In 2016, technology is ever-changing, ever-accelerating, and, whether we like it or not, ever-present. Given its blanket application, understanding the landscape is absolutely vital for executives, regardless of field, business stage, or experience level.
While the first response of many execs may be panic or resistance, it ought to be excitement. Advances in technology present opportunities to connect with customers across multiple channels and touch points, weaving a brand experience that’s consistent, easy to navigate, and bound to delight.
Of course, massive tectonic shifts in the tech space aren’t new. Think about the onset of easy internet access. More than 3 billion people are now using the internet, a number that has doubled since as recently as 2008. It has changed how brands interact with customers, existing and potential, as well as shifted the balance of power in favour of the buyer thanks to the ready availability of information. These are echoed in the move to mobile phones in the past decade, particularly in emerging markets, in the democratisation of insights via data science, and in the move to cloud-based infrastructure.
These are truly ground-shattering shifts in technology, changes that every executive had to take in their stride. The alternative was to become a dinosaur, and eventually–like their Jurassic counterparts–to become extinct.
According to the World Economic Forum, this is the current crop of emerging technologies we should zero-in on. Given how various they are, both in scope and readiness for wide adoption, we’ll set our sights on six that are particularly salient for executives today.
1. Augmented/virtual reality: Simulating a user’s presence and interaction with their environment (real or imaginary) has applications that go far beyond computer games. Early adopters of the technology include IKEA, which developed a VR experience enabling potential customers to see IKEA kitchens through HTC’s Vive headset. The customer could change every detail at the click of a button, from cabinet colours to layout, and see the kitchen from a child’s height as well as their own. VR uses extend to industrial and architectural design, education, and medicine, with these fields barely scratching the surface of possibility. That makes augmented and virtual reality a must-explore for executives around the world, particularly when considering new ways of delighting their customers.
2. Internet of things (IoT): In 1999, BusinessWeek’s Neil Gross made a prediction: “In the next century, planet earth will don an electronic skin. It will use the Internet as a scaffold to support and transmit its sensations.” One look at the data confirms his hunch. In 2016, there are around 6.4 billion connected “things” in use, with 5.5 million added to that number every day.
This is called the internet of things–a network of connected objects, devices, and buildings fitted with software, allowing them to interact and collect data. The uses are endless, from smartphone-controlled thermostats and home security to more efficient city services. Harnessing the power of connectivity will enable executives everywhere to gather data and insights on their target audience and customers, as well as offering new methods to serve them efficiently.
3. Artificial intelligence: Advances in AI are reverberating among businesses worldwide, as executives realise just how powerful it can be in the development of new economies for their companies. The proof is in the numbers: $8.5 billion was spent on AI in 2015, quadruple the figure in 2010.
The applications of AI are already in full effect, with its capabilities for deep learning giving it unprecedented power in pattern-spotting and data analysis–eminently useful for marketers and, indeed, business leaders in any industry. But AI isn’t limited to smarter data. It can also be used to interact in a more robust, comprehensive way with consumers, even when your staff aren’t available–for example, AI-assisted diagnosis in the medical field. It also allows for mass personalisation of content. In other words, AI-curated information can mean user experiences tailored to fit each person that interacts with your company.
4. Autonomous transportation and delivery: Of course, we’ve all seen the headlines about self-driving cars being trialed by Uber in Pittsburgh. Still in a controlled experimentation phase, they’re barely scratching the surface of autonomous transportation possibilities. Think of the applications that come with true synchronisation with computers and businesses. Hours of freed-up time, schedule management, and more efficient ways to commute are well on the way.
As for delivery, it’s a stream that runs both ways. As further advances are made in automatic land, sea, and air delivery, businesses will find themselves able to send products far faster and at lower cost than in days gone by, reaping the rewards in happy, loyal customers. In reverse, professionals will be able to take delivery of key information, products, and samples at the same increased speed, streamlining an entire phase of development.
5. Next-generation batteries: Entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Elon Musk have brought the pursuit of next-generation, longer life batteries to the forefront in recent years. The applications are varied, from vehicles to home-energy systems, and without question, they’ll benefit both homeowners and businesses when wider adoption and low-cost development arrives.
Companies will soon be able to drive down energy costs from top to bottom, be it through internal operations or supply-chain production; if Tesla’s gigafactory is anything to go by, the mass production of the next generation of batteries will be fully sustainable.
6. The blockchain: A blockchain is an ever-growing database that hold a series of secure transaction records. Each block is connected to the last, and the chain continues to grow as more transaction-data is stored. Ever heard of bitcoin? Then you’ve heard of a blockchain, because that is technology that powers it.
But for business, a blockchain goes far beyond the “cryptocurrency” application. It has the ability to disrupt financial services, health care, energy, you name it. If it has processes that require exchanges between peers, be it currency or data, the blockchain allows for a secure, fully validated transaction anytime it’s required.
Inevitably, these technologies (and others) will converge, resulting in applications that pull from many to create one integrated, efficient process; truly “e pluribus unum” brought to life. For business leaders, this presents opportunity, both for internal efficiency and value created for the end user. Just imagine: an IoT device that can check the vitals of infant, then send the information to an AI-diagnostic tool. After that, a doctor can review the diagnostic with a VR device, then prescribe medicine delivered via autonomous transportation. Finally, the infant’s medical records are updated on a health-record system powered by the blockchain technology. It’s a remarkable feat of integrated tech, and it’s closer than we think.
At first glance, it may appear that many of these technology shifts don’t apply to you, your business, or even your industry. But we’ve thought that before, only for the innovation to spread, encircling us on an island of ignorance. In recent history, the smartest executives are the ones who seek out information, mastering new technologies before they become widespread. That way, they’re ahead of the curve, prepared for what’s to come instead of treading water to keep up.
Whatever order these tectonic shifts come in, and however much they disrupt our individual industries, becoming comfortable with what they are, how they work, and, more importantly, how they can work for you will do far more good than harm.