What would you do if you could accurately predict your future? The movies will tell you it’s better not to mettle with your future, but it’s an entirely different situation when it comes to business.
Knowing the potential trends and reach of technology in one year and beyond would be a huge opportunity for a successful future for your enterprise. But is it even possible?
“Technology and business is predictable and cyclical—future trends can come to light with the right mix of research and understanding of past events,” said Daniel Burrus, Futures Studies expert and Founder and CEO of Burrus Research.
Burrus began his career as a biology and physics teacher, which led him to achieve the educator of the year award his first year of teaching. That was just the beginning in a long line of impressive achievements from Burrus, who quickly followed this success with a contribution to the aeronautics industry: a new airplane design that led him to found his first business.
After he left teaching, Burrus started six companies over the span of a few years, of which three were national leaders in the first year, and five were turning a profit in the same timeframe. But when the time came to decide whether to expand his company that manufactured his planes or to sell, the decision was an easy one.
“When I’m really old, looking back at my life and noting that this is how I made my money—this is what I did for a living—would I think it was worth it? In my heart I knew I wanted to get back to education in some form.”
Appropriately, his next venture combined his love of education with his business acumen. Burrus sold his companies and founded Burrus Research, a consulting and strategic advising firm that helps leaders build businesses that can anticipate and innovate for future success. At the time, he identified 20 technologies that would be driving forces in the future, and to prove Burrus’s expertise, all have come true in some form or another
The key to his strategy is disseminating hard and soft future trends, and assisting companies by applying this knowledge to each business plan and strategy to help them get a jump on the competition.
So what are hard and soft trends? In the simplest of definitions, hard trends are future facts—they will happen. Soft trends Burrus research defined as “future maybes”.
“There are three categories of hard trends: technology, demographics, and government regulations,” he said. “You cannot keep hard trends from happening, but soft trends are things you can influence.”
So Burrus quizzed me: is bitcoin a hard or soft trend? My answer came out as a question, but I got it right: soft. Cryptocurrency—a digitial currency that is regulated through encryption techniques—is the hard trend. Bitcoin’s success depends on whether or not something better comes along, meaning it could be the frontrunner in the industry or fade into soft trend obscurity.
What about the aging Baby Boomer population? That’s a hard trend: people are getting older, and healthcare costs will increase.
“A business’s goal should not be to keep up with competitors, but how you can distance the business from the competition in the future.”
The line between hard trends and soft trends became murky for me after that, as our conversation turned to recent research the U.S. released about the growing number of people who will have certain health ailments—Parkinson’s Disease, obesity, etc.—by 2020. Although the phrasing on the report led the reader to believe that this will happen, it doesn’t have to.
“The report was pulled together to figure out how much we’re going to need to pay for this soft trend of increasing disease and health risks. But instead, shouldn’t we start figuring out how to prevent this from happening?” Burrus said. ”If we can do that, these huge expenditures could potentially be avoided.”
These hard and soft trends have driven Burrus Research to work with and help improve business for numerous Fortune 500 companies over its 30-plus year history, including IBM. The tech company’s relationship with Burrus Research has been a long one that cumulated in a meeting Daniel Burrus had with its top executives a few years back.
“We spent four hours identifying strategies for going forward. The results didn’t kick in right away, but in the last 12 months, IBM has seen $25 billion in revenue related to the establishment of these strategies.”
Burrus Research has aided another firm also known for their trend knowledge, Deloitte. Burrus’s company was able to help increase the accuracy of the trend reports Deloitte publishes each year for clients. Because of the increased accuracy, Deloitte was able to attract more clients.
“Leaders need to understand that the old way of planning is obsolete,” he said. “For years CEOs have been creating strategic plans, but these are static and don’t have an emphasis on the transformational nature of business the rapid innovations in technology have created. For a strategy to be low-risk, base it on the certainty of hard trends.”
The challenge for business execs however, is there are hundreds of thousands of trends to potentially keep track of. Burrus helped us sort through these, and provided some guidance as to where companies should be focusing their efforts.
Virtualization is creating “huge, transformative possibilities” for businesses by lowering costs and outsourcing processes (in software and applications like Salesforce) and difficult IT problems (like on-site servers being replaced by the cloud).
Mobilization, the Internet of Things, data analytics, and 3D printing were other trends that Burrus mentioned as necessary focuses for businesses, claiming that if businesses decide not to adapt to these hard trends, they will be left in the dust.
“We’re not going to start going backward—dumb phones will not overtake smart phones, just as we won’t disconnect everything after connecting it through IoT—so why aren’t companies planning for these eventualities?” he asked.
Two industries in particular have piqued Burrus’s interest, as both healthcare and finance are operating in crisis mode, instead of trying to get ahead of the curve.
Obamacare, for example, tried to fix how we pay for our healthcare at the end of the process. Instead, why aren’t hospitals and health providers attempting to wipe out waste in supply chains? In the finance sector, accountants are employed to look at the past to make sure the books have been done correctly, but why aren’t there more anticipatory positions, focused on projections based on hard trends?
As we’re left to figure out whether we want to operate in our respective industries in crisis mode or preparedness mode, Burrus left us with some advice that’s hard to beat:
“A business’s goal should not be to keep up with competitors, but to distance itself from the competition in the future.”
It’s time to stop playing catch up and start positioning your business in a way that sets you apart from others in the industry. But don’t take my word for it—take the man’s who has been successfully predicting the future for three decades.