Increasingly, I find myself having conversations with colleagues or potential clients spending significant energy trying to get ahead of technological change, that is, to avoid disruption. This is good news. It means that more businesses are working their long-term planning muscles. They are beginning to think about what it takes to thrive in an era of quickly moving technological change. Take for example, these challenges:
- An IT security company has developed a strong business in cloud-based malware and other solutions, and has been able to grow through the demands of governments for enterprise wide installations and consulting solutions. Yet the firm is wondering whether artificial intelligence / machine learning solutions may overtake their current business.
- Military organizations of the United States, which have long enjoyed technological superiority over their adversaries, recognize that the democratization of innovation means they no longer hold a monopoly. How can they maintain their position in a world in which the barriers to sophisticated technological development have lowered and democratized?
- A medical research firm has in hand a viable new treatment that could save lives, but which is based on a medical paradigm that may be upended on the basis of current basic research, and shift the playing field as dramatically as Uber has altered the taxi business.
The Virtues of Holistic Thinking
The chief question in these conversations is: How should we think about these kinds of challenges? Specialists and experts in these various fields typically want to think deeply and narrowly in order to solve problems. This makes great sense: deep expertise is the trait that led them success in the first place. Like race car drivers in a competition to a fixed point, they want to know whether their car could go faster, and whether it will go faster than their competitor’s.
But this narrow focus becomes less useful off the track, in the real world of the unpredictable future. Technology is surrounded and enabled by its complex, dynamic human context. Examples are everywhere of how additional factors play a meaningful role in how deeply and when change occurs:
- Accidents and Black Swans (unpredictable, high impact events) can shape public attitudes in meaningful ways. The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979 and the 1986 explosion at Cherynobl affected public acceptance of nuclear power (although experts have come to different, and nuanced, conclusions about the degree of change in people’s attitudes). Accidents and the unexpected can also have a strong effect on the legislative environment as policy makers seek to respond to their constituencies.
- Cultural shifts matter. The introduction of hand washing in the late 19th century into hospitals was partly a function of scientific discovery, but its widespread adoption by doctors had as much or more to do with making the practice a part of their culture and workday. Today, biometric means of identification at airports requires acceptance in the general population as well as regulation to function.
- Innovations that make a difference alter the rules of the game—they shift paradigms and ask us to see the world differently than we have. Foreseeing potential change has as much to do with the way that you see the world as it does with what is happening in it.The United States and its Coalition partners were not able to respond effectively to the use of IED’s (improvised explosive devices) in the Iraq War because long standing assumptions that military strength stems from advanced technology blinded them to other strategic frameworks. Firms such as Uber and AirBnB disrupted transportation and hospitality by envisioning the relationship of producer (or owner of an asset) and consumer in a new and different way.
A Practical Checklist of Sources of Disruptive Technological Change
If you are in a technology-centric environment, or giving deep thought these days to how transformations could change or upend your industry, it can be worthwhile to consider these additional factors and how they will wider environment in which you function. In exploring what may happen in the next five to ten years, you will need to consider the dynamism and changes that could occur in these realms. Like technology, they will not stand still but are also evolving. This is not a completely exhaustive list, but it should be a good start for broadening thinking about the factors in technological disruption in the marketplace:
- Regulatory environment
- Legal environment
- Major institutions that will use the technology [e.g. Educational systems, manufacturers, medical systems and hospitals, governments, agriculture, etc.]
- Political issues, political system
- Direct competitors
- Indirect competitors [is there anyone outside of your domain seeking to solve the same problem in a very different way?]
- Marketing possibilities [what is the likelihood of marketing failure or success]
- Accidents and unintended events that may have an impact
- Ethics and values [does your technology raise ethical issues that society and government will have to grapple with?]
- Culture and society [how will people greet the news of this technology or invention, what do they want]
As you consider the ways in which events and activities in these domains may affect the threshold for your success, you may also discover opportunities and possibilities for expanding your domain. Maybe you are the disrupter, not the disrupted.