I can’t think of a better way to start an article on the exciting yet challenging changes that are sending ripples (and in some cases, shock waves) through technology firms (and we are all technology firms) than to quote the late, great David Bowie: “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (Turn and face the strange)”. I have been a technologist for a long time and have seen many changes in technology over the years. It seems that every year a new technology (or an old one rebranded) is positioned as “with this, nothing will ever be the same”. In some cases, that is true (e.g. Internet/WWW) but in most cases they pass through their hype cycle and the world doesn’t change as promised. Having said that, the times we’re in currently seem decidedly different—for the following reasons:
1. The rate of change is accelerating—today’s brilliant ideas are tomorrow’s legacy or even worse, are obsolete the moment they launch as everyone tries incessantly to create sustainable competitive advantage leading to endless hyper competition.
2. The force multipliers of the changes are not incremental, but orders of magnitude in nature.
• As an example, take the fledging field of quantum computers. The compute capability of such devices is not a few percent better, as when going from one generic CPU to another with a faster clock speed or more cores, but rather 108 (100,000,000) times more powerful! Imagine the computational problems that can be solved and at the same time the challenges it presents, most notably in heretofore unassailable cryptography.
• Another exploding technology dimension is the phenomenon of the Internet of Things (IoT). Estimates vary, but in only a few years there will be tens of billions of devices listening and reporting to the Internet.
We must assume a constant pattern of rebirth and renewal as older technologies are regularly and easily replaced with new technologies
Any object, living or inanimate for which it makes sense, will have a real-time voice on the Internet. Think of the possibilities for your company of knowing and modifying the state of the world (all of it or just the part you’re interested in) in time increments that are as small as practical. Think of the infrastructure and safeguards necessary to support reliable, timely, cost effective, and safe computing in a world like this.
• Increased computational power available at low cost combined with huge investments by industry stalwarts in data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence have made the promise of systems that can at the very least augment, and in many cases replace, humans is closer to being realized. This will change entire industries, render others obsolete and according to some prognosticators, have a major impact on our social fabric.
3. Because of the rapid challenges and lack of long-lasting marketplace equilibria, a new kind of thinking must be incorporated into designing new platforms, a school of architecture that some refer to as the Chaotic School. Simply put, this design thinking calls for assuming everything is temporary. No more can we assume what we build today will last for years as a capital investment with routine support and maintenance. Instead, we must assume a constant pattern of rebirth and renewal as older technologies are regularly and easily replaced with new technologies to take advantage of the latest advances so as not to fall behind competitively. This has the additional benefit of speeding knowledge transfer and learning among newer staff members as these people are involved more so in the new rather than supporting the old. An acute emphasis on simplicity in design is needed to be successful in this approach.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that how we change ourselves, our teams, and our companies, that is, change our corporate cultures to be amenable to what is needed in a future in which digital plays such a prominent role. This is often a drastic change and requires close attention to change management to a degree that is unprecedented in prior eras. The needed pace and acceptance of change necessarily puts people outside their comfort zones or said another way, if you feel confident that everything is under control, you are not moving fast enough.
The technology-enabled future has many opportunities and concomitant risks. We all will undoubtedly stumble occasionally as we make our way through uncharted waters but the rewards will be great and conversely, those that fail to adopt these new ways may not get a second chance and be relegated to the dustbin of corporate history.