Organizations everywhere need to develop ‘antennae’ that enable them to understand and position themselves for the world as it is changing. Without such capabilities they will be blind to the signals and trends that will determine their evolution and, ultimately, whether they thrive or survive in the face of disruptive change.
But, as futurist Amy Webb argues in our Big Thinker video interview, such approaches need to be sophisticated enough to both spot impactful activity and tune out dead-end or irrelevant developments.
The kind of future tracking frameworks that many consistently successful organizations use helps them identify important signals and trends and distibguish those from just ‘noise,’ she says. And that enables their CxO to be more confident when steering the organizations towards a successful future.
“At any given time, there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of signals that tell us something about what the future holds. But it can be a challenge to differentiate what is a weak or strong signal, what is a trend, and what is just noise that can be ignored,” says Webb.
“Organizations need that framework as well as a common lexicon that everybody can use to take part in this process,” she says. The framework offered by Webb’s Future Today Institute has technology at its center and suggests organizations look for signals and trends across 11 sources of macro-change.
“What you’re looking for are primary forces, primary areas where change is occurring, such as the environment, geopolitics and the economy, and relate [the signals you pick up there] back to the work that you’re doing. If you start looking at technology through those lenses, you will see the world differently,” she argues.
Within that framework, the aim is to gather and spot signals. Some may be weak and simply point to a new way of doing something but others will be strong signals that are obvious inflection points that “tell you something important about change within your immediate space or with a competitor, market or technology,” says Webb. As your signal data grows and a pattern forms, you can see the emergence of a trend that can reshape an industry, she says — and that can require the pivoting of your organization to take advantage of or avoid the ensuing disruption.
“So if you get into a habit of looking for forces, signals and trends, that will give you the accurate information you need to distinguish between what really matters,” says Webb.
2021’s big impact trends
But what emerging technologies, breakthrough business models and industry shake-ups does Webb think will determine the winning organizations of this decade?
The most obvious set of signals and trends that CxOs should be paying particular attention to today are forming around artificial intelligence, she says. “Artificial intelligence is nothing less than the third era of computing. A lot of the elements and technologies within AI have been accelerated by [the impact of] the pandemic. So, on the near-term horizon, expect huge changes in the application of things like natural language generation and natural language processing,” she says.
Related to that, she points to advances in computer vision and biometric tracking that are now being deployed much more widely. “Right now would be a good time for your organizations to start tracking all of this in a more meaningful way,” she says.
Webb also highlights 5G and the many use cases that the technology is allowing businesses and public agencies to explore. “We’ll see an acceleration of 5G — in logistics, in warehouses and in manufacturing facilities — that will boost the Industrial Internet of Things and collaborative robotics.”
Given that scale of such change, it makes sense for organizations to look to their technology partners to help define and input to their future-mapping processes, she says.
“If you don’t intentionally look for change outside of your company, outside of your industry, you will miss what’s on the horizon,” says Webb.
“So for almost everybody, [today] that’s going to mean [engaging with] experts in 5G, it’s going to mean experts in many different areas of artificial intelligence, as well as IoT and metadata. We could create a giant list, but you need to start cultivating relationships [with partners] in many different fields to help you see more clearly what’s on the horizon.”
But imperative is to ensure you have a robust capability that gives you the “ability not only to forecast what’s to come, but to create your own preferred future,” she concludes in The Signals Are Talking. “As technology stimulates innovation across a greater number of fields, and as trends emerge from the fringe and travel to the mainstream, you can take steps to navigate the future of your field or industry. Don’t wait.”
• Portrait photography: Elena Seibert