There are few journeys that are as forbidding as those that take us into the unknown. We neither know what to really expect, nor how to respond. This is truly frightening, especially for the modern managerial class that has been honed to sharpness via a collection of analytical approaches and the wisdom of case studies, all of which lead us to the development of a mastery of the uncertain. Alas, the uncertain is of little use in confronting the unknown.
In confronting the uncertain, we are blessed with access to knowledge, numbers and likelihoods that allow us to make judicious, not to say “optimal”, choices based on what we know about the past. While the uncertain is different from what we know, that difference is in degree, and by applying lessons learned from past uncertain experiences we appreciably raise the likelihood of making a good choice for the future.
With the unknown, however, there is no knowledge, numbers or likelihoods to rely upon. The unknown is unknown. We know not where the future is going, nor even if we have the capabilities to get there. There will be new customer expectations, with new players addressing them. There will be new sources of talent, and new rules of the game. All of these are unknown. We cannot predict them or forecast them, they are unknown! Nonetheless, it is in the unknown that the future of most industries are to be found, and as managers we have to somehow overcome our hesitancy and try to move forward with some degree of grace.
Abhijit Bhaduri’s choice of the metaphor of a “tsunami” is an apt one for thinking about addressing a digital future that is both compelling for its promise and frightening for the unknown qualities associated with its promise. We all know that business models, organizations and leadership styles will be profoundly disturbed by the mindsets we will come to associate with our new digital era, but just how they will change and what we will have to do differently in the future is what is so unknown, and the fear associated with all of this is that by the time we figure out what will be required, the waves of change are likely to be speeding across the horizon upsetting the familiar in its path. If we don’t quickly take action to get out of its way, we too may become victims of the terrible power of changing tastes and mindsets gone viral. As the science fiction author William Gibson so famously observed: “ the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” When the momentum of change has become so inevitable that its presence is concentrated, then the unknown suddenly becomes clear, and those who are prepared to adjust quickly and coherently are in the best position for survival. So it is with most big change, and digital transformation may be the biggest big change of all.
As Bhaduri has so correctly perceived, “the digital world is not about technology. It is about discovering the uniqueness of the human being and technology just becomes an enabler.” But, what an “enabler”! The all-pervasiveness of digital “enablers” in a soon-to-be-here society that is connected through the Internet of Everything morphing into the Internet of Customer Experiences, is bound to profoundly alter the mindsets of our customers, our value-ecosystem partners, our employees, and ultimately ourselves. For “us”, this means what Bhaduri has called “design principles of being digital.” We, as a team, as an organization, need to develop our work habits so that we are:
- Borderless thinkers
- Data driven and [yet] individualized
- And obsessed by hiring the right talent.
We can see this all around us. This foreward was written (and rewritten) on three continents [Asia, Europe and North America] over the period of just a few weeks; borders are increasingly inconsequential; you’ve got to be where you’ve got to be. “Fast” is the new cadence of modern life; it is what I expect as a customer in any engagement that I’m a part of. After all, isn’t that what I get normally at home, on the internet, everyday? And, without a doubt, the genomic revolution, unfolding in parallel with the digital revolution, will not only add more data to our lives, but it will enable individualized therapeutic responses to that data at the same time. All of this is driving a revolution of expectations; a revolution of mindset, all around us; and the right talent is the one key asset required at the very center of what will make it work.
But, is it reasonable to expect that we will change our offerings, our organizations, our teamwork, any yet not ourselves? Of course not! For all of us, no matter what our role or what our industry, the next managerial frontier is “me”! We, too, must change profoundly if we wish to keep up with the tsunami waves that are sweeping everything aside. For me, this is the real thin point of the wedge. What are the leadership characteristics that our organizations require (deserve) if we are to move into a continually changing and unknown future that is being fashioned and refashioned by digital experiences? And, of course, how to encourage today’s leaders to take a change on becoming tomorrow’s leader as well? As Abhijit has so accurately perceived, the time is short and the consequences are real: “A transformation has two characteristics – all the variables change radically, the difference between the former and latter scenarios is radical and the pace of shift is so rapid that it is hard to comprehend the impact of the shift.” That is what this book is ultimately all about. And, of course, we need to make such changes at a time when “the new rule is that there are no rules.”
One cannot engage with this book without appreciating the need for wide-ranging, comprehensive changes in the way we think about both the practice, and the practitioners, of the leadership of modern, complex, transnational organizations. We need to rethink competencies, choices and boundaries. Bhaduri points out that there are profound and fundamental differences across the “pyramid of skills” that we might choose to pursue and possess. “Commodity” skills are most definitely not “marketable” skills, and they may not be as recognizable nor as valuable as “niche” skills. He also points out that in an age of specialization, “the digital world needs people who can navigate the entire ecosystem,” and this, in turn, requires a very different sensitivity to the skills of others than has typically been valued in our traditional mono-talent-centric talent markets.
In fact, Abhijit Bhaduri is exactly the sort of guide that we need to lead us into the future. His curiosity is a signal marker of the breadth of interest needed in the future to spot newly emerging phenomena and be able to identify talent that can be assembled to take-on new challenges. He has moved beyond mere “T-ness,” however, with considerable accomplishments in both industry and the arts. In this way, his t-like breadth of interest is complimented by a substantial breadth of experience and experimentation. This provides a sure foundation to support his curiosity, making him pi-like rather than t-like. He is a novelist and artist, as well as a senior executive in one of the world’s most global and technical firms. His career has spanned both Asia and North America and he has been, at least for me, a great source of wisdom and insight into what it means to work in the fast-approaching digital age. The American novelist E.L.Doctorow once spoke of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s aptness for his ability to capture the tempo of his time as being, in part, attributable to his “living as both particle and wave,” and hence perfect for describing the modernization of the early twentieth century. I think that a similar boundary-spanning attribution could well be bestowed on Abhijit Bhaduri for his suitability to share with us a glimpse of what is soon to be, and how we might begin to prepare for it.
Professor of Innovation Management
 E.L. Doctorow, “Introduction,” to F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Jazz Age, New York: New Directions, 1996.The