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The Next Big Thing?

We've experienced Information Technologies as the "Big Thing" of the 90s, with the hindsight view that over-building and over-hype created the bubble that eventually caught up with reality. There now ...


September 1, 2002
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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We’ve experienced Information Technologies as the “Big Thing” of the 90s, with the hindsight view that over-building and over-hype created the bubble that eventually caught up with reality. There now seems to be much talk and anticipation of what the next “Big Thing” will be. Technology themes are popular, but there are also social issues that are often forgotten. From a business or investment strategy point of view, the high risk approach is to “place a bet,” without having a “Plan B.” The prudent strategy is to accept the reality of future ambiguity and seek the means to profit from an improved awareness of emerging trends. There is no “sure thing for the next Big Thing.”

First, technology produced the boom, and then it brought the bust. I was intrigued by the thoughts of a number of executives and market gurus as to what would drive the next boom cycle. There appear to be many projections for a “techno-future”; here is a sampling of some remarks.

Information Technology: There has been a large investment in bits and bytes and gadgets and features without investing similarly in the organizational changes necessary to deploy that technology effectively. Technology has been implemented with no regard for the changes that it demands of our organizations and culture. For consumers, surfing the Net while walking down the street is not that compelling. For business, there are many disappointments with ERP and other similar IT systems that promised huge savings by replacing human functions with bytes. Simply put, our human biological and social systems cannot keep up with the accelerating IT systems, and this is where the opportunity lies.

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Local-Area Wireless: This will make computing more sociable, a shared activity, like watching TV, rather than an individual activity at a desk or laptop.

Intelligence in Networking: New devices such as a single-molecule transistor will enable the convergence of data, voice and video networks into a single infrastructure backbone. Such devices will have remarkable levels of intelligence and self-configuration for network accessing and analysis; we will know them as smart agents.

Connectivity: The demand for intelligent connection to the important things in life is fundamental, with a huge untapped potential remaining. However, the engine of real economic growth is not technology but innovation and only the companies who are customer-centric in their innovation will succeed.

Biotechnology: Over the recent past there have been huge promises, but little delivery. Automation, miniaturization and information technology have changed the rate at which biological experimentation proceeds. However, with the deluge of new pharmaceutical compounds, there remains the bottleneck and uncertainty of clinical trials. Mergers to create the large critical mass companies are seen to be dominating the next cycle.

Nanotechnology: This was covered in a recent column and holds one of the brighter promises. Watch this space!

Knowledge Management: This intangible area has grown beyond the status of management fad and is evolving into what may represent one of the most important competitive factors for companies in the future. In many cases it centers on tool-based facilitation for sharing and exploiting know-how, wisdom or insight. For example, web-enabled continuous idea generation is one process familiar to the author. Organizations that have figured out how to use knowledge and people for competitive advantage will surely succeed.

Ceramics, Inorganics and Composites: Several technology forecasters have identified an explosion in innovation for high performance materials akin to the organics revolution over the past 60+ years. Products such as intelligent concrete, super-conducting materials, frictionless bearings, lightweight foam alloys and ceramic engines whet our appetites.

Forget technology, buy gold: The view of one analyst who has lost faith in all technology! However, there is a message here that perhaps consumer and investor sentiment will shift its focus from ephemeral promises to familiar, uncomplicated hard assets of today that everyone uses and enjoys — assets like, hmmm…. paper and wood products?

Why is this important?

Whatever the next Big Thing is, there will be opportunities, but there will also be risks if there is a temptation to bet on the “winner of the moment.” A more prudent approach is to accept that there are no “sure things” and that there is ambiguity in every claimed driver for the new economic business cycle. A business strategy that accommodates and seeks to exploit this uncertainty will be the winning approach. Exploiting uncertainty means having the tools in place for the early recognition of opportunity and, having done the preparation work, acting upon it with confidence. Put another way, it means having a Plan A and at least a Plan B. “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” – Alan Kay.

Alan R. Procter is an international consultant helping organizations exploit the future in their business strategies. He can be reached through futureviews@alanprocter.com