You Need A Futurist on Your Staff

28 05 2010

It should be obvious that most companies need to be aware of changing trends in technology and society.  From there it’s not a big leap to say that most companies would benefit from someone who is not only monitoring the new stuff coming out of the pipeline, but thinking deeply about what has yet to arrive.  It sounds like fun work, but it’s hard to do when you’ve got to put your money with your mouth is.  Some firms might get by with writing memos about the future, but anyone whose business is technology or whose business relies upon significant technology resources will at some point in their career find themselves in a multi-year technological planning project.  When you find yourself here, you find yourself planning a major future investment in technology.  And the planning isn’t done once that investment becomes shovel ready.  If it is large enough, technology will be changing enough during construction that you may have to asses the risks and benefits of modify certain features mid stream.

Accomplishing this means more than reading blogs and trade magazines to see what others are thinking and what companies are offering.  Futurism requires a special set of skills.  At this point you are asking yourself question like:  How mature is the technology?  How mature is the manufacturing process?  Will the technology be a cost effective and reliable replacement for its predecessor and will production rates be able to keep up with demand?  How does the technology fit in with the array of existing industry standards?  Will it force clients to commit to a proprietary standard, or will it fit in well with their existing infrastructure?

One of the most important points these questions will emphasize is that the most advanced technology may not win out.  An example is InfiniBand, which despite fantastic throughput and advanced built in features such as packet routing and remote DMA, falls within the domain a few specialty computing applications.  Support for the protocol among server and network component vendors is good but not great and its difficult to get other kinds of cutting edge technology (such as solid state storage) that make use of it.  Vendors will always support Ethernet first and then roll out an IB version once their product lines are mature.  Because of limited investment, IB may not be able to hold its high performance computing lead for long.  There is so much more money behind Ethernet that the standard and the technology evolve rapidly.  What may be even more important than all of these issues is the lack of qualified people who know how to build and maintain IB networks or write software that makes the most of the protocol’s special properties.

This of course is only the first set of issues that any futurist must face.  However, they show that the discipline is more than a hobby.  It requires experience, and I hope that in the future we find a greater emphasis on formal training in projection techniques.  For some more in depth discussion, you may want to check out this old but still valuable article in the Tech Republic

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