Autonomous air taxis, exoskeletons to put disabled people back on their feet again or 3D printed car parts: we’re no longer amazed when we hear reports of such new developments. But which technologies are really set to change the rules of the game in the boardroom in the next 10 years?
“Information is the oil of the 21st century, and analytics is the combustion engine,” said Peter Sondergaard of IT research firm Gartner. Data specialists are in high demand, with jobs such as data scientist and data engineer topping the list of most sought-after jobs in the US due to the huge demand from businesses. Almost every business needs data specialists now or in the near future, whether for social media marketing or for device sensors.
Professor Arjan van den Born ‘supplies’ businesses with such data scientists as well as with consultancy services. The director of the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science in the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch sees data as a major game changer, particularly when paired with artificial intelligence. The importance of data has not yet penetrated everywhere. “Nine out of 10 managers underestimate the possibilities.” He believes we should move away from ‘automating what we already have’ and experiment more. Van den Born believes that in the next 10 years we will move towards a situation where everyone has their own secure data environment. “This will comprise information about your health, such as your medical records and possibly also your DNA. But also information about your job market potential: your CV and network. It will be up to the owner to decide who has access. Businesses can offer services based on this data. Think for example of advice on how someone is likely to develop over the course of their career. Or what products might suit that person or what people you could network with.”
The dominance of volume-based thinking in the manufacturing industry may possibly come to an end. With 3D printing enabling a switch back from mass production to customisation. But is it too soon to talk of a breakthrough? Angela Daly, author of Socio-Legal Aspects of the 3D Printing Revolution, believes that it is. She argues that for this to happen 3D printers will need to become more powerful, more user-friendly and cheaper, and the range of applications will need to grow. But she certainly believes that once this has happened, things could move fast. She notes that industries have already embraced 3D printing to a much greater extent than they once did the internet. The exponential growth of Ultimaker, the 3D printer manufacturer with offices in the Netherlands and the US, shows just how quickly things can develop: in the six years since its establishment the company has seen revenue rise to nearly € 40 million. Its customers include Siemens, Airbus, Tesla and Apple. 3D printers are perfect for making bespoke products, such as prosthetics. Furthermore they make it easier and cheaper to test newly designed products and to share them with others. The printers can also be used to manufacture parts that are missing (or which have to be tailor-made) quickly and efficiently on-site. For example carmaker VW uses Ultimakers to apply new logos to old cars.
“It took 50 years for the world to install the first million industrial robots. The next million will take only eight,” says textile industry expert Susanna Koelblin on LinkedIn. Her much-read blog post is about Adidas. The sportswear manufacturer has announced the opening of a ‘speed factory’ in Germany where the trainers will be made by robots. This will allow production to be backsourced from countries in the Far East. Koelblin expects this type of robot-operated factory to become commonplace across the apparel industry. The surge in robotisation is linked to rapidly developing technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and data science. It is for this reason that Marcel Bullinga uses the term ‘robot’ to mean ‘artificial intelligence and algorithms in a package’. The futurist believes that everything will be a robot: your car, your home and devices including your mobile phone. “Robots will not only replace humans in production work but also in advisory work. Robots with AI applications will act as personal assistants, which means that apps – which only provide advice on a limited area – will also disappear. This even threatens Google, because it means you will be able to do without a search engine as an interface.” The emergence of robo-advisers will have major implications for organisations. Companies will have to have the courage to imagine their own redundancy. It is from this perspective that they should think about what they want to offer to customers, according to Bullinga. “For example: what advisory services will my customers still need once robots have taken over most of them?” Bullinga also expects robots to make middle managers redundant. “It means we will eventually be able to make the switch to flatter, self-governing organisations.”
“Every company will be an IT company.” This is an empty statement, because it’s still all about what you offer and deliver. At the same time no one can deny the growing dominance of ICT in business operations, and this is especially true of the financial infrastructure. Mark Buitenhek, global head of Transaction Services at ING, said that we are heading for a world in which money transfers take place instantly, 24/7. This requires companies to have a high level of ICT services. Buitenhek also believes they will be able to process digital invoices directly, without human intervention. “Risk assessment will also be increasingly automated. Whether or not you do business with a certain client will be assessed by a machine that works using artificial intelligence and data.”
Buitenhek also sees digitisation making a definitive breakthrough in the larger financial flows: pre-financing, letters of credit, trade finance. He describes it as follows: “You take a picture when the container is closed, seal it, track the shipment by satellite and payment takes place once you can see that the container has been opened.” Buitenhek considers it unwise to see any specific technology as the holy grail. This could be the case with the much vaunted blockchain technology, which enables an unchangeable, public online register of transactions to be maintained without a third party. Promising, but the same can be said of technologies such as artificial intelligence and the internet of things, said Buitenhek. “Data and analytics are key, whether we’re taking about payments or management information. You’ve got to know where you stand at the touch of a button.”
It’s the organisation, stupid!
“Disrupt or be disrupted” – a wise saying that every manager must have heard by now. Despite this, only few actually succeed in reinventing themselves. That is no surprise. Organisations often rely on commercial success stories that they exploit with a short-term focus and a heavy infrastructure.
Abandoning that success all at once is risky and unnecessary, says business author Menno Lanting. “Disruption is quite a lengthy process. It is a misconception that old technology disappears all at once. Netflix is still selling millions of DVDs. Placing all your bets on one new technology is risky.” He cites the example of the apps hype, whereas it now turns out we are increasingly moving away from using apps. Lanting: “It is combinations of technologies that create disruption. Usually we don’t know beforehand what the winning combination will be. There is not much point in trying to work out exactly what that innovation is.” Lanting says that it is much better to set up your organisation so that you are able to respond rapidly to changes. “The trend is towards faster and smarter business, at lower transaction costs.” A good example is the UK mobile virtual network operator Giffgaff, which provides services to over a million customers with fewer than 75 employees.
Lanting’s message: don’t invest all your energy in that one disruptive innovation, but rather in the ‘agility’ of the organisation. It is not just your organisational structure that needs to be agile but also your staff, the way you collaborate and your business models.” After all, Darwin taught us that it is the species that is best able to adapt that has the best chance of survival.
The View is the online magazine of ING Wholesale Banking