Key takeaways

  • Three new forms of capital — behavioural, cognitive and network — are creating new value for business.
  • Companies that use both new and older forms of capital to innovate are thriving in today’s digital landscape.
  • Transform to a bionic company by changing your traditional approach to assets and competition.

Once upon a time, a business could survive on three forms of wealth. Indeed, those who managed these three forms effectively became the most successful business people of the 19th and 20th centuries. But no longer.

Financial capital (which is to say, money), was of course the bedrock required for any company to thrive, and combined with sources of natural capital (land, water and other such resources) and human capital (the development and use of talent) the ability to generate new forms of wealth became possible.

In large part, this was a result of the Industrial Revolution and its innovations — from the steam engine to the railroad. Today, a new revolution is in the works, known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and it promises a similar release of wealth from yet another three types of capital.

As strategy+business points out in their seminal article on the topic, The Bionic Company, we are now at the point where “incumbent companies that do not develop [these new forms of] capital will find themselves on the wrong side of the next wave of industrialisation.”

Three reasons to
pay attention

So what are these new forms of capital? Referred to, for those who like acronyms, as BeCoN capital, they are behavioural capital, cognitive capital and network capital. When marshalled together with the existing three mentioned above, companies can produce immense value.

Behavioural capital is all about data, specifically its collection, aggregation and modelling as well as the insights that this data generates. One of the primary goals in collecting data through sources like online activity, sensors, and the Internet of Things, is to generate previously unavailable knowledge — about how people, customers, and systems have behaved in the past, and how they will likely behave in the future. With behavioural capital, business leaders gain visibility into the systems around them and can make (even more) effective decisions for their businesses.

Cognitive capital is the value gained from algorithms and the computability of knowledge. For instance, the use of AI to automate systems and routines so that they can not only run by themselves, but also continually improve, bringing efficiencies and scale. These automated systems require almost no added labour, which can enable a complex business process in 10, 100, or 10,000 locations for virtually the same cost.

Network capital, the third of the new forms, harnesses value through connections. For example, the advent of many-to-many communication between brands and their consumers, enabled by the internet and social media, has been of great value to many companies. Business strategies can be developed based on this network insight that was previously unattainable, or at least unrealistic to collect.

The rise of the
bionic company

With the right management, these six types of capital combine to enable a ‘bionic’ corporation. Greater for their combined capital sources, these companies are valuable, often enormously so. Examples are household names, such as Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. All these companies have profited from their combinations of BeCoN capital — mixing massive amounts of data with algorithms and automation across digital platforms to gain their network dominance.

Bionic companies often grow rapidly, capitalising on a combination of their assets. These forms of capital can grow exponentially, in a nonlinear fashion, and when used in conjunction with each other, are mutually reinforcing. Therefore, utilising more than one helps value to grow more quickly.

Strategy+business estimates that there are around 100 companies in the world, including at least 40 unicorns, that can claim bionic status. Their exceptional performance and growth allows them to compete in “unprecedented ways by combining digital prowess, human ingenuity, and strategic purpose, as if they were the corporate equivalent of superhuman cyborgs such as Marvel Comics’ Iron Man.”

The good news, is that while the race is sparse at the moment, there’s nothing stopping others from entering.

Bionic
transformation

As a first step, companies relying on the first three types of capital but wanting to develop their BeCoN assets should ask themselves three questions.

  • What do you know about customer behaviour and how do you capture/analyse it?
  • What can you automate to build systems that run on powerful insight?
  • And how can you build and leverage a complex, effective network?

Answering these questions should help to push thinking into BeCoN territory, and allow companies to begin investing in attainment of such capital. To be truly transformative, and gain the bionic moniker, companies need to dig a little deeper, questioning and making changes at a fundamental business strategy level.

Businesses should think about moving from:

  • A business model based on customer demand, not the management of product supply — by creating the market, not the product (which by its nature has a fixed market). Eg. Netflix creating an aggregation platform, not a TV channel.
  • An approach based on information kept secret to one based on flow — by collaborating, knowledge flows as shared information, appreciating and self-renewing as an asset. Eg. Google opening up the source code of Android, allowing phone manufactures and app producers to play in their ecosystem with ease.
  • A landscape of rivals to a platform-based winner-takes-all position — it isn’t about defence of a profitable position but becoming a dominant player in a new platform greenfield (or being dependent on one). Eg. Amazon’s dominance in the online shopping (and logistics) sphere.

Go-go-gadget
business

Business transformation can be a complex process, especially if approached haphazardly. Adding to that the complexity of fitting into the digital landscape we currently inhabit can make it seem even more daunting.

But in fact, if businesses make use of the new forms of capital available to them today, as well as the new ways they can deploy and grow it, there is vast opportunity.


This article is a consolidated summary of two strategy+business articles by PwC. For further detail on the bionic concept, see the original articles, ‘The Bionic Company‘ and ‘Leading a Bionic Transformation‘.