5 Business And Tech Predictions That Turned Out Right


Asghar, Rob

October 3, 2013

“The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order.”  –Alvin Toffler  

Any fool can try to predict the future, and most every fool does try. And if there is one thing that’s easier to do than to make a prediction about the future, it’s to make fun of someone else’s prediction. But organizations and leaders can learn something meaningful when they study which sorts of predictions have actually been on target.

Three or four decades ago, prominent futurists like Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt were directing society’s attention to a shift from an industrial age to an information age. They argued that smart cookies would waste no time in adapting to that reality and to related trends.  Because time proved them right, we tend to forget that many educated people of the time ridiculed their thinking as hugely overblown.

Let’s focus a bit on what Naisbitt got right in his 1982 megahit, Megatrends, because in many cases the principles underlying his predictions can still be helpful for us today.

1. High tech and the human touch would reinforce each other. This has been proven right, and the principle applies today. Here’s what Naisbitt said at the time:

Whenever a new technology is introduced into society, there must be a counterbalancing human response—that is, high touch—or the technology is rejected …  We must learn to balance the material wonders of technology with the spiritual demands of our human nature.

You may be old enough to remember the doomsday predictions that the advent of television would lead to empty movie theaters and empty stadiums. Naisbitt, in fact, understood this wouldn’t happen.  “The more technology we introduce introduce into society,” he wrote, “the more people will aggregate, will want to be with other people: movies, rock concerts, shopping.”

You may also remember the predictions that the advent of computer networks would lead to whole societies holing up in their isolated “electronic cottages.” Naisbitt foresaw the weakness in this notion too.

Naisbitt understood that technology would lead to workers being able to enjoy some telecommuting flexibility—but fundamentally, he argued, “Because we want to be with each other, I don’t think many of us will choose to work at home in our electric cottages.”

Could Marissa Mayer have said it better?

Some observers noted that, while the Rolling Stones charged $8 for a concert ticket in 1969, they were able to charge $350 or more on their recent tour. Given how easy it is to watch a concert of them in their prime in the comfort of your living room, why would anyone pay the premium?  The explanation is the human value for high touch—for proximity to both heroes and strangers.

We can expect lower-cost forms of this phenomenon. As society grows ever more digital, the collective appetite will increase for community theater or other intimate forms of culture and engagement.

2. Biology and medicine would rise above electronics. “Biology is replacing physics as the dominant metaphor of the society,” Naisbitt wrote in 1982. “The next twenty years will be the age of biology in the way that the last twenty years have been the age of microelectronics.”

Okay, he jumped the gun there. But not by much. He was onto a point that others have been slowly coming around to.  Every organization could do well to understand the full implications. After all, long-range concerns about health and medicine are the cause of the current government shutdown.

3. Automation would shake the economic landscape. “In the United States, the guest workers will be robots,” Naisbitt predicted. True enough.

4. Entrepreneurialism would be on the rise. “We are shifting from a managerial society to an entrepreneurial society,” he wrote in Megatrends. Right again. I’ve recently heard business book publishers talk about how they’re shifting away from the tried and true management tracts to more entrepreneurship-focused products. Climbing the ladder is less attractive, because too many ladders have been burned down; now, a person often has to forge his or her own path in a wilderness.

5. Networks, not hierarchies, would become the dominant model. “In the network model, rewards come by empowering others, not by climbing over them,” Naisbitt wrote. “If you work in a hierarchy, you may not want to climb to its top. At a time when decentralist and networking values are becoming more accepted and when businesses must do the hard work of reconceptualizing what business they are really in while facing unprecedented foreign competition, it is not the ideal time to be a traditional type leader, either political or corporate.”

Can’t argue with that. And today our greatest business icons today are startup types who sprang forth from the matrix of all networks, Silicon Valley.

Naisbitt predicted, “The computer will smash the pyramid.” This was a provocative prediction, but it was based on real insight:  “We created the hierarchical, pyramidal, managerial system because we needed it to keep track of people and things people did; with the computer to keep track, we can restructure our institutions horizontally.”

In a future column, I’ll attempt to suss out what the new megatrends of our own time might be.  Stay tuned, and please join the conversation in the comments section below.

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