There was a scene in the recent BBC adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel of Napoleonic derring-do, War and Peace, which emphasised the dangers of straggling. On the great winter march out of Russia, a prisoner of the French army whom the audience had come to admire a great deal simply couldn’t take the ferocious conditions anymore. He dropped back – and was shot by the soldiers as a burden.
I’m pretty sure this was designed to make us perceive Napoleon’s army as the bad guys. Perhaps I’ve been in the tech sector too long, but I wasn’t quite as shocked as the series wanted me to be: this sort of behaviour, thankfully without the actual bodily harm, is par for the course where I’m from.
Technology, like an army, stops for no one. Today, we have almost grown accustomed to what would have been to our ancestors an utterly bewildering pace of change. The Russians about whom Tolstoy wrote lived in more or less the same way as their grandfathers; today, our lives are in some ways unrecognizable from what they were even ten years ago. It can be a real struggle to keep up, then – but you don’t have any choice if you want your business to be a success rather than taken to the rear and shot.
The consequences of not keeping pace with technological change are as dire as they are obvious: fall behind a trend – mobile internet, for example – and you’ll be less useful or accessible to your clients, less relevant to their needs. Fail to spot the next technological horizon and you’ll miss the key opportunities which could have benefited both you and your clients; and fail to harness the power of IT and your internal processes will become less efficient than your competitors – and your customers will sense that, too.
The obscurity of the Luddite is a terrible thing. But in a period of such rapid change how can you avoid it without simultaneously being a genius? You’d expect someone who works for a web design agency to say this, but the first rule of thumb must be: listen to your geeks. Every business has at least one, and their natural enthusiasm for tech has a really practical impact if you can harness it to figure out what the next big thing might be.
Likewise, read magazines like Wired or websites such as Engadget.com – these specialise in talking about the latest developments in accessible terms. Very often publications like this are consumer-facing, and that’s key: the most rapid change is happening in this sector, and keeping track of the latest trends in smartphones or tablets will help you understand what your customers expect. Not only that, but big step-changes in business – cloud storage, for instance – began life at the consumer level. Stay a step ahead.
So a bit of curiosity can go a long way. Do you kids endlessly play video games? Join in! Gaming is a great way to experience new technologies – from peer-to-peer communication to social sharing and distribution, gaming is constantly making the most of the latest technological opportunities to enhance players’ experiences. In the same way, take a trip to your local tech store – play with the product, talk with the salespeople. Make the latest gear a part of your life. Splash out every now and then on a new toy.
In other words, tech isn’t something happening to other people – it’s happening to you, too, whether or not you embrace it. Futurologists spend their careers writing about the long-term future (and it’s well worth picking up one of their books every now and then for context); the least we can do as individuals is understand what’s popular now, and equip ourselves to imagine the next short-term shift. Thinking outside the box – outside your comfort zone, outside your sector or department – keeps us all flexible.
And finally, of course, I’d suggest you talk to an expert. If, having read the magazines and played with the gadgets and thought about the future, you think you might have an idea – or even if you’ve merely identified a hole in your organization you think tech could fill – call us or some other group of experts (it should definitely be us) so you can start to plan properly how you’ll make the most of the next big thing . . . and keep up with that long, sometimes grueling, march.
All this Napoleonic hi-jinx got me thinking, actually: on the battlefields of Belgium in 1815, during Napoleon’s last stand, many things contributed to the final French defeat. But one of them? The British Baker rifle: a type of firearm with a grooved, rather than smooth, barrel, which could project the bullet faster, further and more accurately. That is, even Napoleon could struggle to keep up with technological change. Don’t let that blind spot be your Waterloo.