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Futures: Invisible Business

We’re trying to build a future on inadequate structures from the past. For all the silicon-based “intelligence” permeating every aspect our lives, we still live in a brutally dumb world. It’s as if we’re wandering through the uncharted jungles of the 21st century with reconnaissance reports and walkie-talkies from about 15 years ago, but now it is all about smart phones, tablets and the myriad of new digital devices. At times, it seems we are caught in an era where everything is still all about people, people “surfing” to Web sites, people looking at screens with their eyes, people typing on keyboards with their fingers. People, people, people.

People are great, but for many important tasks they’re an impediment. Unless you’re living in ancient Egypt, people are not the proper resource for the excavating and heavy-lifting of skyscraper construction. We have machines for that now—backhoes, bulldozers, cranes, and so on—and no one seems to lament “the old days” when thousands of slaves carried pyramid-blocks on their backs.

The vision we need is not in itself new. It has been freely available at least since the 1950s, when such thinkers as Jay Forrester (System Dynamics) and MIT’s Norbert Weiner (Cybernetics and The Human Use of Human Beings) wrote landmark books describing a world transformed by automation, machine intelligence, and smart systems.

If you applied this vision in a practical way to business, it amounts to a great deal more than simple mechanisms that make certain B2C and B2B transactions, performed by human beings, somewhat easier, somewhat more convenient.

Genuine smart systems re-configure the relationship of people and devices to business systems and society. It must be built upon true, across-the-board automation, accomplished by enabling everyday electronic devices to communicate with and control each other, along with a whole new generation of information and communications tools for managing rich, vast streams of meaningful data and intelligence. The goal is to network devices into smart systems that are self-sensing, self-controlling, and self-optimizing—automatically, without human intervention. It would not be far-fetched to call them “self-aware.”

Inside such systems, reliable and blindingly fast microprocessors do what they are very good at doing (and what people are very bad at doing): digesting billions of data-points, talking to each other about the data, controlling each other based upon the state of the data. All in a matter of nanoseconds. Human beings cannot do this, nor should they; this incessant stream of ongoing data interactions and business intelligence should be “invisible” to people. At the same time, all this invisible machine activity makes the state of (i.e., the information about) a business’s assets, costs, and liabilities vastly more visible to managers and to the decision-making process—when decision-makers need or want to know.

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Such systems will open an entirely new portfolio of “killer apps” that will transform the way business is done around the world, and profoundly impact and improve commerce, healthcare, education, the environment and more. This opportunity represents an entirely new life for the IT and Telecom players. Yet these players, for the most part, have failed to re-evaluate their relationship to advancing technology and to their constituents.

When it comes to preparing for the global information economy of the 21st century, most people assume that “the technologists are taking care of it.” They take it on faith that the best possible designs for the future of information will emerge from large IT and Telco players and centralized authorities. But those are big, unfounded assumptions.

The business paradigms to which these industries cling today are far too limiting, too saturated, and too expensive to foster and sustain new innovation. In fact, most of these entrenched entities are showing little appetite for radical departures from current practice. Yet current practice will not serve the needs of a genuinely connected world.

Meanwhile, as they grope in the dark for new ideas, an unprecedented opportunity stares them in the face—the opportunity to provide the modern, automated information and communications tools that 21st century business needs so desperately.

We call this phenomenon “Invisible Business” and the winners and losers in the story will soon be very visible.

 

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