The future of mobility: Are we asking the right questions?

In the 2000 documentary No Maps for These Territories, science fiction author William Gibson remarks, “I think we live in an incomprehensible present.” An expert quoted in The New York Times insists that “we’ve reached a new level where nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

I disagree. The present is understandable and it is possible to make foresight-rich preparations for the future if we ask the right questions.

One of the categories requiring the sharpest questions about the future is mobility. The mobile present has many moving parts and is very complex, but base patterns are discernible. I believe every human on this planet needs at least to attempt to comprehend the current point to which the mobile revolution has brought us. Furthermore, I believe modern executives have a fiduciary responsibility to think long and hard about where the mobile revolution is taking us. 

Why mobility matters

The most rapidly adopted consumer technology in the history of mankind, mobile technology has had a huge economic impact — more than $1 trillion — and has changed the corporate competitive landscape as well as how people live their daily lives. Some go so far as to argue that mobile technologies have changed what it is to be human. 

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3 lessons for collaboration

It’s wonderful that organizations today have access to a treasure trove of powerful software tools designed to enhance, amplify and optimize benefits accruing from collaboration. But having access to, and even acquiring, such tools isn’t sufficient to realize the benefits. Your organization will not unlock the full value of this treasure trove unless it makes collaboration a strategic priority.

From research I have done on the new collaboration space, I see three lessons for today’s leaders. 

Lesson 1: The power of collaboration can’t be tapped absent a desire to collaborate

If collaboration is not within your repertoire of skills, how can you even know what you are missing?

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave has been used to illustrate many truths, so allow me to press it into service on behalf of collaboration. In The Republic, Plato depicts mankind as prisoners seated on a bench facing the wall of a cave. The people on the benches can’t move their heads; they can only look forward. (There is no collaboration.) Behind them is a fire, and between the prisoners’ backs and the fire are people carrying around plaster images of things that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. All that the people on the benches can see are the shadows. Their conception of the world in which they live derives entirely from what they make of those shadows. 

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We’re undervaluing collaboration

Collaboration isn’t just something you want to happen in your office. Our economy, the political system and civilization itself may be productively analyzed as a series of collaborations. (Not to be confused with the late Sen. Ted Stevens’ virally ridiculed “series of tubes.”) How we feed, clothe, educate, amuse and entertain ourselves relies on a remarkably complex and yet surprisingly unremarked-upon series of collaborations. 

We live in an interdependent age. Very little today is the product of just one actor working alone. Collaboration, collaborators and the technologies they choose to use are the key drivers of modern existence. Organizational success in every vertical market depends on effective collaboration — both internal and external to the enterprise — and yet collaboration is, in most instances, unmeasured and unmanaged. This has to change. 

If today’s collaboration tools (just a partial listing of the amazing array includes Asana, Atlassian, Cisco Spark, Evernote, Igloo, Jabber, Google Docs and Google Drive G-Suite, Office365, OneDrive, Pipedrive, Podio, Ryver, Sharepoint, Skype, Slack, Solstice, Trello, Volerro, WebEx, Yammer) are to come anywhere close to realizing their full potential, management teams around the world are going to have to get much better at understanding their series of collaborations. 

As critically important as collaboration is to success in our increasingly digitized world, it is essentially invisible. Nowhere on an enterprise’s systematically produced documents (e.g., the balance sheet or a 10K) will you find collaboration measured. 

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3 steps to better IT career management

Several of my futurist colleagues and I have been thinking about where, in these turbulent times, IT executives should go for career advice. 

We began by considering how IT career advice has evolved. Thirty years ago, the field of IT career advice was an unregulated wilderness of divergent actors. There were academics, rock-star executives, psychologists, bestselling authors, shamans/gurus and snake-oil salesmen.

Back then I worked at a boutique IT consultancy with a guy I’ll call Mr. Average. This guy was not impressive. He had no technical skills to speak of (he did not code or possess any certifications). He was not into networking. He was not an active listener. He did not keep up with developments in any industry or field. He lacked general business savvy, was not strategic in his outlook, exhibited little or no curiosity about the future, did not have any domain expertise in a vertical market, and repeatedly failed visibly to appreciate the nuances of either internal or customer politics. To top it all off, he was not very likable either. So, during one of the IT industry’s many cyclical downturns, it surprised no one there that Mr. Average left the company. What did surprise us was what he chose to do. Mr. Average set himself up as a single-shingle “career adviser.” He did this semi-successfully (meaning he was able to feed himself) for over a decade. The success of his clients is another matter entirely. 

Today, the IT career advice industry is huge, but it’s still absolutely unregulated. I long for the day when a firm such as Gartner or JD Power publishes data about how the IT professionals who have paid for the services of these advisers have done. Clients need to know whose advice is most likely to pay off. 

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Leadership for the IT revolution

Leadership in some form or fashion is taught in every college and university on the planet and has been practiced in every organization that ever existed. Despite that omnipresence, as well as society’s fascination with leadership and ample journalistic treatment of what appears to be a perennial “leadership crisis,” many executives lack a framework to evaluate and improve their own leadership. “Good” and “bad” leadership remains for the most part a subjective, bordering-on-mood-based assessment.

For the past six months, I have been working with a group of early-, mid- and late-stage leaders to better understand the changing state of leadership. To get the ball rolling, stretch the mind and precipitate animated conversation, I asked this group of IT leaders if the traits that made Alexander “great” were still relevant today. They concluded that leadership has evolved significantly in the 2,400 years since the boy king conquered most of the known western world, with contemporary leaders perceived as being more community-focused. 

End of story? Far from it. The tension between the two extremes of leadership style has been studied for millennia. As Emma Dench, the McLean professor of ancient and modern history and of the classics at Harvard University who co-teaches a popular elective course at Harvard Business School called “All Roads Lead to Rome: Leadership Lessons from Antiquity,” explains, “The Romans grappled actively with a very central issue of leadership: How much is a leader for themselves — or how much are they for the people as a whole. … ‘Is it just you on an island, or are you part of a community?’ ”  

In recent times, community has been ascendant — but not universal. The tension remains. In 1991, Joseph Rost, professor emeritus of leadership studies in the School of Education at the University of San Diego, researched the state of leadership, examining 450 books, chapters and journal articles. His research documented more than 200 different and not always consistent ways the leadership industry defines “leadership.” The leadership industry cannot seem to make up its mind whether leadership involves going ahead of others, facilitating others to run, showing others how they should run, motivating others to run, designing the trail the runners run on, timing the run or giving prizes to the fastest runners. 

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The human side of the data revolution

For over a decade, data has been at or near the top of the enterprise agenda. A robust ecosystem has emerged around all aspects of data (collection, management, storage, exploitation and disposition). And yet in my discussions with Global 2000 executives, I find many are dissatisfied with their data investments and capabilities. This is not a technology problem. This is not a technique problem. This is a people problem. 

Those enamored of data often want to eliminate the human from the equation, but it can’t be done. And so, as climate science considers the impact of man on the environment, data science must wrestle with the inverse: the impact of data on man. 

You can fill a library with books talking about the data revolution. There’s Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think; Steve Lohr’s Data-ism: Inside the Big Data Revolution; Malcolm Frank, Paul Roehrig and Ben Pring’s Code Halos; Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World; Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking); Andreas Weigend’s Data for the People: How to Make Our Post-Privacy Economy Work for You; and my very own The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics. 

These are fine works of nonfiction focusing on the potential and perils of a rapidly informating world. “Informating” is a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff in her book In the Age of the Smart Machine (1988). It is the process that translates descriptions and measurements of activities, events and objects into data/information. “Datafication” is a synonym for “informating” — the trend associated with turning many aspects of modern life into machine-readable data and transforming this information into new forms of value.  

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Preparing for the 15-year future

We are transiting a moment of massive uncertainty. The ambiguous road ahead requires making a prediction about predictions. I predict that in 15 years, 85% of the predictions, forecasts and trends set forth by the academics, analysts, futurists and economists (maybe not the economists — their accuracy is increasingly suspect) will influence much of what happens day to day in business.

For IT executives, accelerating change will require them to constantly ask themselves, “What is the right problem to be working on today?” If the answer is not what they were working on yesterday, so be it; they must adjust and move on.

To best answer that recurring question and assure that energies and resources are focused appropriately, they need to answer some subordinate questions. 

With whom should I be talking?

One of the most important lessons my mother took from her years working in the intelligence community is this: Your network will keep you safe. Moving forward, IT executives need to cultivate powerful personal and professional networks. 

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Data realities of 2017 and beyond

Data matters. You don’t need to be a professionally trained futurist to see that a critical driving force in the global economy for the next 10 years will be data exploitation (creation of value with data), data sharing and data protection. (Let that data Exploitation, Sharing and Protection be your ESP.) Executives need to examine what they know and how they think about data. 

That’s because data matters, now more than ever. The recent CES in Las Vegas drove this home (even for those of us who only read about it rather than suffering the crush of humanity). If you hadn’t accepted the reality of the internet of things (IoT), you couldn’t escape it at CES 2017. When the IoT becomes dominant, every object will be collecting and sharing data. Smart beds will be sharing data with smart thermostats, smart refrigerators will be sharing data with smart product packaging, and smart hairbrushes will be sharing data with human hair brushers. And everything will be a source of data. Proof, a prototype wearable from Milo Sensors, measures blood alcohol level through your skin. Aspiring baseball superstars can use a virtual batting cage in which they practice against a database of every pitch ever thrown by a particular pitcher.

The nature of relationships will change. Everything will have a relationship with everything — objects with other objects, objects with their manufacturers, objects with their human users. The robots showcased at CES 2017, such as Mayfield Robotics’ Kuri and LG’s Hub Robot, were notable not so much for what they could do as for the relationship their interface enabled — their personality. The Yui interface of Toyota’s “Concept-i” concept car collects data that apparently can tell when the driver is happy or sad and adjust the mood inside the car accordingly. The NeuV concept vehicle puts Honda on a path that will “enable machines to artificially generate their own emotions,” according to the company.

Data is power

For 420 years, no one has challenged Sir Francis Bacon’s formulation that knowledge is power. But in 2017 and beyond, data is power. The differences run deep. Knowledge is gained through study and experience. Data is merely collected, and in such a quantity that no human mind can begin to contain it. 

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IT and the forever revolution

In this still young century, the IT industry has become obsessed with transformation and disruption. These two terms are little more than new labels for a centuries-old phenomenon that normal humans refer to as “revolution.” IT is all about revolution. It may seem paradoxical, but moving forward, organizations need to add revolutionary thinking and revolutionary behavior to standard operating procedure. In the future, to be sustainably successful, IT executives will have to become revolutionaries — at least part of the time.

Working with the Rady School of Management at the University of California-San Diego, the College of Engineering at Ohio State University and the trade and professional organization AIIM, I recently launched a research program focused on revolution in the IT ecosystem. 

When I began my research, several colleagues initially responded, “Isn’t this just more marketing hype?” Certainly, attention-grabbing marketers and seed capital–craving startups love to label every new micro development in the IT space as “revolutionary,” and the word peppers click-bait headlines touting “the big data revolution,” “the IoT revolution,” “the mobility revolution,” “the algorithm revolution,” “the DevOps revolution,” “the machine learning revolution” and “the connectivity revolution.” If everything in IT is revolutionary, is anything in IT revolutionary? Have we overused the word to the point of rendering it meaningless? 

It is my intention to wrest the term from the mitts of selfish and small-minded attention merchants and vulture capitalists and return it to where it belongs — into the arms of operating IT executives. 

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Leaders as communicators

It is remarkable how many leaders seem to overlook the undeniable correlation between mastering communication and successfully occupying a position of leadership.

The evidence has been piling up for centuries. Just on this continent, the Founding Fathers, in the late 18th century, were masters of the printed word via such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. In the 1930s and 1940s Franklin Delano Roosevelt owned radio with his Fireside Chats. Presidents Kennedy and Reagan excelled at television. And the president-elect, Donald Trump, may owe his position to his ability to parlay a communications trifecta: the political rally, the reality TV show and social media via Twitter.

I recently asked a group of CXOs their thoughts about the communication skills they thought would be required by the leaders of the future. 

Top-down communication is so last century

One key to effective communication is to focus on the most current modes. The political rally is an ancient form, but it’s still relevant, and Trump has been a social media pioneer. Meanwhile, the campaign of his opponent from the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, relied heavily on email. There’s reason to believe she might as well have tried to reach people by circulating clay tablets.Similarly, there are CEOs in the world today who think that, once a strategy has been synthesized, they can use traditional information channels such as email to turn the ball over to underlings for execution. That’s old thinking. 

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