If you didn’t believe it already, Covid has proven once and for all that to compete in the years ahead, every enterprise must become a much-more digital enterprise. Those who went into the pandemic year with digital savvy and focus emerged stronger than rivals—those that did not now find themselves weaker than ever before, struggling to catch up.
But for Steve Brown, the former chief evangelist and futurist for Intel, this phase of digital evolution is already fading into the past. We’re fast moving beyond the Internet era to a new wave of computing that merges the physical and virtual worlds in exciting new ways, creating incredible new opportunities for business.
Brown, author of The Innovation Ultimatum: How Six Strategic Technologies Will Reshape Every Business in the 2020s, a how-to guide on innovation and digital transformation, will be the keynote speaker for our 3rd Annual Disruptive Technology Summit, held virtually, February 2-3, 2021 (more information: boardmember.com/disruptive-tech-summit.
In the following interview, edited for length and clarity, he looks out beyond Covid to a decade where we’re more productive, more agile and more creative—all with the help of powerful machines. How can directors get ready? He shares some ideas.
What’s the burning issue when it comes to innovation right now?
How to use technology to accelerate innovation—specifically, the third wave of personal computing and how that will change the landscape in terms of the opportunities businesses have.
There are three eras of computing in my mind: the PC and web era, which gave us browsers, and then we got to dotcom and e-commerce and all that stuff that went with it. Then, in 2007, the mobile era, mobile and cloud, mobile giving us truly personal computing and location-based services like Uber, and then cloud enabling innovators to scale their infrastructure and to innovate very rapidly and scale rapidly.
The next era of computing is the spatial computing era, which is bringing connections between the physical and digital worlds, to be much closer together, much more intimate. And that enables you to solve a whole lot of business problems you couldn’t solve before.
Think of the spatial computing era as the coming together of six strategic technologies: artificial intelligence; machine learning; 5G and satellite networks; the Internet of Things and sensors, autonomous machines, which is self-driving cars, trucks, robots, drones, passenger drones, all of that; augmented reality, which blends digital information into your field of view and digital objects; and then blockchain technology, which enables you to create self-governing business structures to digitize assets, do all kinds of new things that you couldn’t do before and generate to create smoother moving transactions.
It allows you to start thinking about augmenting your talent— not using technology to automate away labor but actually to elevate your labor and help them be more creative, to make high-quality decisions, to be more intuitive and so on.
Is this the next productivity jump? Is this that next thing we’ve been waiting for, to get productivity going again?
I think so. I’ll give you a few examples. Look at generative design. This is something that’s being championed by Autodesk, using artificial intelligence to work in partnership with an engineer, a designer, an architect, take the design that the human does, riff on it, come up with hundreds or thousands of variants, put it through simulations, come back to the design and say, “Hey, if you tweaked it this way, the design would be 20 percent stronger or would cost 15 cents less to make, whatever it might be.”
That partnership between a human and a machine working together delivers a result that neither could do on their own. That’s a powerful proposition. Autodesk expected the first engineers and architects who got this technology would say, “Oh yeah, I feel more productive, I’m getting more done in my 40-hour week.” They did, but what they also reported— which is really important—is that not only did they get more done, they felt more creative because they were able to explore this far greater creative space. What we’re doing is augmenting their creativity and imagination. They’re not only banging out more stuff, they’re banging out better stuff. And that’s the breakthrough.
If you’re a CEO or a director, how do you lead to this new world?
To be a leader in a world where every company is becoming a technology company, and every company is becoming a data company, you need to understand that world. It doesn’t matter if you don’t think of yourself as a technology company. You are, whether you like it or not. So, whatever industry you’re in, as an executive, it is now an important part of your job description that you are technology literate.
That’s why I wrote my book, The Innovation Ultimatum, because I recognized two things happening. One, that the gap between companies that were fast adopters of technology and slow adopters of technology would widen dramatically in the 2020s, because of the power of these spatial computing technologies. And two, the rate of technological change had outstripped leaders’ ability to understand its impact on their business.
That is the new game. Every executive doesn’t need to understand the bits and bytes, but they do need to understand the potential for solving business problems that these technologies bring.
I think about Doug McMillon, over at Walmart, having the humility to say, in essence, I don’t know how to do this [ecommerce], and buying Jet.com. What a year they’ve had. Who would they be if they hadn’t done that?
I think companies that invested in digital ahead of Covid have reaped the rewards. Once Covid is in our rearview mirror, it’s not like we’re going to go back to the way the world was in 2019. We have now tasted what the world can be. There were 50,000 telehealth visits in the United States in 2019. We’re on track for there to be 1 billion telehealth visits in 2020.
What that means is a lot of people have had a taste of the convenience. For some ailments, it’s the best way to see your doctor. We’re not going to go back to 50,000 telehealth visits ever again. That’s a microcosm of what we’re going to see everywhere. The world has changed forever.
Any other lodestars we could follow as we go into this next phase?
The smart companies already figured out that they need to have a 100 percent digital customer journey. During Covid, they’ve also realized the power of having a 100 percent digital employee experience. The companies that are investing in that, it will give them far more flexibility. It gives them the opportunity for some roles to have them work remotely, perhaps to work anywhere. That will give them flexibility in the labor markets to better access global talent.
This has economic benefits because instead of being, let’s say, a Silicon Valley company that’s paying people to live in San Francisco, now, some of your employees live elsewhere on the planet, and you’re projecting the wealth that you’re creating into other parts of the world, into rural communities, into other countries, perhaps, and I think that’s going to distribute wealth in interesting ways.
What are some of the key questions to be asking your team to make sure that you’re tracking the right way with this?
I would ask my HR director and my CIO what they’re doing to partner up because now they preside over a blended workforce of humans and machines working together. The capabilities of machines, they’re moving from the status of tools, which is subordinate to us, to almost feeling more like teammates that collaborate with us. So that’s where I’d start, is to charter the CHRO and the CIO to spend a lot more time together.
I would require that all of my team get at the same level of technology acumen that I do, as a leader, because this needs to go top down through the organization. So, requiring that everybody starts to understand what AI might do for them, what kind of business problems they might solve, how they might use blockchain.
And not to put it on the IT department but to put it on the line of business owners, to say you own understanding what the possibilities are and what kind of problems you might solve.
The other thing to do is to have a serious look at whatever IT budget you have in your company whatever industry you’re in, to look at bumping up that IT budget because that’s where you will get the most bang for the buck, in terms of gaining competitive advantage.
Anything that you think is just incredibly important for people to be thinking about as we round the curve here and come into 2021?
Be thinking about the future of work in 2025 and 2030 and how you’re going to move your organization there, the technological support that you’re going to give them, in the way that you look at tasks.
Most businesses have three to five main business processes—a sales process, a manufacturing process, a support process and so on. Break them down in as minute detail as you can and then ask the tough question, given what you know about technology’s capabilities. Which of those tasks is best done by a human, which is best done by an AI, and which is best done by some kind of autonomous machine or robot? How do you hand off those tasks back and forth? That’s one of the big things that they can be doing to start preparing for where they’re going to go next.