Many people think of emerging technologies as being a recent phenomenon, but in truth, the concept has been woven into the fabric of the human story from the very beginning.

When you think of what most distinguishes humans from other species, one thing stands out:  our extensive use of tools to extend our own natural capabilities. For example, ancient humans developed bows and arrows to make themselves more efficient hunters. In the bronze age, people observed the power of the wind and realized they could harness its power to replace their own muscles as the propulsion for ships – and thus was born the age of sail , and with it maritime commerce). Later, in the 19th century, people realized they could free themselves from the capriciousness of the wind by harnessing the power of the steam engine to propel ships.

From the dawn of time until the present day, we have developed a pattern of replacing older technologies with newer technologies to provide us with new capability, velocity, efficiency and gains not previously realized. In recent years, this pattern has become more predictable and plottable.  Particularly when we look at the trend of technology adoption over time , it can be measured and plotted on something  we call the S-curve (more on that here).

Though the term “emerging technology” may feel more recent — particularly as newer technologies like AI, machine learning, IoT, RPA, etc., become ubiquitous — the concept is not new at all. What is new is the acceleration and the rate of change at which  quickly emerging technologies become less emerging and more commonplace.

So how can businesses leaders prepare their companies to be able to navigate technical change?

First, it’s important as leaders that we embrace the mindset that every company today is a technology company. Whether you are in manufacturing, retail, life sciences, transportation, finances – it does not matter. Critical parts of your business and operations functions are accelerated, amplified and augmented through the use of technology. What’s more (consciously or not) you are continually examining the role technology can play in helping you spin up compelling service offerings, maintain and grow market share, and drive efficiency and productivity, among other gains. The sooner we start to think of ourselves as technology companies first and foremost, the more likely we are to remain on the early adopter — not the laggard — side of technology adoption, and, in so doing better “future-proof” our organizations.

Secondly, it’s important for business leaders to remain curious about technology, and not just curious about technology in your particular business segment. Take the case of Cyanoacrylates adhesives: Cyanoacrylates were developed for a very particular market (which was medical adhesives), and yet there likely isn’t anyone out there who hasn’t used super glue or crazy glue in some capacity in their life. Today Cyanoacrylates represent the single biggest segment of the adhesives market. This is why it’s important to look at technology through a wide lens, while applying  the filter of: how might this technology be relevant or applied to your particular business segment? A great place to start with technology curiosity is to examine what you use most in your consumer life.  Think about how that technology makes your life better, and ask: how could a similar technology revolutionize my business?

Third, it’s important for all leaders to understand their company’s appetite for innovation and tolerance for risk. The interplay of these two factors is going to determine at what point on the technology adoption S-curve you will want to engage in emerging technologies. Oftentimes, the earlier you adopt a nascent technology the greater the reward… but also the greater the risk. On the other hand, if you adopt a technology too late — and the technology has become mainstream — you may have missed the window for your company to compete effectively in the market. Understanding both your appetite for innovation and risk tolerance is essential in determining your technology adoption strategy.

As you think about the role emerging technology plays in your business, I want to leave you with a question:

How often is the term “emerging technology” being thrown around your leadership team meeting discussions? Is this a fairly regular term now or is it a phrase that immediately deserves some air time at your next meeting?

 

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