An ancient Chinese curse is “May you live in interesting times.” We seem to be leading in emerging times. Is that a curse too? In the book The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly (2016) says that the 1980s marked a convergence of computers and communication, a union that is profoundly influencing our present and our future. Taking computer classes at SUNY in the 1980s, I was thrilled to use a 1200 baud modem to connect my PC to the school computer. That way I could write my programs at home instead of working in the computer lab until 3:00 a.m. when it closed. Little did I know this connection would bring technological advances that would drive the future and transform the world. Nor did I know this connection would bring a constant flow of change, and an overload of information that would challenge my role as a leader. But, with plentiful resources to navigate new technologies and ample strategies to benefit organizations, there has never been a better time to be a leader!
Keeping up with Emerging Technologies
Haven’t ordered your 3D printer yet? No problem. With advances in 4D Printing there might be a sale. 4D Printing is a technique that encodes materials with a dynamic capacity, enabling objects to transform depending on the situation. 4D Printing is new to Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies in 2016. The Hype Cycle, which is updated annually, is a useful tool for leaders who want to keep pace with new technologies. As a university leader, I like to review Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Education. The 2016 Cycle includes trends I had anticipated, like Virtual and Augmented reality and affective computing, as well as a few surprises, such as blockchain for academic credentials and a Tin Can API that connects learning activities from multiple systems.
Another resource for leaders who want to keep up with technology is Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report. The report offers a wealth of information for businesses who want to leverage the Internet for competitive advantage. Retailers might find it helpful to know that Internet retail spending continues to grow, garnering 10% of the total retail market in 2015, as compared to 2% in 2000. Organizations trying to reach Gen Z will find it interesting that the number of video views is rapidly increasing, especially with apps like Snapchat and Facebook Live. Global businesses will want to learn that China is now a major player, with AliBaba and six other companies listed in the top twenty Internet companies.
In addition to informative reports like those from Gartner and Meeker, McKinsey provides timely research on tech topics, often highlighting socioeconomic trends. For example, a recent report notes that advances in automation technologies are changing the way we produce and consume resources (Woetzel, et al., 2017). The report covers new technologies like self-driving cars, drones that maintain utility lines, and underwater robots that repair pipelines.
Leaders can stay current by augmenting industry reports with a variety of tools. I review Alexa—helpful for tracking websites with the heaviest traffic, and the Tiobe Index, which shows programming language trends. Wikipedia has a list of emerging technologies, and tech news sources like ZDNet offer daily news feeds that make it easy to keep up with technology news. TED Talks are another resource, with a variety of tech-related Talks posted each month. Conferences like Educause and the Gartner Symposium present even more opportunities for leaders to learn about emerging technologies.
A Strategic View
While it is essential to keep up with emerging technologies, it is even more important for leaders to understand the fundamental characteristics that are driving all of this change. A critical factor is the amount of information being produced. According to the IBM report “10 Key Marketing Trends for 2017,” 90% of the data in the world today was created in the last two years. The amount of information added to the Internet each year is measured in petabytes. One petabyte is enough to contain all the data from all the academic research libraries in the US. And with objects now connecting via embedded sensors, the Internet of Things is expected to generate a lot more petabytes of data in a short time.
Gartner and ZDNet provide useful filters for all this information. Still, the pace of change may be disorienting, even if (or maybe especially if) a leader keeps up with all these resources. It seems that leaders must ascend to the top of the DIKW pyramid and look for some wisdom. Changes shouldn’t distract leaders, as long as they have a sense of the underlying currents that they should be addressing. One source of wisdom comes from Weinberger’s (2011) five strategies for dealing with networked knowledge.
- Open up Access
Weinberger (2011) says that the open nature of the net necessitates an open system of freely available information. This view is shared by Alexandra Elbakyan, a graduate student who uploaded over 50 million research papers to Sci-Hub. Before the Internet, journals allowed for the flow of information from one university to another via the library system. Will this change in a digital age? Should access to content be freely available, like access to roads? My university is becoming more transparent in sharing operational data, resulting in increased collaboration, engagement, and questioning.
- Provide the Hooks for Intelligence
All of the knowledge flowing on the Internet is useless if people cannot find what they need when they need it. Weinberger (2011) says that metadata is needed to work effectively with networked knowledge. When filters are applied, metadata can help locate information. It is typically a leader’s job to make sure that workers can get the information that they need. In a networked environment, leaders can help ensure that metadata is added to business systems along with the data. A project in my department is to link academic program information to employment information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, metadata that will help students connect academics to job information.
- Link Everything
Connecting pieces of information is not a new strategy. Footnotes, indexes, bibliographies, concordances, and glossaries have long been used to provide links, explanations, and extra information. The Internet, however, has freed us from constraints of time, size, and the need for a linear presentation. Since taking this class I have started incorporating links in my communications. This allows me to focus on the key points of the message while offering additional information for those who want it.
- Leave No Institutional Knowledge Behind
Kelly (2106) notes that science is inefficient, as most experiments fail. It may take us a long time to figure out how to get those nanowires (one of Wikipedia’s emerging technologies) working, and a lot of failed experiments. When we do figure how to make nanowires cheaply and abundantly, batteries will last for the lifetime of the device, electric cars will become common, and flashlights will work when the power goes out. But failure is institutional data, and does not always make the journals. Organizations may be reluctant to share their failures, and even their successes, but all data is potentially valuable.
- Teach Everyone
Learning to use the Internet is easy. More challenging is learning how to evaluate knowledge in a world where anyone can post anything. Building skills like problem solving, decision making, and judging can be useful in evaluating networked knowledge. And, the most important thing to learn is that we must accept differences.
Humble Beginnings… Amazing Future
Since I first used a Hayes modem to connect to an IBM 4381 at the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering, I have watched in awe as technology has advanced, changing what we do, and how we do it. I am inspired by the vision of the future that Kevin Kelly describes in the video “12 Inevitable Tech Forces That Will Shape Our Future.” We are lucky to live in what Kelly (2016) calls the Beginning—a time filled with opportunities to shape the future in amazing ways. Leaders who keep learning, connecting, sharing, and inspiring will find it a blessing to lead in emerging times.
Kelly, K. (2016). The inevitable. New York, NY: Viking.
Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Woetzel, J., Sellschop, R., Chui, M., Ramaswamy, S., Nyquist, S., Robinson, H., Roelofsen, O., Rogers, M., & Ross, R. (2017, February). Beyond the supercycle: How technology is reshaping resources. McKinsey Global Institute. Retrieved from http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability-and-resource-productivity/our-insights/how-technology-is-reshaping-supply-and-demand-for-natural-resources