Technology is changing so fast it is hard to keep up with its effect on global leadership. Here’s a taste of some of the top trends, smartest approaches and most innovative ideas in the world right now.
By Deborah Tarrant, Illustrations by Carolyn Ridsdale
Technological innovation is accelerating, and putting pressure on businesses to adapt faster, embrace the new, shed the old, disrupt or be disrupted … Blink. Did you miss something?
In an exponentially interconnected world, the revolution is constant and it’s nigh on impossible to measure the pace or scope of change.
No Ordinary Disruption, the recent book by McKinsey Global Institute’s Richard Dobbs, James Manyika and Jonathan Woetzel, suggests that compared to the Industrial Revolution, “change is happening 10 times faster and at 300 times the scale, or roughly 3000 times the impact”. But what does that mean?
In real terms, research shows the turnover rate of companies on the S&P 500 index is increasing because big companies can’t out-innovate the market, while the innovators in start-ups and nimbler smaller companies are too busy merging, being acquired or even forming partnerships with the big guys to deliver two-way advantage.
“Trends and clever ideas take off and grow big themselves or die in a very short time. Only a few years ago global businesses Airbnb and Uber were novel disruptors.”
Trends and clever ideas take off and grow big themselves or die in a very short time. Only a few years ago global businesses Airbnb and Uber were novel disruptors. Thanks to the cloud and social media, the “network effect” – where an idea or product becomes more valuable as more people use it – is more rapid today than in the past. That makes it quicker to get a business idea up and running or to launch a new product, says dedicated tech watcher and change expert Robert Hillard, managing partner of consulting at Deloitte.
The growth potential is phenomenal. “Networks favour very large platforms, which doesn’t mean a smart small business can’t use the effect to their advantage,” he says. Indeed, everything is faster, including customer feedback, the making or breaking of reputations and cyber-attacks.
How does this translate for people trying to run organisations day to day? If ever a time called for leadership and innovative practices it’s now. This selection of “best in show” ideas will help you think outside the square and reflect on what these alternative ways of doing business could mean for you and your organisation.
The best people management ideas
The diversity spectrum became broader at Microsoft Corporation on 1 April, 2015 when vice-president of operations, Mary Ellen Smith, fronted the representatives of 193 countries at the United Nations in New York and announced that Microsoft would extend its diversity reach with a pilot program to hire people with autism. The public response was almost overwhelming. The corporation received thousands of emails, 700 resumes, and countless LinkedIn requests and phone calls.
Smith, the mother of a son with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), knew there was a major opportunity on both sides of this story. Employees with autism can have exceptional skills, such as pattern recognition, enhanced memory, and an ability to engage in repetitive tasks, which make them ideal to work in IT.
Hewlett Packard Australia and SAP also run programs to employ people with autism. SAP had such success with 100 employees with ASD it brought on board last year, that it has announced plans to reshape its workforce to include around 650 employees with ASD (1 per cent of its staff) by 2020.
Spearheading this global leadership is Danish firm Specialisterne, which hires people with high-functioning autism [on the autism spectrum but with normal or superior IQ] and prepares them to work in the tech industry.
People with ASD often don’t have the social and communication skills to make it through the interview process, says Thorkil Sonne, who founded Specialisterne in 2004 after his son was diagnosed with autism. So his company uses a “show” rather than “tell” hiring process in which candidates are asked to complete tasks such as building and programming a robot (of course!) prior to doing an assessment training program.
Once the expectations of teamwork are explained, says Sonne, invariably the workers can fit in. He urges managers to keep an open mind, be specific with instructions and always avoid using irony or sarcasm, as many people with ASD are very literal.
Naptime at work
Psychologists say snoozing improves our concentration and helps us consolidate information. No surprise then that some of the world’s most talent-hungry employers are set up for dozing. SoundCloud’s new Berlin digs and PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Basel office have padded napping rooms. Google, the Huffington Post and Cisco have Energy pods: capsules with a helmet that put employees to sleep with soothing music. But ice-cream company Ben & Jerry’s was ahead of the pack. It’s had a nap room – somewhere to sleep off the salted caramel or choc chip – for a decade.
How procrastinators become thought leaders
For those who push deadlines, 2016’s best news is from organisational psychologist Adam Grant.
Through a series of experiments, Grant, Wharton School professor, has shown that people actually produce their best work when they delay after being introduced to or coming up with a concept. Procrastination, it seems, presents time for ideas to germinate and coalesce, he explains in his bestseller Originals.
Ironically, this is intensely frustrating for Grant, who describes himself as a “precrastinator” – someone who likes to get things done ahead of time.
He says that, “What we need to find is the procrastination sweet spot.” It sits somewhere in between rushing to get things done early or too late.
Among his other surprising discoveries is that “successful” original people are not early movers. They’re not the first to put a product or a concept out there, but they improve on other people’s ideas. They have a lot of doubts that make them test, experiment and refine – but their biggest fear is of failing to try.
Global leaders in management: Thorkil Sonne’s Specialisterne hiring process for employees with autism involves programming a robot, while Ben & Jerry’s founders installed a nap room for their staff.
The best collaborative economy trends
Whether it’s sourcing ideas, opinions, talent or big bucks, many leading organisations are harnessing the power of many, thanks to the roar of the crowd. Crowdsourcing is helping governments make better decisions: New Zealanders recently voted to keep their national flag after seeing 10,000 new options put forward via a crowdsourcing campaign. Global bodies are also crowding in, with the UNHCR piloting an open innovation platform to generate ideas to solve challenges faced by refugees and other displaced people.
The revolutionary impact of the crowd in business and social enterprise is just as potent. Roland Harwood, the co-founder of UK consultancy 100%Open, tips crowdsourcing will change business models completely.
“Since we have become exponentially more connected, organisations are being turned inside out. In the future, big organisations won’t do innovation, they will merely manage it. The real creativity will come from outside,” Harwood says.
Researchers at Gartner predict that more than half of consumer goods manufacturers will crowdsource 75 per cent of research and development by 2018. But the big question is how to handle intellectual property rights.
Smaller operators were the first to finance their projects through crowdfunding. A standout is the Pebble smartwatch, whose developers raised more than $10 million in a 2012 Kickstarter campaign when they were seeking just US$100,000. Last year, another Kickstarter campaign to develop the second-generation Pebble Time smartwatch raised US$20 million, beating its original goal 40-fold.
“In the future, big organisations won’t do innovation, they will merely manage it. The real creativity will come from outside.”
Now big business is moving in on the crowdfunding action, and even racking up sustainability points. Since its pilot program launched in 2013, online bank ING Direct’s Dreamstarter crowdfunding project has spawned 51 community projects and social enterprises, in partnership with the School of Social Entrepreneurship and crowdfunding platform StartSomeGood. The deal is that the bank tips in half the targeted amount, and provides social media and other marketing support, while the project’s creators crowdfund the balance or, in some cases, more.
A big brand association gives people confidence to back the social impact start-ups, says ING’s Shannon Carruth, and in return the faceless, branchless bank gains a “human” element. “Social enterprise is about a new way of doing things, and ING Direct also sees itself that way,” she says.
The sharing economy – What’s next?
Insurance will be the next industry to be disrupted, says Silicon Valley-based crowd expert Jeremiah Owyang. Collaborative insurance start-ups already include on-demand visual inspections of vehicles and property (US-based OnSource) and New Zealand’s Peercover, where users decide if the claims are fair.
After running a survey of more than 90,000 people in the US, Canada and the UK, Owyang concluded that adoption of peer-to-peer sharing will double in the next year. So he’s launched Crowd Companies, an association for big businesses that want to partner with the collaborative economy, to help corporations shift their business models.
Follow the crowd or lead it?: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Graham Turner from Flight Centre, Starbuck’s Howard Schultz, Jonah Peretti from BuzzFeed and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg.
Is following the crowd always a good thing?
“The way [crowds] operate at the football and in mobs is not pretty,” observes Deloitte consulting chief Robert Hillard. In business “leaders need to lead”, so following the mob and hoping big data and social media will find the perfect product does not make sense, he insists. But there is an upside. “Setting up well-defined experiments to take ideas to a giant focus group is a brilliant way to use the roar of the crowd,” he says.
“The utopian idea was that the sharing economy would evolve as communities working together. What’s happening is large sharing platforms are emerging as big companies get market dominance very quickly [Uber, for example]. They do that because they can add value through their scale, so things centralise quite quickly.”
The best new philanthropy models
“How can the whole world see?” asked James Chen, a Hong Kong businessman who’s on a mission to fix the world’s biggest unaddressed disability, poor eyesight. Along the way he’s become a global leader in creating new models for philanthropy.
Chen was struck by the irony that while some of the world’s greatest minds were focused on putting a person on Mars, 2.5 billion people on planet Earth were suffering poor eyesight and had no access to treatment. His solution was to set up Clearly, an organisation which brings together innovators, scientists, technology firms and big business, with investors, governments and NGOs to rethink world vision.
“Charities and NGOs are already doing good work in the area of vision correction – but the problem is growing faster than the solutions,” says Chen.
He’s convening Clearly Labs, which are design-thinking hackathons to run in five locations across the world (the first happened in May in Hong Kong), and the Clearly Vision Prize, an ideas competition for entrepreneurs with a prize pool of US$250,000.
Eyesight is Chen’s focus because spectacles are his business. He is the founder of Adlens, now a global enterprise which develops and sells adjustable-focus eyewear.
In 2011, he set up the Vision for a Nation Foundation, a UK charity which teams healthcare professionals with NGOs and private donors to tackle eyesight problems in Rwanda. The charity has met remarkable goals. Everyone in the central African nation now has access to free eye screening and treatment from nurses in local clinics. Adlens donates adjustable eyewear, which are sold for US$1.50 per pair (about an average day’s wage) to encourage a sense of ownership. Bhutan and Botswana are now considering similar schemes.
Chen has rewritten the model for philanthropy. To really make a difference, he says, philanthropists need to become domain specialists concentrating on one area strategically and long-term. Patient philanthropy, as he calls it, involves learning as much as possible about the problem to allow well-informed decisions. “Business people who have been highly effective experts in their chosen market for their whole lives suddenly write massive cheques to solve social problems they know nothing about,” Chen notes. What he proposes is the opposite.
Uber founder Travis Kalanick and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos are leading disruptors in the world of business.
The best leadership style
The world bows down to visionary leaders but inspiring foresight is not enough. The best leaders have a single-minded drive for what they want to do, then “populate their vision with people who can follow through – hire well, train well and integrate well,” insists associate professor Gavin Schwarz of UNSW Business School.
Visionaries who don’t let others play their part inevitably get stuck, he says. Two examples are Steve Jobs, who had to leave Apple (and start Pixar) before returning to reclaim his original vision, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz who also stepped away from the company for eight years. Schwarz sees Virgin’s Richard Branson, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett as outstanding driven visionaries, able to craft an identity around their visions and shift their sights to suit the changing business environment.
Global leaders: Atlassian founders Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes ride the software juggernaut, while Catherine Livingstone gets ready for the ultimate disruption.
The best tech thinkers
Mind-boggling and life-changing innovation comes from technology. So when a bunch of world-leading tech heads of the ilk of Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, cosmologist Stephen Hawking and space exploring/solar energy promoting entrepreneur/autonomous vehicle manufacturer Elon Musk join forces to suggest checks and balances are in order, the world listens.
In 2014, this trio helped set up the Future of Life Institute to question where technology – in particular, artificial intelligence (AI) – was heading. Last year, Musk donated US$10 million of his own money to fund research into stopping good AI going bad.
Most of us encounter AI in video games, but the Future of Life Institute’s founders have far more than games on their minds. They’re concerned about how autonomous weapons might operate. “Is it possible to program a robot to make ethical decisions?” they ask.
Important people are now taking notice. In May, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy called for public comment on the promise and pitfalls of AI.
Science leaders Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk are calling for checks and balances on artificial intelligence in our brave new tech world.
Wearables are the new watchables of tech space
Shoes that help their wearer navigate unknown cities via buzzing inner soles which communicate with a smartphone app are already with us, as are brogues that switch off intrusive interruptions from a phone.
UK brand Anatomic & Co has launched the world’s first “sociable shoes”, which disconnect smartphone notifications so the wearer can focus on their meeting, date or just relax.
The “In Good Company” shoe filters out unwanted notifications, without inducing the 21st-century anxiety of having to switch the phone off. Inventor Duane Holland calls it a “wellbeing wearable” that’s bringing together technology and mindfulness so people can live more balanced lives.