It’s unplannable, unstoppable and inescapable. That sounds like a tsunami, right?
Not quite. It’s the 4th Industrial Revolution; a wave of exponential and converging technological progress that is washing over every facet of our world. It is demolishing our received wisdoms about how the world works and should be structured. It is leaving the less agile to be tossed aside as disrupted detritus while the bold, the prescient and the innovative create and capture new opportunities. Unless we act quickly and courageously this 4th Industrial Revolution has the potential to widen the digital divide that is much talked about across the world but is particularly critical to Africa if it is to fully participate in the global economy.
The Digital Revolution paradigm shift
In fact, simply calling this the 4th Industrial Revolution is to do ourselves a disservice because it lures us into thinking that this is simply a faster, cheaper, smarter version of the three waves of the Industrial Revolution that have brought humanity thus far. It tempts us to think that we must just buy the next shiny piece of technology, incorporate it into our legacy organisation and processes and it’s “business as usual”. That progress is linear. It’s not, it’s a step change.
It is better to call this The Digital Revolution. It is a radical inflection point that gives humanity an opportunity to correct many of the imbalances, injustices and inequities that have arisen because of the Industrial Revolution. And, for us in Africa, it presents an opportunity to build globally competitive economies and far more inclusive, equitable societies.
However, to achieve the full potential of this Digital Revolution requires new and different thinking; a new mental architecture willing to takes risks and to experiment one’s way into the future. We must be cognisant of the fact that the pace of change is too fast and dynamic to get into paralysis by analysis and lengthy, tortuous planning cycles. New levels of collaboration and partnering between global stakeholders that we haven’t seen or experienced before will accelerate progress. New skills and competencies, that we may not possess as individuals or organisations, will become critical. And innovative ways of dealing with uncountable amounts of data that are giving rise to the Intelligent Enterprise will become the foundation of every enterprise.
Courageous innovation needed
Looking over the horizon to discern what is coming and create the platform for change and innovation will become an essential capability of any intelligent enterprise – but a difficult one to build. The innovative approaches mentioned above do not sit comfortably with Industrial-era cultures and risk-averse business practices, so the temptation is to “wait and see”.
There is, rightly, given some of the dramatic headlines about robots taking over the world, a great deal of fear about job losses and this is exacerbated when we contemplate the way in which Artificial Intelligence and Robotics are growing ever more powerful. This fear can also paralyse us into inaction. And the sheer complexity of some of these modern technologies and the business models they enable, may make us long for and retreat to the good old days.
Cautious responses are natural but dangerous because today markets and reputations can be won or lost in months rather than the years or decades it took during the 20th century. Cautious responses are understandable because it takes time to understand new developments and what they mean and to see if they will endure and none of us likes taking a great leap into the unknown. And, cautious responses are to be expected because our businesses are already in flight, with obligations to meet and accountabilities to many different stakeholders. But if we stand still, for even a moment, we risk losing it all.
So, if the opening assertion, that the Digital Revolution is unplannable, unstoppable and inescapable is true and if, at the same time we must protect our existing value propositions whilst bringing new practices and thinking into our enterprise how are we to do this? The challenge seems almost insurmountable.
Planning for this exponential future requires insight, knowledge
Well, unplannable doesn’t mean being unprepared and neither does it mean we can’t have a good sense of where the world is going and potential impacts on our business. It doesn’t mean we can’t develop and test options and pivot quickly as we learn what works. But, that said, when it comes to scenario planning even the very best can be hampered by culture and legacy and thus it is difficult to “see around the corner”. That is where organisations like Singularity University (SU) can play a key role in helping us understand and prepare for a fast-arriving future.
SAP works with SU for many reasons. Firstly, both SAP and SU are driven by a keen sense of purpose and an urgent desire to help the world run better. Secondly, at SAP we have an obligation to ensure we remain at the forefront of progress so that we can anticipate our customers’ requirements. The faculty of SU is clearly in the world’s vanguard when it comes to exponential technologies, socio-economic progress and what lies in store for humanity, so working with them helps SAP to ensure we are directing our investments and developments in the right direction.
Thirdly, like any organisation we must develop the human capacities needed to thrive in revolutionary times; passion, curiosity, humility, resilience, collaboration, empathy and the courage to challenge the status quo based on a deep understanding of where the world is headed; SU provides SAP with the perfect foil to continually refresh and reenergise our own thinking and practices.
The Digital Revolution provides us the opportunity to re-think what it truly means to be human, to tread more lightly on this planet by replacing wasteful practices with information, to build intelligent enterprises that run business networks far more efficiently and respond with lighting speed to events so that optimal use is made of capital, physical resources and human capacity whilst providing amazing customer experiences. But no one organisation can do it alone.
Private- and public-sector organisations with all their multifarious complexities; societies, from the family to the nation; economies, from the subsistence farmer to the giant multinational – all are inherently human undertakings fuelled by desires and ideas and made possible through collaboration, conversations and amazing technologies.
By Simon Carpenter, Chief Technology Advisor at SAP Africa