Opinion by Thornton May

IT and the entrepreneurial age

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Today, if you want to be hired as a C-level executive in a major global enterprise, you are going to have to be capable of delivering high-growth and high-margin revenue streams. In short, you are going to have to be entrepreneurial.

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Take note: IT can create, or it can destroy, an organization’s ability to be entrepreneurial.

If your IT organization isn’t nurturing entrepreneurship, you’re in trouble. The age of entrepreneurship is upon us. The enterprise — the entire enterprise — has to become entrepreneurial, meaning that it has to proactively adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.  

The world is experiencing exponential change. The futurists at Singularity University, an institution devoted to expanding our capability of coping with that very thing, believe that from this day forward, the change we experience every five years will be equal to what previously filled 100 years. Also expanding at a fearsome rate is the amount of data we collect. Dan Geer, the chief information security officer at In-Q-tel, finds it plausible that the compound annual growth rate for new data is now 57%. That certainly sounds big, but abstract. So think of it this way: Every 120 seconds, 50,000 Libraries of Congress full of additional information will be created. Data growth and the rate of change go hand in hand. Every second, there is more to know. Every day, something that once was impossible or prohibitively expensive becomes possible and affordable.  

The question for you to grapple with is how you can wrest what you need from so much change and all those mountains of data. The answer doesn’t come easily. As GE CEO Jeff Immelt once said, “The book that can help you has not been written yet.” There are people you can learn from, but no one, not even Google, Apple, Facebook or Amazon, has figured out how to sustainably play the exponential strategy game. Your organization is probably going to need someone whose job it is to do that; some strategic thinkers argue that the enterprise needs a new CEO — a chief entrepreneurship officer.

The reason that is not a crazy idea is that what we are in for is not a period of “punctuated equilibrium” — a brief moment of fundamental change followed by a return to stability — but perpetual disequilibrium. Enterprises are going to have to figure out how to make money (and nonprofit organizations are going to have to figure out how to deliver on their mission) under conditions of massive and continuing uncertainty. The cognitive exercise of determining which opportunities to pursue when the entire landscape is shifting is what I call “exponential which-craft.”  

Innovation — the conversion of ideas into cash — is at an all-time high. Today, if you want to be hired as a C-level executive in a major global enterprise, you are going to have to be capable of delivering high-growth and high-margin revenue streams. In short, you are going to have to be entrepreneurial.

Many people have the idea that you have to be young, or a software developer or an inhabitant of Silicon Valley to be an entrepreneur. None of those things matters, though. You just have to have an entrepreneurial mindset. Sure, the person behind the next big app might be a young software developer in the Valley, but that’s not the sum total of what makes an entrepreneur. Remember Harland David Sanders? He was 62 and living in North Corbin, Ky., when he franchised his first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.

So what exactly is the entrepreneurial mindset? It exists between two poles, which you can think of as little “e” entrepreneurs and big “E” entrepreneurs. Little “e” entrepreneurs start, own and operate small businesses. When you hear statistics regarding entrepreneurship — number of businesses formed, number of workers employed — you are typically hearing data about little “e” entrepreneurship. That’s why, in global surveys, Egypt is classified as being more entrepreneurial than the U.S.; it has a whole lot of small shop owners.Big “E” entrepreneurs create new industries, disrupt existing industries and assault the status quo.

For the longest time, IT has hitched its wagon to little “e” entrepreneurs. In the very near future, IT shops will become driven by the vision of being in service to big “E” entrepreneurs. Get ready.

Futurist Thornton A. May is a speaker, educator and adviser and the author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics. Visit his website at thorntonamay.com, and contact him at thornton@thorntonamay.com.

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