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The future of business: A question of survival?

Over the next few years, businesses face an existential threat for which many are ill-prepared. Rohit Talwar, award-winning global futurist discusses how to navigate an uncertain future

How many of today’s CEOs and CIOs will still be in the same role in a few years’ time? With 'born digital challenger brands’ grabbing market share in almost every industry, it’s difficult to call. But my guess is, unless the existing players become more proactive and start to prepare their firms for digital redefinition of their sectors, at least a third of current CIOs could fall by the wayside.

The signs are everywhere. For example, I hear many reports of tense relations between the IT department and the rest of the business. Senior managers and the board are now pushing the CIO and their team to accelerate their response to the digital challenge. ‘Increasingly, IT decisions are being made independently of the IT department. Few other departments would put up with it, but unfortunately in this case they have little choice,’ Simon Michie, CTO of managed services provider Redcentric told me recently.

But how can you plan when the future promises to be so volatile? It’s a real challenge for traditional companies yet, they do have some advantages over younger start-ups; for example brand recognition and an established customer base. How can they optimise these assets while looking to the possibility of an entirely different landscape?

The secret is a dual-track strategy. First recruit some of your most innovative and flexible employees to a cross-departmental, future-focusing team and encourage an open, ideas culture. Their ongoing brief should be to look at forces and ideas shaping the next three to ten years, with no holds barred. These foresights can be used inform different possible scenarios of how the business landscape could play out in your sector. These in turn can then inform the decisions we have to make about business direction and organisational change in the next three years to ensure we can navigate any of the possible futures that could emerge. Give them the freedom to explore wider concepts such as the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain technology, the impact of artificial intelligence and new business models.

Many of these developments could change our lives, perhaps even more so than digitisation itself. For example, at the moment the IoT is supply-driven. We are seeing sensors embedded in a growing number of objects, however few are looking at the technology holistically or understand where it could go ultimately. In my view, the killer apps won’t be headline news, but will be focused on B2B, the back office and mechanical systems. For example, a plane engine might message the destination airport to say that one of its bearings is wearing thin. This communication will immediately feed into a 3D printer and a new one will be waiting on the plane’s arrival. Vehicles, production equipment, manufacturing equipment, consumer goods and even our clothing will all increasingly become part of the IoT and drive fundamental change in the way industry value chains operate.

Artificial intelligence is already impacting professional work – even that of lawyers and doctors. For example, IBM’s Watson is already out-performing human doctors in diagnosing cancer. The technology won’t be totally perfect but increasingly businesses will accept systems that are 90-95 per cnet as good as humans - trading subtleties for cost, and then others will have no choice but to follow, if they wish to remain competitive.

Faced with an onrush of new technology, we have to become more experimental - learning to fail fast and cheaply - capturing the learning from failures and accelerating the progress of successful experiments. Google had the right idea with Google Glass. I don't think it was designed to be a mainstream product, but it tested the wearable technology market and was a great learning tool for Google.

Next you must make sure employees have the tools they need to innovate and collaborate. Don’t reinvent the wheel when doing this. Technology vendors dedicate their resources to developing and optimising applications such as unified communications, data management, infrastructure management, and security and do so at a speed most businesses couldn’t match or justify internally. In pursuit of speed and flexibility, increasing numbers of businesses are making the decision to use third party applications and work with experienced managed service providers to customise them to internal needs.

Whilst there was hesitancy in the past to see managed service providers as strategic partners, they are evolving beyond rapid technology configuration and data management. The new breed is moving up the value chain and will work alongside customers to create flexible IT architectures that can support both current requirements and a range of possible future scenarios.

This is where a good CIO can rise to the occasion and take the lead in inspiring and educating their team. The skills base will need to change, after all. Using a managed service partner will eliminate much of the technical ‘nitty gritty’. Consequently account management and relationship skills will increasingly be in demand.

This leaves the rest of the company. Obviously the business can’t take its eyes off the need to make short-term profit and has to manage the risk of constant technology change. For example, security will always be an issue, but to use it as an excuse to do nothing means moving backwards. So use those whose mindset might block progress to help spot and manage the potential risks in the technology choices we are making. It’s a question of playing to everyone’s strengths, but in the knowledge that transformation is not only necessary, it’s also urgent.

There’s little doubt that many businesses are facing an existential threat. Look at how Airbnb is shaking up the hospitality industry – or how Uber is disrupting transportation. It’s not easy to be prepared for anything and everything that might happen.

But the first steps must be to create a forward thinking mindset, understand what's shaping the future, develop agility, and to have the right expert partners on your side. No one has a guaranteed future but these factors will certainly increase our chances of survival.

Rohit Talwar, award-winning global futurist and Simon Michie, CEO of Redcentric

Image source: Shutterstock/solarseven