The Future Is Not a Continuation of the Present

In my early days as a futurist, I was assigned to study Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) and explore how it could be used in the public schools and perhaps eventually in people’s homes. In the early 1970s, the vision was to have a huge room with raised floors housing a gigantic computer system to process the data and run the CAI system much as we processed business data at the time. I envisioned each student interacting with a computer, which would be a TV-like unit with a keyboard. We, the CAI study team, were envisioning the future by building on the equipment that was available at the time. People told me that the concept would never happen. That there was no way that schools could afford to house monstrous computers in a super-cooled, floor-raised room. And certainly only the rich could purchase such a system for their homes.

Fast-forward to the 1980s. The PC became a reality. And today, schools have laptops for learners, and homes have multiple laptops and desktop units per family (plus all kinds of other communication tools). Technological gadgets are converging at a rapid rate. For example, TVs, cameras, and telephones are being combined into one device with much more convergence to come. Technology is much more prolific than could have been imagined 40 years ago. Computers and other communication devices have been miniaturized thanks to the progressive complexity of the microchip. The world of computers has structurally changed, and because of that, life has never been the same.

Watching this phenomenon happen was an enlightening experience for me. I saw firsthand what I had always read and instinctively known: Dream the dream without limitations. Plant the idea. Then there is a likelihood that innovators will invent the tools to make the dream come true. Rather than look at the “what is” of today and see the impossibilities, think innovatively about “what could be” tomorrow and see the possibilities.

One of the trends occurring in the 21st century is that structural changes are accelerating. When structural change happens, things will never again be as they were. A physical example is the occurrence of an earthquake. After an earthquake changes the physical structure of the earth, the earth can never be put back exactly as it was. A structural change in technology was triggered by the progressive improvement of the microchip. Another structural change happened when the Internet was introduced for public use. After those and many other technological structural changes, life has never been the same.

Since the beginning of time, structural changes have occurred in many categories, but much more slowly than in today’s warp-speed environment. In those slower periods between structural changes, leaders had time to gain experience, study cycles, and offer viable solutions to recurring problems. That experience could be used again and again as similar problems and circumstances were encountered. However, when the world heads off in a new direction due to a structural change; and leaders are still anticipating that progress is moving forward in a straight line from the present, they miss the new path. They are racing forward but are on the wrong road. Many leaders are trying to resolve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions and wondering why the solutions aren’t working.

To lead effectively in today’s environment requires that leaders “get it.” They must anticipate structural changes that might occur and create ways to handle the new problems differently. This requires keen thinking skills. The emergence of Honda’s serious competitiveness on U.S. soil in the 1970s, the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s, acceptance of the Internet for public use in the early 1990s, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the terrorist events on September 11, 2001, and the rapid escalation of oil prices in 2008 are all examples of triggers for structural changes forever changing the U.S. socioeconomic climate. Dealing with such changes requires backward analysis for lessons learned from the past and forward thinking for future problem solution. And leaders today are responsible for acquiring and applying these critical skills.

There will be more on this topic in a later blog. But, for now, I want to emphasize that (1) structural changes are occurring at a rapid rate; and (2) leaders of all organizations must be prepared to make critical decisions on issues which they have never encountered before. The future is no longer a continuation of the present.

Copyright 2008, Carolyn Corbin. All rights reserved.

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