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October 9, 2002
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Keeping pace with technology

Ravi Chaudhry

The message from the trailer of Manoj Shymalan's movie, Signs is quoted quite often, "The first sign you cannot explain. The second sign you can't ignore. The third sign you won't believe".

It happens to us all the time. And yet, one does not always "act". More than ever before, today's times call for proactive responses, and a cheerful readiness to change the way we run our businesses.

A scan of those who are able to keep their heads above water even in these ever-changing landscapes reveals that they never let technological developments catch them napping.

In 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote in Future Shock that technology was changing society so quickly that a person in the span of a single lifetime would find himself a stranger in his own culture. Today, one could say that this phenomenon is happening every 5 to 10 years.

A shift in the methodology of discoveries is primarily responsible for this. Einstein used to work as a clerk in the Swiss patent office at Berne during day, and by night as a physicist. Innovation usually was the outcome of a genius at work in a basement laboratory. Today, vast networks of institutions are constantly discovering newer and newer things.

A new invention can overnight make our business or knowledge assets redundant. The frightening part is that the developments are not always linear. As Paul Saffo, director of Institute of the Future, California, says, "Technologies never move in straight lines. They wander. They cross-pollinate." Such rampant innovation can impact our businesses in several ways, three of which are briefly described below.

  • Convergence of Technologies, which results in co-mingling of products, causes the most widespread demand discontinuities. New species of products are born, offering unimagined discretion to consumers. For example, commercial production of digital cameras and their usage together with personal computers has seriously affected sales of traditional cameras and films. A simple phone is becoming a multiple-usage product Consequently, demand forecasting becomes extremely difficult. Planning ahead becomes like navigating through fog.
  • Emergence of New Technologies has more devastating effects. The only consoling aspect is that it usually does not happen overnight. The most vivid examples are the demise of traditional publishing and printing houses and new drug formulations replacing old recipes, etc. In the avalanche of new developments during the next decade, we may well see products like DIY (do it yourself) healthcare kits and pharma-genomics apparatus - which would take the guesswork out of prescribing drugs, and an organic farming boom - that restrict pesticide usage. All this is bound to shake the foundations of several businesses.

  • Role of the Internet is still not fully understood by most businesses. This aspect is bringing about rapid-fire changes in the structuring of businesses. Companies get into doing something, because everybody is in it. It is no wonder that more than half of all ERP (enterprise resource planning) users did not get the intended benefits. It is never too late to re-evaluate the new business dynamics of e-commerce parameters and re-establish a web-based strategy for one's unique situation.

There are signs that within 5 to 6 years, expert system software will compete with lawyers, doctors and other professionals. Those who do not heed the message may go the way of the traditional travel agent. Translation software may replace foreign language teachers.

What can organisations do to keep track of the new complexities of technology monitoring? Is there a method to track this continuous swirl of technologies? Is it possible to be prepared and take advantage of these discoveries and avoid becoming a victim? Brad Wieners has identified eight distinct new technologies that will play a significant role in the future.

Four of these are a little more futuristic. These are Bio-interactive materials (miniscule sensors, which can be planted in people even paper and clothes), Bio-fuel Production Plants (fuel farming - which means today's battles over oil could become tomorrow's water wars), Molecular Manufacturing (building products by manipulating atoms like Lego pieces) and Genotyping (unlocking the secret of each person's genes and treatments).

The other four are equally serious contenders for creating a tangible impact within our lifetimes. These are Bionics (systems to replace disabled body parts), Cognitronics (reliable interfaces between computer and brain), Combinatorial Science (accelerating the discovery process, like Excel for financial services) and Quantum Nucleonics (portable, non-polluting nuclear power).

Apart from these, there are hundreds of variants of today's sciences - which with a small niche invention can alter the entire basis of how an existing technology is used. New ways of mixing chemicals, new compositions of known materials, new methods of hardening or softening materials… the list goes on. While there can be no fool-proof way to ensure the longevity of existing businesses, every organisation needs to evolve its own mechanism to be better prepared to cope with the future.

David Brooks of Newsweek calls for developing future-mindedness. It is not an easy trait. It fundamentally creates disorder in one's operations. It calls for an emotional attachment of things still to come. One thing is sure, where there is future-mindedness, there is less risk of being upstaged.

First, an organisation needs to give as much importance to technology as to financial issues. Whereas the latter are constantly analysed, technology reviews are at best given a casual overview.

One should try and define the compass points of one's key technology strengths, and identify the intersecting potential of all peripheral sciences. One may not be on the right path, always. The important element is to demonstrate top-level commitment to probe the future and inculcate agility in order to embrace change as it occurs.

Secondly, it is often overlooked that formal R&D departments are neither an insurance against technological obsolescence, nor the only custodians of knowledge regarding future scenarios. Technological innovation is a process that calls for proactive antennas tuned to pick up faint, early signals of anything that may remotely impact one's business. For this, the entire organisation has to be involved. For several Indian companies, this means moving from the tyranny of a vertical organization structure to a web-type structure.

Thirdly, it is necessary to review critical assumptions in the present business model; often they limit ability to spot future opportunities. One should not assume that one is good in everything one does. Consider the scenario in the automotive industry: there will only be VBOs (vehicle brand owners). They will do the core tasks of designing and marketing vehicles. Even final assembly will be undertaken by parts suppliers.

Magna, a Canadian company is taking over contract assembly from Detroit. It has bought over a Chrysler factory in Europe to supply the same minivans to them. Every organisation has to get out of areas where one is not strong.

And finally, size is no guarantor of business sustainability. Bigger is not always better. The continuing agonies of AOL Time-Warner show how the world's biggest takeover (at that time) has become one of the world's biggest financial sinkholes.

Quite often, dealing with the challenge of making mergers and acquisitions work, distracts from the more crucial tasks of generating new strategic space. Rarely do the original pre-merger objectives see the light of the day. Whatever be an organisation's size, if it accepts that technological vigilance is the prime requisite of business success, it will continue to outlive others.

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