Opinion by Thornton May

Preparing for the 15-year future

The answers to the questions you ask yourself will determine the direction you take your organization

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Opinion by Thornton May

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We are transiting a moment of massive uncertainty. The ambiguous road ahead requires making a prediction about predictions. I predict that in 15 years, 85% of the predictions, forecasts and trends set forth by the academics, analysts, futurists and economists (maybe not the economists — their accuracy is increasingly suspect) will influence much of what happens day to day in business.

For IT executives, accelerating change will require them to constantly ask themselves, “What is the right problem to be working on today?” If the answer is not what they were working on yesterday, so be it; they must adjust and move on.

To best answer that recurring question and assure that energies and resources are focused appropriately, they need to answer some subordinate questions. 

With whom should I be talking?

One of the most important lessons my mother took from her years working in the intelligence community is this: Your network will keep you safe. Moving forward, IT executives need to cultivate powerful personal and professional networks. 

I recently asked the 60 or so C-level executives attending a workshop hosted by the college of engineering at Ohio State University: “If your CEO came to you and said, ‘I would like to talk to three provocative voices regarding the future of work,’ whom would you point them toward?” The responses were illuminating. 

Seventy-five percent would suggest the digital pioneers and chieftains, people such as Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. That landslide of opinion supports the notion that the best way to know the future is to be the future. 

Some other responses
Human resource thought leaders 9%
Futurists (research methodology disclaimer: The workshop was facilitated by a futurist) 8%
The young (meaning the next generation of workers), the U.S. president, successful CEOs (of digitally transforming organizations) and ahead-of-the-curve CIOs 4%

(Note: Not one mention of an economist.) 

Whom are you talking to with an eye toward validating that the things you are working on are the things you should be working on? 

What should I be doing next?

The CISO at a critical-infrastructure company remembers a conversation she had with the newly appointed (and quite young) CISO at a name-brand multinational. 

With high energy and great enthusiasm, the younger CISO was listing the many things on his to-do list. The older CISO counseled that since one could not do all those things simultaneously, it was probably best to determine which actions needed to happen first. With an infinitely long to-do list, sequencing matters. 

Are you comfortable with the mechanism whereby you decide how to prioritize or sequence what you are working on? 

Where/when are the inflection points?

In determining where to focus work effort, one needs to have a general map of when major technology transitions and disruptions are likely to occur. 

While interviewing Jeff Immelt, longtime CEO at GE, Jim Cramer talked about a time when robots would be doing all the work (the Robocalypse, that moment when all human work will be replaced by automation). Immelt opined that extreme automation, if it occurs at all, lies 30-plus years in the future. He said he is going to focus his current investments on worker productivity — making sure GE employees have the tools they need to be as productive as possible. “We are going to make our workers smarter. And then we will see where we go after that.” 

What do you believe can happen?

I have been a futurist covering the IT space for a long time. The front end of the IT ecosystem (e.g., startups, venture capitalists, trade shows) is no stranger to hyperbole. Press releases, marketing pitches and keynote addresses tend toward the extreme and superlative. There is a generation of executives in the workplace today who essentially achieved their career success because they did not believe what the vendors told them. 

We are transitioning to a world where success will be based on believing that great things can be accomplished with the tools at hand. We are no longer living in a world where the future never comes. 

NASA-JPL is probably one of the most exciting places to work on this planet. Six thousand scientists, engineers and staff engage in planet-saving, planet-knowing and galaxy-understanding projects. Their charismatic chief technology and innovation officer, Tomas Soderstrom, believes that the key causality driving our revolutionary times is the widespread belief on the part of ever-increasing segments of the modern workforce that amazing things “can be done — quickly and at so little cost. That is really the revolution.”

Do you believe great things can happen?


Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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