Mark is the CEO of W3.Digital, a Digital Transformation focused consultancy.
There have been a few moments in history where technological advances and market forces combine to change the global economy’s functions. These moments bypass incremental changes and create significant leaps that spur new businesses and sector-wide disruption.
Railways, electricity power grids, telephony, air travel, early-stage computing, the internet and the advent of the mobile phone — followed by the now-ubiquitous smartphone — are examples of such leaps. While each of these moments was messy as they first emerged, each rapidly matured to a state where we cannot imagine life without them.
We are going through one of those changes right now, but it is somewhat different from most of the technological stages listed above. Multiple technologies are maturing all at once, each of which can alter entire sectors fundamentally.
Board Members Need To Know What Is Happening
In times of relative stability, most businesses stay focused on extracting as much value as possible from the markets they operate. However, in times of instability (like the phase we are going through now), businesses need to focus more on understanding the long-term organizational risks and opportunities that the market instability is creating. Not all board members will be technology experts, but the significant trends must be discussed and experts brought in where appropriate.
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To help with that process, here are a few of the potentially disruptive technologies — and their potential implications — that are emerging now:
5G And Smart Networks
The smartphone, as we currently understand it, would never have had the level of adoption it does presently without 4G. It was a network fast enough to deliver streaming music, videos and other data that gave birth to new business models. Uber would not have existed without it, and Netflix would be only a shadow of its current offering.
However, 5G is much more than just a faster network. Over time, it will be a network that can be split and have functionality built into it to enable sector-wide innovation. Healthcare, logistics, financial services and transport will all require specialist features that can be delivered at the network level.
Telcos will increasingly work with industry to design “sector-specific smart networks.” Their rollout should drive the adoption of robotic surgery, driverless vehicles and automated decision-making to optimize supply chains automatically and customer experience innovations.
5G will become a platform for enabling sector-level innovation. Those who work with telcos and other technology innovators to identify the critical use cases should develop a significant competitive advantage.
The Automated Enterprise
Machine learning, AI and the various forms of automation are now maturing very quickly. These technologies are no longer in the “tomorrow” basket; they are impacting businesses and markets right now.
Rapidly, we will start to see the “automated enterprise” concept beginning to be discussed in mainstream news. This is an idea where automated decision-making, powered by AI, will start to optimize whole business functions like HR, customer service and finance. Over time, these automated functions will be integrated to behave more like a single entity than disparate systems.
People will be mostly freed up from low-value administrative tasks, allowing them to focus solely on more future-focused issues like creative problem-solving and stakeholder interaction.
While the big data-focused AI applications will focus on optimizing the operations of a business, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the insights will be transparent. Data visualization tools can also be limited because they are often set up with specific questions in mind, which can become outdated.
On the other hand, conversational AI is increasingly able to allow people to get value from the data stored in companies through a simple conversation. While the first decade of the 21st century was all about generating and storing data, the current decade will be much more focused on interacting with it to generate value.
We are heading into a world where any company stakeholder — be it employee, CEO, shareholder or customer — will be able to ask the business itself what they need to know today, and the company will be able to answer back in whatever form best suits them. Conversational AI should become our interface layer into an increasingly complex and fast-moving world.
These macro-level trends will begin to mature the conversation around other societal-level issues, such as online privacy, data ownership and AI ethics.
Today’s board members need to discuss these issues, the technologies that underpin them, the role their company wishes to play in their evolution and the potential impacts of investing or not. They are complex topics with far-reaching implications, but the one thing they cannot be is ignored.