Learning from Kodak

February 21st, 2012
Image © by spDuchamp | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

Kodak—long the most esteemed name in the camera business—declared bankruptcy last month. Many business analysts have been discussing the reasons for the esteemed company’s decline and ultimate demise, but the short version is that Kodak did not adapt appropriately to changes in the market, technology, or culture.

With the rate of change accelerating as it is, Kodak's story offers significant lessons that leaders of every organization should be taking to heart not just to avoid eventual irrelevance and closure, but to thrive today and adapt better for tomorrow. The church is no exception. One of my favorite bloggers, literary agent Rachelle Gardner (rachellegardner.com) wrote a series of posts last week about what the publishing industry can learn from Kodak’s story, and with Rachelle’s permission, I’m tweaking some of her insights for benefit of all of us in ministry. First,

Know Your “Business”

I use that term loosely since many in the church resent being compared to commercial entities, but the point is that we must know our core identity and purpose.

Kodak thought it was in the film business. Publishers and authors tend to think they’re in the book business. So, as the world transitions away from film-based photography and printed, bound books, companies better consider how their core identity and purpose will be lived out in a world of digital technology.

Many churches operate as if they are in the business of tradition-preservation, event planning, or social networking (in the literal sense of getting people together) rather than in the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

It is important to note that none of these activities are inherently bad or should be unconditionally discontinued (any more than Kodak should have ceased film production altogether) but we have to practice all these things in the context of pursuing our true business. Kodak should have seen film as a means of helping people capture and share memories—a means that can be phased out and replaced by other means as times change. Many people today don’t care about preserving songs and rituals from decades and centuries past, and they have other special events to attend and other places to get together with friends. If we are relying on these means alone, we will continue to lose people, but if we employ new means of making disciples, we can continue to fulfill our mission even as people, technology, and culture change.

Be Willing to Risk Yesterday for Tomorrow

Kodak was afraid of cannibalizing its film business with any digital products and services it produced. Rachelle notes that it is the same for publishers creating both print books and e-books. This is a big fear for many organizations that see the way trends are moving; they want to dabble in what’s new but aren’t willing to risk losing any part of what has been their core for a long time.

In churches, we mainly see this in terms of new worship services. Traditional churches know that the trend is toward using screens instead of hymnals, guitars and drums instead of organ music, casual dress and relaxed seating instead of robes and pews. So, they create new worship opportunities taking these trends into consideration, but go to great lengths not to lose attendance at the “main” worship service or make changes to the schedule or facility that might affect those people.

It’s not good “business” to alienate long-time customers/church members, of course, but pleasing them at the cost of missing out on new people is not smart either. And your long-time customers are eventually either going to die or become late-adopters of the trend anyway. These trends only go one direction. Even if they do cycle back around, it will be different. (Ascot blouses may be back in style, but you’ve got to be pretty cool to pull off wearing the actual 1970s version from your mom’s closet!) Yes, innovative churches are rediscovering the value of 18th century hymns and rituals, but they are practicing them in a new way. You can’t just refuse to budge and hope people will eventually want what you have to offer again.

Understand Your “Customer”

Again, I’m using commercial terms for the sake of the metaphor. You have to understand the people you are trying to reach. Their wants and needs matter, now more than ever. Kodak didn’t take seriously the way people use their photos in a digital age, when sharing is largely online and between cell phones, and printed photos are used more creatively. I myself recently switched to another photo website after years of using KodakGallery.com because while their photo printing was fine, their photo books and other memory-keeping products weren’t user-friendly or creative enough. In a time of such rapid change and exponentially-growing options, organizations have to understand people’s wants and needs, and act accordingly.

As Rachelle explains, “Traditionally, advertising and marketing have been focused on ‘creating a need’ in the consumer, and then filling the need. You convince people they want something, then you sell it to them. While that dynamic is still in play, there’s been a power shift in favor of the consumer. . . . [People] wield their freedom of choice unflinchingly. There’s little brand loyalty.”

It seems consumerist to talk about people’s wants and choices when what they need is God, not a roll of film. We don’t have to “create the need,” because people’s need for God will always be there, but we can no longer rely on a cultural assumption that people should go to church, read the Bible, or pursue a life of faith. To reach people today with what they need, we have to be aware of what they want.

When we get frustrated with the consumer mentality of people trying out various churches, we may want to tell those church-shoppers, “It’s not about you!” Well, church, it’s not about you either. It’s about God, and the way you want to do worship or fellowship or Christian education doesn’t matter if it is not helping people grow closer to God. And, frankly, it is about those church-shoppers if we are truly trying to reach them.

Be an Innovator

Something interesting I’ve just learned since the news about Kodak broke is that they actually invented the digital camera, way back when, but didn’t market it because they knew it would hurt their film and photo-printing business. (That goes back to the point about fear of cannibalism, above.) Churches can be innovators. The church has spawned innovations in music, art, architecture, technology, and more. We are not doomed to lag behind or even just to follow trends. We can step out with new and creative ways for people to grow in faith, meeting needs people didn't even know they had.

Just because the central story of our faith took place 2000 years ago doesn’t mean we have to be stuck in the past. (Most churches choose 1950 as their inspiration anyway, not 50 AD.) We serve a living God, a risen Christ, an ever-moving Holy Spirit. We must be flexible enough—and willing—to follow.

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