During the next few days, I will have the opportunity to represent Working in Digital at The R&A International Golf Conference. The theme of this year’s conference is “Golf’s Golden Opportunity” and amongst many interesting topics, I’ve been asked to moderate the panel on Digital & Data.
As I was packing my bags and getting ready for a week of insightful, inspiring and networking driven interactions, I began to further reflect on the conference theme itself. As we are talking about a golden opportunity for golf, community, participation and evolution immediately came to mind. Naturally, this opportunity cannot be reflected upon without taking into consideration what is happening around us.
The World has undergone a massive digital transformation throughout the past 25 years. The pace of change seems to constantly accelerate and natural, evolutionary disruptions are taking shape across multiple industries.
Before going deeper into the digital transformations around us, let’s take a moment to look at the impact technology has had on our lives throughout, well, the history of humanity.
Technology as a catalyst for change
Technical inventions have played an important role in the formation of networks. Networks are dependent on two critical factors: access and distribution. If we have access but no distribution, the network isn’t vital and vice versa.
A network with access and distribution can then serve as a birthplace for an ecosystem. In a similar manner, the pillars of a vibrant ecosystem rely on the access and distribution of a network but start to evolve around founding pillars of its own: utility and community. In other words, a vibrant ecosystem serves the social practices of its members through value creation. An invention is the spark but innovation evolves from how this invention is used to co-create value.
Some great examples from our history immediately come to mind:
When the railroad network was built across the United States, it enabled multiple inventions as well as new ecosystems to form. Before the connected railroad, cattle used to be transported by cowboys across the prairies to reach their final destination. With the railroad network in place, the meat could be packaged anywhere within the grid and transported to any destination. In addition to the railroad itself, another great invention made all of this possible: the refrigerator cart. Without the network it was useless but within the network, it was able to generate immense value and was transformative to multiple industries.
The railroad network also allowed for a completely new business model to emerge: the catalog business. This analog version of Amazon allowed a new and more efficient form of a demand/supply chain to emerge. Not sure if they had free returns back then though…
In a similar manner, the industrial revolution was fuelled by the abundance and supply of electricity along the electrical network. Instead of being forced to build factories close to water fuelled power sources, factories could be placed anywhere along the electrical grid. This marked the birth of industrial zones with higher efficiency in access to the respective bill of materials, but also allowed for innovation to happen as access to electricity became more of a commodity instead of luxury.
In both cases, we can see how a technical invention paved the way for the formation of networks. By having access and distribution we also witnessed how new business models and even ecosystems began to form.
Just as electricity, access and distribution to the internet has pretty much taken place across most parts of the world. In its infancy, the 1.0 version of the Web allowed for people to access a set of “isolated islands” known as individual websites. Access and distribution was in place, but certain fundamental utilities as well as community was missing on a mass scale.
Here comes 2.0
The emergence of Web 2.0 was marked by the invention of search engines to help collate the content across the network. In a similar manner, API’s enabled content to flow more seamlessly across the various nodes of the network and you could begin to embed for example Google maps or YouTube data into your own personal blog. In many ways, Web 2.0 could be labeled as the era in which utility/content driven ecosystems emerged.
People want 3.0
As access and distribution were in place and content began to flow more seamlessly through utilities across the Web, Web 3.0 really marked the emergence of social networks. These human connection fuelled ecosystems would stride from content/utility and community coming together to serve the social practices of its members.
The internet has obviously continued to evolve and with IOT and AI paving the way for future stages of evolution, but I will pause here and come back to the industry and opportunity at hand.
The golden opportunity for golf
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the golden opportunity for golf (from a digital perspective) is to look at another industry where this transformation has already taken place at mass scale.
Decades ago, flight bookings were primarily made via travel agencies or by contacting airlines directly. Flight inventory was managed in large booking halls in analog fashion. As flight traffic continued to increase, it goes without saying that this method was immensely time and labor intensive as well as prone to human error/miscommunication.
What happened next was something that paved the way for a new kind of network and eventual ecosystem to be formed. Amadeus, along with a few airlines, created a central registry (GDS) for flight information. This system could then be accessed by travel agents around the world, to manage flight bookings and inventory.
This central registry continued to evolve and throughout time, it enabled a new form of ecosystem to form, in which airlines, online travel agents and even businesses based on meta search engines could expand the market further into the b2c space. This central registry and the access and distribution into this network of information was the cornerstone for advancement in service levels, efficiency and overall innovation. 3rd party businesses were able to leverage this registry data to build service layers that would fulfill the needs of travel agencies, travelers as well as airlines.
The digital ecosystem in golf
As we look at the overall golf industry, there’s a massive opportunity to transform the digital landscape within the game and to create a vibrant ecosystem that will grow the game, drive participation and serve as a vital utility as well as catalyst for community. However, the groundwork still needs to be done.
The governing bodies of golf have introduced the World Handicap System (WHS), which ultimately aims to bring all golfers with a handicap (HCP) under the same umbrella. This initiative in itself is absolutely fantastic. Golfers around the world will have a unified way of managing their handicaps and participating in international golf tournaments.
The downside with the practical execution of this initiative is that instead of building unified access and distribution, the industry has gone about with building isolated islands for updating and maintaining individual handicaps. Although the rules for maintaining a WHS HCP are universal, most local and regional governing bodies have started building their own WHS systems that are not connected and cannot be synchronized across borders.
One might be wondering why any of this really matters. Well, firstly, building these isolated systems is really expensive for the industry at large and minimal economies of scale can be achieved if operating in this manner. Local unions and federations are not technology companies, yet alone experts in building utility or community. Why not enable the creation of a central registry (golf’s version of GDS) and make this available for all golf federations and unions around the world?
In addition to cost savings/ economies of scale related to money, time and knowledge, by having a central system is place a vibrant ecosystem can be born. With the needed API’s, the golf industry will not only provide a universal network for golfers all around the world but also welcome the best 3rd parties to invent utility and community driven solutions that will increase participation, engagement and interaction within the golf industry at large.
Virtual challenges in which people play golf on different golf courses, yet compete through a digital platform already exist. Just imagine how this could further drive participation if WHS would also become a global standard across digital platforms? Global audiences could join virtual activation programs that allow for local play and global engagement. A great example of this is The Open virtual challenge, which was launched in partnership by The R&A and Golf GameBook.
Governing bodies globally, regionally and locally should not be concerned about losing their authority or control by doing this. On the contrary, the GDS as a universal technical standard/solution will unify the game, enforce quality standards and data integrity/privacy, whilst enabling the market to decide which service/solution they would like to use to input their HCP related data.
In a similar manner to having a central database for maintaining WHS handicaps, the industry still lacks a central database for golf course data. Insurmountable amounts of human power is spent annually with updating golf course slope data, GPS coordinates and other golf course related data. Why not enable a universal registry for all official golf clubs and courses around the world? By having a central database that is updated once for launch and then on a case by case basis, you would allow 3rd party businesses to build upon this information. If cost is a concern, why not offer this on a usage based license model and share the revenues through local golf authorities back to the respective golf clubs.
The benefits for the industry as well as the clubs and individual golfers would be immense. They could choose the best digital scoring solution to update their HCP. Because of the WHS and golf course data connection, the slope data would always be up to date and local unions and federations would still receive the respective scoring data from the user. In similar fashion, GPS points of golf courses would be universal and instead of spending thousands of hours updating GPS data points, 3rd party providers could focus on further developing connected GPS devices with for example other utility and community elements.
The road ahead
As we come back to the theme of golf’s golden opportunity, the road ahead from a technology point of view is filled with opportunity. Governing bodies of golf have a unique opportunity to bring the needed skill sets together to drive change. In an era which the golf industry is perhaps marked more by its internal arguments and different points of view, perhaps an opportunity has emerged to bring people together and enable the creation of an accessible network that can fuel a utility and community driven ecosystem to take this beloved game to new heights.