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Book Review: Listening to the Future: Why It’s Everybody’s Business

Originally published March 5, 2009

Dan Rasmus with Rob Salkowitz have produced a timely book, Listening to the Future: Why It’s Everybody’s Business, about positioning business to deal with the uncertain challenges of the future. As a corporation, Microsoft applies scenario planning (originally developed by Shell Oil) to the future of information technology, business, intellectual capital and the work force. The obvious question is how well does the framework do when tested against developments in the U.S. and world economy since September 2008, given that the book was mostly written prior to then? The answer – not too bad. Let’s look at the details.

The framework of scenario planning helps the researchers to contextualize the stream of data and information, and provides an early warning for a swing toward one of the competing poles of uncertainty. The four scenarios include:

Proud Tower: In the scenario called Proud Tower, corporations pay more attention to issues of governance, accountability and sustainability, recovering some civic trust. Consolidation in business and technology continues as the big get bigger and the small get older and either get acquired or die. Organizationally oriented reputation systems help people figure out the best people inside the organization to work with to achieve their goals. My take on this is that it is the trajectory we were on, at least prior to September 2008.

Continental Drift: In the Continental Drift scenario, national governments become much more dominant in establishing industrial and labor policies. This includes a return to economic nationalism and a de-emphasis of free market and “the world is flat” theories. This results in a further decline in trade, increasing the stagnation of the global economy and ultimately reducing the creation of wealth and prosperity.

Frontier Friction: The Frontier Friction scenario posits a severe shock to the global economic system. Rasmus and Salkowitz speculate about a data meltdown in the financial sector following a cyber attack. The long-term effects are pervasive fear and distrust, not the mere loss of confidence of Q4 2009, and a new “swarm” model of communities. People lose confidence in the information technology industries that turned their money and their lives into the binary language of zeros and ones and then caused it to disappear altogether. Confidence in the old order collapses. The functions of government are starved for resources and crippled by corruption.

Freelance Planet: Freelance Planet is the scenario that comes closest to being the knowledge worker’s utopia, though aspects of “big brother” are also in evidence. Innovate in the morning, go fishing in the afternoon, play simulation in virtual reality in the evening. Virtual reality is the best model of reality. People blend their lives and work. They manage multiple identities, networks and overlapping relationships using technology that pervades every device and environment. The previously disenfranchised underclasses enjoy growing influence. People lose their distrust of cloud-based information providers, leading the way to global identification systems that span the global pool of increasingly talented knowledge workers. Loyalty between employers and employees continues to erode and finally evaporates altogether. Surveillance is pervasive, a source of distrust and friction. Individual concerns drive how much peripheral vision is employed. Businesses and governments both gather terabytes of video and audio data on a daily basis for later analysis should any law enforcement or regulatory concerns require recall for inquiry.

In an immediate test of the accuracy and currency of this work, the economy “blew up” between the time that most of it was written and its publication. To their credit, the authors have the possibility on the radar, noting, “…systematic failures of opacity – particularly in the financial markets but also in areas such as consumer product safety” (133). It is small comfort that the more negative scenarios are seen as a consequence of external cyber attacks, terrorism or a financial meltdown of the kind the 9/11 attacks were supposed to trigger by shutting down the stock exchange, etc., rather than due to our own greed, lack of responsibility and naiveté.

With the help of key executives and innovative financial instruments such as credit default swaps as well as housekeepers and home painters with $624K mortgages, we have collectively and individually produced a financial and economic challenge. The arch enemy, Osama bin Laden, in his wildest cave-inspired dreams, can only have wished for such a result, which, of course, has nothing to do with his warped agenda. Still, it must be said that the current post-September-2008 situation is nowhere near as negative as Frontier Friction; and, if anything, our dependency on information technology is being driven forward as a way to improve productivity in healthcare, education, government, construction and communities where automation opportunities are still low hanging fruit. Still, the key elements of our own come-uppance are to be found sprinkled throughout the various scenarios. What about the elements of a solution?

There too, the answer is “yes.” At least in the short term, government intervention – as in Continental Drift – is the order of the day. This is occurring in the form of ownership and the policy setting that ownership inevitably generates. The issues of governance and accountability mentioned in Proud Tower are still open, have to be engaged, and they are likely to result in even bigger data warehouses that encompass email and unstructured documents, as well as transactional data. Yes, the world is still flat, but seismic up-croppings, ridges and bumps are definitely more prominent in the near term. Security and surveillance data will also contribute to more data and the risk of less information. The technology advances envisioned in Freelance Planet with innovative search tools, more usable metadata to connect the meaning of diverse data sources and “always on / always connected” networks will be needed to generate more information, not just more data. At another level, the good news is that the current political leadership and administration, notwithstanding inevitable missteps, cut its teeth on social networking, community organizing, instant messaging, BlackBerries and working smarter as well as harder.

Limitations of space in this review mean that I cannot do justice to the richness of this text. It is not just a strategy text, though Q4 2008 events make it strikingly relevant from that perspective. It is also filled with information technology recommendations and in-the-trenches tactics. (However, no code – there is no code in this book!) For example, perennial best practices (truths) include: A flexible business solution architecture built on industry standards and designed to interoperate with the core IT platform simplifies business operations and transformation. Changing policies and business rules around data retention, reporting, process consistency, and security as government regulations change will be smoother for those firms that have architected accordingly. Empower end users with tools that preserve IT governance. Reusable infrastructure creates reusable skills. Automate low-value tasks, enable high-value work. Business solutions should look and work like standard desktop apps. Strategic information should be visible and accessible. Business executives and IT managers alike will find much practical value in such maxims. Anyway, I did.

In case the potential reader is concerned about the source of this planning, there is precious little Microsoft-specific material in this text. I found a single statement, noted above, that business solutions should look and work like standard desktop applications. Knowing Dan Rasmus from his work at Giga Information Group, he will tell it like it is regardless of who is the sponsor. One big challenge is the growing disconnect between traditional accounting methods for returns and those returns that are now known as intangibles. “To address this issue, Microsoft has invested in theInstitute for Innovation and Information Productivity (III) – charged with exploring alternative economic models that better reflect the nature of the knowledge economy.” Let’s hope that Microsoft can continue to invest in this way. Seems like a valuable exercise to me – and a useful book given the uncertainties of and inevitable potholes in the road ahead.

  • Lou AgostaLou Agosta
    Lou Agosta is an independent industry analyst, specializing in data warehousing, data mining and data quality. A former industry analyst at Giga Information Group, Agosta has published extensively on industry trends in data warehousing, business and information technology. He is currently focusing on the challenge of transforming America’s healthcare system using information technology (HIT). He can be reached at LAgosta@acm.org.

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