John Naisbett is author of Megatrends and Megatrends 2000. His latest book is Mindset: Reset Your Thinking and See the Future. How do CEOs prepare themselves for a future that's not looking like it's going to slow down from an IT development point of view?
We're in the information technology and media age; an incredible shakeup period. A similar shakeup occurred in the first 25 years of the 20th century with the automobile. Then we were trying to figure out what it was going to be, what it would look like, how many people it would carry, and what the fuel would be.
In the United States, we once had 2,700 automobile companies. During that previous long shakeup, there was lots of competition, people jumping in, lots of opportunities just like today, but 99 per cent of them went bust. In the US today, there are only three automobile companies. I think that, given the character and nature of IT, including the news media, we will end up with thousands of companies, but we're going to go through many more thousands to get there. I don't think this shakeup period is going to end any time soon.
There's going to be any next big thing, there will be a tremendous amount of innovation and creativity; an evolutionary era.
A very good recent example is the iPhone which as you well know is nothing new. It's taking three technologies and putting them in one box which is innovative certainly, evolutionary certainly, but not the next big thing.
What sort of mindset do you think a CEO needs to have in the current first decade of the 21st century?
One of the mantras in business today is our only constancy is change. That's really bull. There's a big hype about change partly because this is the currency of the media. Unless it's changed it's not news. That's all we see reported, so we confuse that with reality.
One of my mindsets is that while many things change, most things remain constant. But, in business a lot of people still believe in constant change. I've been in business for 50 years or so and we buy and sell. We try to buy low and sell high. Profit is a necessary condition of survival and all of those things. How we do these things is changing. How we buy and sell, the basics, are not changing.
I invite people to make two lists. Make a list of your personal life and your company. Make a list of the things that are likely to change and a list of things that will remain constant. People who do this are usually very surprised at how long the constant list is.
I think we have to get some balance in our perspective and the mindset that everything is changing is not a useful one for any CEO to have because it's not true.
How important is innovation in today's environment?
Revolutionary breakthroughs happen in clusters, then there's long evolutionary periods and we're in an evolutionary period now. That's why innovation is so important because innovation is another word for evolving and perfecting things.
As we moved into the 20th century, in just eight years we introduced some really great revolutionary breakthroughs; the airplane, the automobile, the telephone, electricity. Then we spent all of the 20th century extending and enhancing these great breakthroughs. That's how it works.
In the last years of the 20th century, we had all the information technologies that burst forth; biotechnology, nano technology and so forth. Certainly with biotechnology, we're going to spend the next 100 years evolving the things that we know are possible now, but we're not near to implementing them.
We're going to evolve, extend and enhance these great revolutionary breakthroughs that happened in the last years of the 20th century.
Most CEOs of major enterprises today need to think globally. What Does this really mean about the way they should work?
I was in Singapore 20 years ago when someone asked me what a globalised company looked like. I asked them if they had headquarters. They said yes; I think it was in Holland or something. I said get rid of it.
That was absolutely good advice because if you're global you don't have everything reporting into one place. It's like a network where every single point or person experiences being in the centre. That is really powerful. It's very powerful when every office experiences being in the centre. That's what a global company really looks like.
People don't understand that, but China is decentralising more than any other country in the world by far and that's going to keep China's sustainability as a country, and it's the same with globalisation.
What about the CEO who wants to be a central power of the company. Why network throughout the enterprise?
He has to for sustainability or for competiveness, absolutely yes.
Are enough CEOs doing that today?
No. They're still in absolutely transition. Some are not in transition at all. They're stuck. They're stuck with the old top down, hierarchal stuff.
So how do you see the world in 50 years?
I don't think anyone can see it in 50 years. You can't. It's too dynamic for that but we have some big shifts that have weight, momentum and direction. The obvious one is China. In the US and in Europe, the hype in the media is that China is going to overtake the United States very soon. It sounds like that.
One of my focuses, which I outline in my new book, is on the score of the game. You go back to the game and the score of the game is that the Chinese economy made it to US$2 trillion. The US economy is more than US$13 trillion. Think about it. Even if China grows 10 per cent a year, which is not guaranteed, it will be 35 years, the arithmetic tells us, before China even begins to overtake where the US is today. And America is not going to sit around and stand still waiting, so if China ever catches up it will be 30, 35, or 40 years.
And that's what CEOs should do too; focus on the score of the game.
How important is timing and the social environment when it comes to developing new products? Can enterprises sometimes be too far ahead of society?
Yeah. When I look at IT, I think of AT&T and how they pitched the picture phones starting in the 1960s. Nothing happened. They were so far ahead. Now we've got the picture phone but it's only with cell phones that it came along. AT&T was pushing the idea more than 40 years ago, but they were too far ahead.
Too many enterprise just get way out here and leave the people way behind them. In companies where products and services rely on customers, you have to be within the field of vision of the people you intend to lead whether they're customers or employees or whatever. Good leaders stay within the field of vision of the people they want to lead. Great leaders change the vision, persuade the people to change the vision, otherwise you're too far ahead and they don't share the vision. There are lots of examples of people getting too far ahead of the game.
Even Steve Jobs at Apple with Cube. Remember the Cube? Beautiful. It was a super computer in a beautiful silver box, beautiful design, absolutely awesome. But no one bought it. It's now in the Museum of Modern Arts Design Collection. It was really a beautiful design but no one bought it because it was just too far ahead. People didn't relate to it, neither to the looks of it or to the power of it which they didn't need. But that happens a lot in companies in services and products, getting too far ahead of the parade.
The issue of innovation is something that CEOs and CIOs are always debating. How can a CEO encourage innovation?
That's the only thing they can do. You can't identify who's going to be innovating but what you can do, is to create an environment of flourishing entrepreneurs. Companies have to create an environment that's nourishing to innovators, that rewards innovators. The first thing you want to do if you're looking at a country or a company is to ask yourself what's rewarded, what's punished. That tells you a lot.
So, do you think the world places too much faith in technology?
It changes how we do things in such a way it makes us much more efficient and so forth, but we can't be mindless about it because it does change. Now, the worst thing that's come of all this I think is voice-answering systems. See, that's exactly what I mean. You can't get out. You can't talk to another human being. It's horrible. There are now companies that have gone back to hiring real human operators to answer customer inquiries and I think that's so smart.
What about technology and education? Do we need more computers in classrooms?
Education is learning how to learn, so that you can spend your whole lifetime enjoying that wonderful experience. Pushing computers, which are closed systems; I don't know if that's going to teach children how to learn or not. Many schools in the United States put computers in classrooms at the expense of the liberal arts and music and all the rest of it.
My campaign has been a poet in every classroom. Right? But I'm for computers.
I want children to view computers as being as user-friendly as you and I do. We can view a computer as our collaborator in getting our work done more efficiently. I want that, but I also want a poet in every classroom, if not literally, at least symbolically; the teaching of poetry and literature and music and so forth.
I think that's a larger metaphor for our society. A computer and a poet because the more computers and technology we have, the more poets we need. MIS Magazine
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