Futurist: You Can Steer a Course Through Rapid Technological Change

By Leon Rubis Apr 29, 2015
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​SAN DIEGO—Lest you doubt the pace of change, Mike Walsh can quickly list many things you may have stopped using just within the past five years. Perhaps you’ve replaced taxis with Uber rides, landline phones and digital cameras with your smartphone, DVDs with streaming video, and hotel rooms with privately owned homes via Airbnb.

Walsh, founder and CEO of Tomorrow, a New York-based consulting firm that advises businesses on positioning themselves for technological change, delivered a keynote address on the second day of the 2015 Society for Human Resource Management Talent Management Conference & Exposition.

In a wide-ranging presentation, Walsh weaved provocative ideas and examples from cutting-edge companies around four broad questions:

How do we engage the next generation? “They’re our kids,” Walsh reminded the audience, and parents have been “neurologically rewiring the brains” of their young children with an array of high-tech gear and media.

He asked the audience if they could spot the capabilities that will matter in the future. Skills developed playing online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft might not be much different than those needed to manage virtual teams, he said.

Walsh cited Carnegie Mellon University professor Jennifer Wing’s belief that, “The most important skill for the 21st century is computational thinking. We have to teach the next generation to [frame problems] in a way that computers can help you solve them.”

What does it take to build a culture of highly engaged innovators? The 21st century will depend on high performance rather than process-driven talent, Walsh said. “Where do you start to unlock the potential of your employees to be more creative, more productive and more profitable?

“The place to start is the most basic,” he said. Despite the popularity of technology-enabled telecommuting, “people still want to be surrounded by other people.”

“Network capital” will be a key attribute of organizations. “In the future, we will map and measure the connectivity of companies,” he predicted.

Where will your company’s next great ideas come from?

“Real innovation is what you find in the field, not what you make in the lab,” said Walsh, author of Futuretainment: Yesterday the World Changed, Now It’s Your Turn (Phaidon Press, 2009). “Let your customers, even your worst customers, lead you on that journey. … Think about how you can take your key talent out of their offices” to encounter customers in context.

How will the new era of real-time data change leadership? The expanding availability of treasure troves of data should not distract businesses from the principle that “the metrics that matter touch the heart of the customer experience.” Online retailers, for instance, “know what they don’t know,” and will send 50 different versions of an e-mail to see what works best.

“Data-driven leaders don’t forget the humans behind the data.”

Leon Rubis is vice president of editorial for SHRM.

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