‘It was better in my day’
It’s a refrain as old as time. The first caveman probably looked at their son making a tool and remarked about the flint being much flintier when they were a lad. And, whether it’s comparing flint or self-driving cars, technology will never bridge this disconnect between society’s elders and the generation that will follow them.
Mark Stevenson, Futurologist and speaker at the National Management Conference 2017, has a theory about this disconnect, and has formulised a set of rules that describe our reaction to technologies.
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3 .Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
In a business context, those in category 3 are the decision makers while those in category 1 are their audience. If a leader can’t communicate effectively to their audience, or at least be empathetic to their needs, that disconnect will grow until, ultimately, the product their selling will no longer be relevant to their audience.
With the increasing pace of technological advancement comes an increasing risk, and rate, of this disconnect between a leader and both their customer base and workforce. As a result, it’s imperative for all organisations and leaders to become future literate, and make it part of their strategic thinking in a serious way.
Take self-driving cars for a moment. We typically look at a new technology like this and see how it would affect us personally i.e. will I own a self-driving car in ten years? In reality, we should be thinking much larger than that.
Are you in insurance? Premiums will change dramatically when it’s not based on risk factors. You won’t be able to raise the premium on a young male driver when they’re not driving the car.
Are you in transport or exporting physical goods? Will trucks be the first to become automated? What are the security and cost issues associated with that?
Do you manufacture tyres? Will more efficient cars mean the depreciation on tyres will decrease, impacting demand over time?
Do you work in radio? If drivers don’t have to concentrate on driving, will they concentrate on a TV screen instead?
Impacts from new technologies are hard, if not impossible, to predict, but a future looking leader will read the above and see the opportunities within the threats. The successful leaders are the ones that can take that future view, articulate the opportunities within, and communicate the strategy to people across all generations.
Rise of the Robots
Automation in manufacturing has been around for the best part of a century. The next generation of automation is starting now.
Unfortunately, as Mark pointed out, the risk of emerging technologies is as of nothing compared to the risk of automation.
Automation has happened before. A single barrel of oil = 23,200 hours of human output so, from it taking a hundred people to drag a stone across a mile of sand to build a pyramid for a whole day, suddenly a truck could do the same job in minutes. The difference between then and today is the speed of change, automation is coming quicker and faster than we can keep up.
The second difference is that this next revolution will be done intelligently. We aren’t just going to be using robots and intelligent machines to do things quicker, faster, better but smarter. It is predicted, for example, that 50% of all marketing content produced will be done by machines in 5 years. And, each time they do it they’ll learn how to do it better the next time.
According to Mark, we have two options when facing automation – either mass unemployment, or we change from muscle to meaning.
The Future is Emotional
Mark focussed on a number of sectors to demonstrate why leaders need to look beyond metrics like literacy and numeracy and start to vale and measure collaboration, care and other human and emotional capabilities.
In energy, the rise of alternative fuels is not just morally good, but profitable. From the rise of solar to projects such as those that are underway to take carbon out of the air and convert it to energy. In healthcare, there has been a dramatic reduction in the cost of sequencing genomes, making it feasible to regrow limbs, potentially reverse ageing and greatly reduce the impact of ageing in the health system. In finance, blockchain technologies could very easily replace typical banking structures and process in the future, making fraud much more difficult.
In this type of future, Mark says moral leadership is why people will work for you and companies that maximise citizenship over short-term profit will win. Any leader that introduces an innovation that doesn’t take into account its impact on the environment really isn’t innovating, and rather than simply assembling a board that is expert in finances and science, you’ll need a representative that is competent on the environment.
In the future, it will be networks competing against other networks, no companies versus companies, and it is the future-fit leader that will be able to manage this network. It won’t be through a CSR initiative, or developing an innovation space, it will be through a definable and communicable culture pervasive throughout the entire network.
As Mark put it, ‘there are two types of companies… the brave and the dead’.
Hugh Torpey is the Content Manager at the IMI. Hugh has written the above blog based on insights from the 2017 National Management Conference