world subject to the whims of physicality, you had tremendous amounts of transactional friction that was caused by the infrastructure required to make things happen. This infrastructure created long logistical value chains that were required to make markets function.

Let’s say you had to plan a family holiday in 1979. Realistically the only way was to use a travel agent, who was the required link between you and all the separate silos required to book plane tickets, reserve a hotel, arrange for transfers and get your tickets to Disneyland. There was a long value chain with you at one end and all the disparate pieces of your vacation on the other. That chain has since been blown apart and reconnected in a much more direct way by technology. This is the nature of decoupling.

This process introduces an interesting paradigm shift that sits at the heart of disruption. It takes a vertical chain dictated by the physical and logistical friction of a marketplace and shifts the axis 180 degrees to a number of stacked horizontal markets – all directly connected to the end customer – each of which opens up tremendous new opportunities. Take, from the example above, the process of booking a hotel room. When we pick this out of the vertical chain and rotate it to a horizontal market directly connected to consumers, suddenly there is whole new universe of options, with room for AirBnB, Couchsurfing, VRBO, Flipkey and a host of other emerging platforms.

It’s this flipping of axes that lies at the heart of the decoupling that is redefining our notion of a marketplace. According to Harvard professor Thales Teixeira, it’s here – not technology – where we find the true center of disruption. He has just written a new book, “Unlocking the Customer Value Chain,” that explores this notion of decoupling.  In it, he shows how once a “decoupled link” flips from the vertical to the horizontal, there is plenty of room for new start-ups to emerge and disrupt the incumbents. In an interview for the Knowledge@Wharton podcast, he points out that for start-up, “decoupling is looking at one activity in the customer value chain and deciding to do it much better than the incumbent.”

Teixeira also reminds us of a vital point in all of this market upheaval. This decoupling and pivoting from the vertical to the horizontal brings with it a new wave of benefits for the customer. It takes a previously necessary pain point away from them and instead opens up a huge range of new options.  He notes, “My key finding in the book, after looking at many industries, is it’s the customer who is disrupting these businesses. The changing needs and wants and behaviors of customers are actually the root cause of this huge shift away from large retailers into other startups and other online retailers.”

But if the benefits of decoupling tend to accrue to the customer, there are equal and corresponding pain points that fall on other parties. I’ve already mentioned the market incumbents. But legislators and regulator also feel the impact of disruption. It’s in the nature of a customer value chain to be fairly cohesive and somewhat stable. These chains formed to overcome the physical market logistics that introduced transactional friction into the process of buying something. The chain was the only way to overcome this friction. And that friction introduced some degree of stability into the market. Chains take time to form and this stability allows for regulators and legislators to eventually introduce governing checks and balances to address loopholes and unintended consequences in the market.

When markets become decoupled, however, they move at a speed that soon leaves governance in the dust. These emerging opportunities and the start-ups that jump on board rely solely on the “Invisible hand” to bring balance to a dynamic marketplace. That tends to work fine to balance forces of supply and demand, but markets exist within ecosystems and it’s these ecosystems that can be negatively impacted by the disruptions that come with decoupling.

Again, let’s take AirBnB as an example. I live in the Canadian province of British Columbia. The biggest city in B.C. is Vancouver, which represents an ecosystem uniquely vulnerable to the sources of disruption. First, Vancouver prides itself on both sustainability and liveability. It’s one of Canada’s most popular tourist destinations. It also happens to be one of the world’s hottest real estate markets. The emergence of AirBnB dropped like a bombshell into the midst of this fragile triangle, unleashing unintended consequences in all directions. Predictably, the incumbent players felt the strain. Hotels and motels struggled to respond to the flood of new options in the market. But less predictably, residential neighborhoods were transformed into extended accommodation villages. Municipal taxes went from being an investment in the common good to a business expense to be kept under control. Zoning bylaws were ignored en masse. City legislators are just now cracking down on new legislation to try to corral the forces of disruption. And AirBnB is fighting back on multiple fronts.

This decoupling of the world is a Pandora’s box. Now that it’s opened, it will never again be closed. The links of the chain that are being decoupled will continue to get more granular, opening up more and more market opportunities. Teixeira gives the example of Sephora, who uncoupled something as minute as trying a sample of a lipstick or blush and turned it into a market opportunity.

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