Future – Proofing: Technology, Society, Business

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The following is a guest post by Ari Lightman, Distinguished Service Professor, Digital Media and Marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. He co-leads the Chief Information Security Officer Executive Education and Certification Program and is Commercialization Advisor for the Center for Machine Learning and Health. Ari is also Director of the CIO Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. He teaches classes focused on assessing and measuring the impact of emerging technologies, including Digital Transformation.

A considerable amount of time is spent thinking about the future and the promise of technology.  How will our lives change (for the better or the worse) as a result of the constant push of innovative applications, gadgets and systems?  Movies, like Terminator, Minority Report, and, one of my personal favorites, Blade Runner, provide a hypothesized glimpse.  Often times, they focus on a dystopian world overrun by technology creating a divide between those who benefit and those subservient.  It makes for good movie watching.  Personally, I don’t have a clue whether there is any truth in some of these portrayals, but I know everyone needs to prepare for digital disruption.  At the most basic level, we need to have a greater understanding of the underlying technology that will fuel these advances and the services required to move them into the mainstream.  Dell Technologies’ recent report along with the Institute For the Future (IFTF) called “The next era of human machine partnerships” asked leading experts to share their thoughts on the implications for some emerging technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, as well as Virtual and Augmented Reality.  Not only does the report explain these nascent technologies but provides concrete examples of their application.

The report goes a step further in assessing the impact of technology advances on consumers, organizations and society addressing questions we all should be thinking about: How will we interface with these emerging technologies? What are potential hurdles that need to be addressed? In the future, where human and machine interaction is seamless, does everyone benefit or are parts of society left behind? These secondary and tertiary impacts of an increasingly digitized world need to be examined and developed along with input not just from consumers and technologists but also from economists, regulators, ethicists, etc.

In my role as educator at Carnegie Mellon University, I often get an opportunity to listen to futurists and visionaries share their thoughts on how we will live and work in the future. Discussion of the singularity, when robotic systems become sentient and trigger an unprecedented level of technology advances, is fascinating. The question is, what do organizations need to do today? When I look around the audience at these talks and get a chance to speak with participants, their enthusiasm often gives way to confusion and disillusionment when they try to reconcile where they currently are in this idealized future portrayed by the speaker.  I can sympathize.  When students and sponsors ask me for predictions, I tell them “I don’t even know what I will have for lunch today,” let alone how advances like VR will alter how information is consumed in 2030.  The one thing I do feel strongly about is “Disruption is coming.” (Shout out to Game of Thrones fans). I know I am not alone here. Dell EMC’s chief technology officer, John Roese, offers an interesting perspective in Luminaries – Store your data… in DNA?

If we agree that these technologies will play an increasingly important and critical role in our personal and work lives, how can we take a pragmatic view on logical and reasonable steps to incrementally work toward this future without being blindsided by disruptive forces? Let’s call this practice future proofing….

The first step is to develop resiliency. – Remember the old saying “You have to get back on the horse that threw you”. Shocks will occur and they will become more frequent, so how do organizations adapt and learn how to minimize these disruptive shocks – become more resilient?  Those who are complacent will become disenfranchised. The organizations my institution has worked with, and who we consider ahead of the curve, have put some of the following into place:

Build a Culture around Data

At Carnegie Mellon University, courses in Deep Learning, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence and other ways to interpret data have exploded and will continue to grow in popularity. Incidentally, CMU’s Libratus, an AI that beat the world’s best poker players, is one example in the above mentioned report. From an organization perspective, how do we operationalize data-driven discoveries; what are the appropriate governance structures; how do we prepare (understand, predict and organize) around new regulations concerning privacy (e.g. GDPR), how do we incorporate security (proactive and reactive) into the beginning of any development effort (not simply as a bolt on); how do we provide appropriate levels of education on different data types, stores, analytical methods and interpretation? John Roese provides a viewpoint on the role of technology regulation in a recent podcast.

 Simplify Complexity

Unfortunately the world is becoming a more complex place.  With increasing levels of data, different means of communicating, learning and working, a plethora of policies, procedures, and organizational types, thinking about all the different facets around new initiatives becomes quite dizzying.  Let’s look at data.  There is an explosion of data, coming from a multitude of different sources in a variety of forms resulting in a slew of possible interpretations.  How do we explain this to various stakeholders with different objectives and levels of expertise?  Hint: Learn how to tell effective stories. At Carnegie Mellon University, there are a number of programs and classes examining how to understand information generation, dissemination and cognition from data-driven communication.

Build a Safe Place for Experimentation

If disruptive shocks and complexity are increasing and the pace of technological innovations is accelerating; organizations will need to learn how to experiment.  Too many unknowns leading to indecisiveness can be addressed through experimentation.  However, many organizations don’t have the capacity or wherewithal to allow, understand and use experimentation.  VMware’s CTO, Ray O’Farrell, offers thoughts on nurturing a culture of innovation and trust.

Embrace Uncomfortable Discussions

There is no covering up that disruption will lead to displacement.  An open dialogue on how technological advance will impact industries, companies and employees needs to occur to level set expectations and prepare the workforce.

Understanding Employees

We spend an inordinate amount of time and money on understanding consumers and little on our own employees.  Effective use of technology is predicated on understand motivation and incentives, utilization requirements, and adoption patterns. We are approaching the most inter-generational workforce ever, resulting in different behavior patterns, learning modalities and preferred ways of working. Knowing your employees can help with smoother technical adoption, understanding of consumer behavior and the four other initiatives mentioned.

These are simply a subset of processes at a high level that, I believe, need to be addressed to make an organization more resilient.  I’m sure there are plenty of others and it would be interesting to start a dialogue on what organizations are doing or thinking about, is it industry specific or is there commonality across different industries and how might we develop best practices that can serve as a guide to build help organizations become future-proof.

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