History Proves We Must Get Ahead of Transitions to Succeed


That next wave of disruption is rapidly rolling in behind you; will you make the right decisions? Or will you be a piece of history that is left behind?


Every age, era and epoch has a feel to it. For every age, there is a defining technology. 

Rosalind Williams, MIT historian and author of Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change, set out to find “how history works in an age dominated, if not determined, by technological change.”

Williams believes that how we adapt to technological change provides an important lens to observe and understand human history.

The success of an organization hinges on the ability to embrace the technological disruption of a current generation. 

Today, we are in an age defined by four technologies: Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud. Better known as the SMAC stack.

Today, we are smack-dab in the middle of the SMAC stack.

And just to put it in perspective. Of the Fortune 500 companies: *

  • 16% have achieved SMAC mastery
  • 23% are on the path to SMAC mastery
  • 61% are still stuck in the pre-SMAC tar pit.

These four technologies, continue to be disruptive – and in a good way. Organizations continue to find faster ways to innovate using these technologies.

And the next wave, after SMAC, will exponentially change everything.

The College of Engineering at The Ohio State University and the Olin College of Engineering have researched enterprises that have mastered the art of decision making in technologically disrupted times. And there are two lessons to learn:

Lesson One: Stay on the Right Side of Technology
Think about Williams’s theory on history and technological change. And then let’s take a look at Robert Louis Stevenson author of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

While in Samoa in 1890, Stevenson wrote a letter to fellow author, Henry James. He explained that the pace of technological change was too much for him. He was disengaging from the modern world. He died four years later on the island of Samoa.

Today, disengaging from the chaotic and disrupted world, is not an option. It does not work for a modern enterprise. If your organization disengages from today’s generational technology, it will die on the metaphoric island.

Look at England in the sixteenth century. At the end of the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547 AD), only 20 English masters dared to sail beyond sight of land. As an island nation, the inability to sail -- the dominant technology of the day -- was a significant disadvantage.

There is a big difference between knowing that a market transition is happening, and knowing how to be on the right side of that transition (sailing without land as a marker).

What is a best practice for being ahead of a transition? One way is to create enterprise specific ‘get smart’ spaces.

An example of a ‘get smart’ space is something they did at Disney. The organization recognized the importance of analytic mastery, but wasn’t sure how to do it. So the company hosted its own Analytics Conference with three objectives: educate, inspire and validate.

Another example is Toyota Motor Sales. They have an annual “technology fair” where anyone in the company can put together a tabletop exhibit detailing a fresh and innovative use of technology.

Some organizations engage in ‘technology tourism.’ For example, visiting Silicon Valley companies that are further down the road with adopting a particular technology.

Other organizations create a ‘strategic venture fund,’ which invests in a portfolio of relevant-to-the-enterprise, early-stage tech start-up companies. 

Lesson Two: Empower, Enhance and Augment
There exist affordable resources detailing global megatrends. One of the best is available free of charge from the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds released in 2012.

Every presidential election year the NIC produces a report that provides a framework for thinking about the future. The fifth installment suggests that the number one megatrend facing governments and companies is individual empowerment.

On a macro-scale, the trend toward individual empowerment means that by 2030 we will be living in a “Middle Class World.” The global middle class is currently ~1 billion and will grow to 2 billion and possibly 3 billion.

As Christopher A. Kojm, Chairman, National Intelligence Council, Office of the Director of National Intelligence explains. “We are really looking at a world in 2030 where for the first time in human history the majority of humanity will not be living in absolute poverty.”

On the micro-scale, historically we have used technology to eliminate human labor via automation. In the future, technology will enhance and augment humanity.

As we move forward one may anticipate genetic (modifying human DNA), prosthetic (incorporating tools or machines into our bodies), or pharmaceutical (fine-tuning our bodies with drugs to be smarter, stronger, happier, or longer-lived) augmentations.

As you read these words a variety of initiatives are underway to “hack the code of life” and push human lifespans past the current maximum of about 120 years. Exponential change – previously misinterpreted as something that only happens to things, will happen to us.

By 2050 no one under 80 will be dying from cancer.

It doesn't matter your age. It doesn’t matter your vertical market. Being on the wrong side of history technologically has harmful consequences.

Being on the right side of technology history increases stock prices. It brightens the global economic future.  And it is an important component of brand and personal identity.

What side of technology history are you going to be on? Will you use technology to be?

  • Way ahead of the herd for competitive advantage
  • Before the herd to address a broken business process
  • With the herd to ensure safety in numbers
  • After the herd to get increasingly better deals

I suggest beginning a dialogue with the smartest people you can find. Ask them how to use today’s technologies to get way ahead of the herd.

And it starts with the SMAC stack. Embrace the stack. Continue to innovate with those technologies. This will prepare you for that next generation technology.

That next wave of disruption is rapidly rolling in behind you; will you make the right decisions? Or will you be a piece of history that is left behind?

*Source: Ongoing longitudinal research being conducted in conjunction with the Olin Innovation Lab [Olin College of Engineering] and the CIO Solutions Gallery [College of Engineering at the Ohio State University.

Thornton May is a futurist, educator and author. His extensive experience researching and consulting on the role and behaviors of “C” level executives in creating value with information technology has won him an unquestioned place on the short list of serious thinkers on this topic.

More Information: The Internet of Everything is leading digital disruption and transformation. See how SMAC (social, mobile, analytics, and cloud) are transforming the way we do business.