Opinion by Thornton May

Trends are trending

The fascinating question is how IT leaders can know which trends deserve attention

Opinion by Thornton May

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Having assessed the landscape in my role as a futurist, I have concluded that trends are trending.

But not all trends are created equal. “This is a trend you should know about” is different from “Our competitor has stolen two key customers on the basis of its application of prescriptive analytics,” which in turn is different from “This trend requires action in the next two weeks.” In the second case, urgency has been added, and in the third, the urgency is buttressed by a time component. For leaders in IT and other areas of the enterprise, trends with some urgency are the ones likely to get our attention.

But not all trends that get our attention pan out. Timing matters. It’s possible to identify a trend long before it develops into something you need to pay attention to. It’s been reported that in 1931, inventor Thomas Edison weighed in on energy trends, commenting, “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. … I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out, before we tackle that.”

In the technology world, of course, trends are ubiquitous. You don’t have to be a futurist to know that the Internet of Things is a trend, perhaps culminating on the day when every object in existence will be IP-addressable. But we are surrounded by trends. Trend boffins argue that every molecule, idea, discipline, skill set, product, technology and institution has a trend line associated with it.  

Look at what’s happening with devices, and what’s expected to come in the next few years. Wearables such as smartwatches have grabbed our attention for a while, but now the talk is that in three years we will be on to “hearables,” devices with tiny chips and sensors that fit in your ear. Not long after that, by 2020, we are expected to land on “disappearables,” technology implanted in the body or embedded in clothing. The entire wearable-hearable-disappearable ecosystem is forecast to reach $30 billion by then.

We have in this single submarket the major data elements of any trend: timeline, size and basic functionality. 

Trends give rise to other trends. Wearables and its presumed successors wouldn’t happen without the two macro trends of improved power consumption and the accelerated miniaturization of sensors. Concurrent trends can even be contradictory. In the supermarket world, there is a general trend toward price competition being valued over quality. In the niche food products space, there is a general trend toward customers valuing authenticity and honesty, with price being much less important. 

What we’re all on the lookout for, though, are disruptive trends, the ones that require immediate attention. How does your organization interrogate the general trends landscape and decide which disruptive trends you need to take action on? 

How an organization responds to trends is important. Confronted with a trend, what responses are palatable to the organization? How much certainty is required to change direction and take action? How quickly are experiments undertaken? Clay Shirky explains, “First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. That it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.”

But how do you know? Fads do happen, and if you change direction to corral a fad, you’re going to be in trouble when the fad fades and the actual trend that you missed takes off without you. And you also have to know when a trend is heading for extinction. The Internet was a trend. It is still with us. E-commerce was a trend. It’s still here. Typewriters used to be a trend. They are pretty much gone. Anonymity as a principle to live your life by has essentially gone extinct, replaced by regular status updates that reveal all you do. How does a trend stop being a trend, and how do you see that coming? 

I would like to know more about how to answer these questions, about how executives distill from the chaos of multiple, intersecting trends some kind of reality – something tangible enough to point the way forward. As I talk to leaders, I will be looking for answers, but I welcome your experiences and observations as well.

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.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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