This article is part of our March 2019 series about emerging technology. Click here for more.
“Adapt or die” has long been a central theme for businesses. Throughout history, technology has forced companies to evolve—sometimes in profound ways.
It could be argued that it still is. Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, the Internet of Things (IoT), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), 3D printing and manufacturing, blockchain, 5G, quantum computing, and robotics are fundamentally rewiring the way actions and interactions take place.
“It’s an enormously complicated paradigm,” said Duncan Steels, principal at consulting firm Capgemini.
Of course, the ultimate challenge for any business is to figure out how to position itself on the leading edge of innovation without landing on the bleeding edge. Moving forward with technology too quickly or heading in the wrong direction can ratchet up risks. On the other hand, moving too cautiously can introduce even greater risks—including lagging behind competitors and, at some point, extinction.
Today, it’s wise to adopt a new axiom: Standing still is essentially the same as moving backward. “Innovation must be a priority,” explains Brian Hopkins, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.
How can your organization adopt new and changing digital technologies—and combine them to create innovative and perhaps even disruptive products and solutions? What’s required to create a strategic framework and hold a compass and road map for navigating today’s fast-changing business and technology environment?
Said Cynthia Stoddard, senior vice president and CIO at Adobe: “Every company is now a tech company. The differentiator is how organizations assemble and manage various technology components—and how they use data.” (CMO.com is owned by Adobe.)
Emerging Tech Opportunities
One thing that’s remarkable about today’s business environment is the sheer number of digital technologies that exist and the number of directions an enterprise can take. It’s not a question of whether a business will adopt various emerging technologies, it’s how, when, where, and in what combination. This may mean pairing a speech interface, such as Siri or Google Assistant, with a specific task, such as searching for items or switching on a light. Or it might mean building AR into an app so that it’s possible to view technical specs and information about a product directly at the retail shelf.
The common denominator? “It’s all about intelligent automation and integrating AI into other digital technologies,” said Scott Likens, emerging tech leader at PwC.
The possibilities continue to expand as emerging technologies mature. For example, automobile manufacturers are now rolling out in-car payment systems that allow motorists to pay for items at a drive-through window or gas pumps without pulling out their wallets.
And the addition of speech technology could prove transformative. Suddenly, it’s possible to order a pizza or Chinese takeout using Siri or another speech tool while in motion. The system handles the payment and the motorist simply needs to pick up the order—or arrange a time for delivery at a home or office. There’s no fussing with cards, holding phones out the window, or reciting credit-card numbers over the phone.
An important consideration in today’s environment, Capgemini’s Steels said, is to recognize that digital media has introduced a paradigm shift. Although the term may seem like a cliché, it’s an accurate description of today’s radically changing technology landscape.
“Websites and traditional ways to approach information and tasks are moving into the background. Interfaces are becoming thinner and, in some cases, almost nonexistent,” he told CMO.com. “Things increasingly revolve around apps and how they integrate voice, geolocation, sensors, and other data to create new ways to navigate and interact with the world. People are looking for a direct link to a task rather than dealing with a hierarchy of clicks.”
No More Chasing
Identifying the right technologies is at the center of success. It’s easy to wind up chasing shiny objects that fail to deliver value and a return on investment, said Nigel Fenwick, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.
“The key is to understand how a technology framework delivers greater value in the short-term, medium-term, and long-term,” he told CMO.com.
Fenwick cited a phrase coined by Albert Einstein: “No problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it.” In the case of emerging tech, that means focusing on the customer and understanding pain points, value propositions, and how emerging technologies can bridge gaps between the two through a framework of innovation.
This means understanding customers at a deeper level, including the dynamics and context of a situation. An eye on demographics, geography, growth rates, personas, digital profiles, social profiles, ecosystems, motivations, and goals is crucial, Fenwick pointed out. When a business thoroughly understands customer pain points, desired outcomes and where existing products and solutions fall between the two, the answers begin to snap into focus. It’s customer experience management 101—which organizations are working toward mastering.
“Part of the problem,” he said, “is that the barriers to entry for many technologies, including emerging tech, are low. So organizations wind up chasing rainbows. Key questions executives must ask include: Can we create differentiation, and how long can we hold onto the differentiation? Can we create something that is difficult for competitors to replicate?”
Forward Tech Thinking
Achieving success in this upside-down and inside-out environment can prove daunting. Emerging technology can create friction and challenge the culture of an organization. It can alter the balance of power within an enterprise. It also must be affordable and work within an organization’s cost, revenue, and profit framework.
What’s more, IT platforms must support emerging technology. Businesses are dealing with changing customer behavior and demands, making a technology framework that can support the agility and flexibility required in today’s environment a must.
“It’s very easy to try to solve everything and actually solve nothing,” Steels said.
A winning approach revolves around understanding the overall needs and priorities of the enterprise as well as specific business units and departments—and how it all fits together to create innovation and possibly a competitive advantage. This means thoroughly understanding different emerging technologies, what they can do, and how they fit together. That could require open innovation frameworks, labs, and methods for testing and piloting technologies so that it’s possible to identifying exactly how, when and where to apply them. Someone to orchestrate the process is vital.
“Too often, initiatives get stuck in labs. There is a lot of cool technology, but no one can figure out exactly how to use it—or there’s a fear that it is disintermediated from the core business,” Steels said.
PwC’s Likens added that organizations must have “a vigorous process in place for vetting at the front end of the funnel.” One-year or three-year roadmaps and plans no long cut it. Annual budgets don’t work within an emerging technology framework. “A big-bang mentality makes it impossible to adjust and scale at the speed that’s now required,” he explains.
Instead, he said, an organization must embrace a cycle that may last weeks or even days. “You really have to work to avoid falling back into the mindset where the big bang will solve everything,” Likens said. “It’s all about smaller services, faster iterations, and providing maximum value wherever possible. It’s a about spotting the right emerging tech for a situation and deploying it on a very short time scale.”
Change Is Good
At the heart of the equation, Forrester’s Fenwick said, is the fact that emerging technologies radically change business models, delivery systems, customer expectations, and the way events take place. They introduce different possibilities but, along the way, different outcomes and expectations. Although there’s no single template for navigating emerging tech, tuning into the voices of customers, partners, and employees yields clues to value points and innovation strategies.
Yet, even then, “An organization must have an appetite for change, it must build an IT framework to support emerging technologies, and it must possess the necessary skill sets to support change,” Fenwick said.
If any piece of the puzzle is missing, it’s likely that an emerging technology framework will fizzle. In an environment where consumer behavior is constantly shifting, the marketplace is constantly evolving, and new combinations of technologies are constantly taking root, there’s perhaps only one common denominator, Hopkins said.
“Creating value must come first,” Hopkins said. “It’s the thing that matters the most. The right technologies assembled the right way can unlock value like never before.”