Is It Possible to Stay Ahead of Technology Shifts?

In a recent interview, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella admitted that the company made a big mistake, "If anything, one big mistake we made in our past was to think of the PC (personal computer) as the hub for everything for all time to come. And today, of course, the high volume device is the six-inch phone. I acknowledge that."

This is quite an admission from the CEO of a company that during its heyday led the technology trends. It also raises the question: Is it possible for companies to always stay ahead of technological shifts?

John Chambers recently stepped down as CEO of Cisco, and when discussing his experience, he said that one of the key things he attributes his success to is staying ahead of technology shifts.

Chambers says that if the shift was seen early enough, they developed the technology in-house. If not, then they looked to acquire other companies. The last way, which Chambers referred to as spin-in, was when group of engineers and developers were assembled to work on a specific project and operate outside of the company, replicating a start-up environment.

However, it is not always possible to predict shifts in technology. In his book Nimble: How Intelligences Can Create Agile Companies and Wise Leaders, Baba Prasad argues that instead of engaging in the futile exercise of making predictions, companies and individuals should develop capabilities that will allow them to deal with the changes when they occur. He cites the case of Nokia, who failed to make the shift from Symbian OS to a more viable alternative in order to compete with iPhones in 2007.

In the book The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, the authors narrate a story about Steve Jobs' ability to stay ahead of trends, "No one knew how to go small better than Steve Jobs. He was famously as proud of the products he didn't pursue as he was of the transformative products Apple created. In the two years after his return in 1999, he took the company from 350 products to ten. That's 340 nos, not counting anything else during that period.”

In a way, Jobs was ready and willing to cannibalize something that was working for the sake of something better that he saw coming. This is something that Nokia seemed to have understood too late and that was eventually one of the factors behind its downfall.

Staying ahead of technology shifts is definitely one of the key challenges that organizations face, and it is also one of the hardest things to predict and act on. 

Google's Eric Schmidt famously commented not that long ago, "But more important, someone, somewhere in a garage is gunning for us. I know, because not long ago we were in that garage. Change comes from where you least expect it...The next Google won’t do what Google does, just as Google didn’t do what AOL did. Inventions are always dynamic and the resulting upheavals should make us confident that the future won’t be static."

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