Appearing in In The Black magazine, October 2020
What About the Future?: New Perspectives on Planning, Forecasting and Complexity
By Fred Phillips
Springer, 157 pages
Phillips is a respected academic and consultant, and editor of the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change, so he has spent a great deal of time thinking about the future. But he makes clear that this book is not about making predictions. Instead, it is about ways to think about the future, from trend analysis to scenario planning to expert roundtables. All methods have their strengths and weaknesses – and in most cases, more of the latter than the former.
He examines the issues of risk, complexity and uncertainty, as well as the foreseeability of (apparently) unforeseeable events and the labyrinthine impact of disruptive innovations. All this could easily have become a jargon-heavy jumble but Philips writes with admirable clarity and self-deprecating humour. He also has a good time poking some fun at predictions that turned out to be hilariously wrong, mainly due to the pattern of applying straight-line thinking to radical disjunctions. He eventually concludes that the most reliable tools in forecasting are population demographics and long-cycle Kondratieff waves, although even these have problems. Nevertheless, the book is a fascinating read, and makes one think of Churchill’s famous remark, that the future is really just one darned thing after another.
Artificial Intelligence in Practice: How 50 Successful Companies Used AI and Machine Learning to Solve Problems
By Bernard Marr with Matt Ward
Wiley, 352 pages
For a long time AI looked like a solution in search of a problem but this book shows how it is being used to drive efficiencies that flow through to the bottom line. The studies are grouped into the categories of tech trailblazers, retail/CPG, media, financial/healthcare, and manufacturing, and each follows the same format of problem-analysis-solution-results. Many of the companies are using AI to improve the customer interface but some focus on product innovation, and AI is also being used to fight counterfeiting and pollution.
A particularly interesting case is Starbucks, which uses AI to connect global inventory control with granular analysis of local consumer movements. Another multinational giant, Unilever, uses AI to streamline recruitment and onboarding. Viacom has developed ways to build customer loyalty through data analytics and real-time monitoring.
Some readers might find the bite-sized studies to be overly brief and lacking in detail. That is the trade-off that Barr, who has written extensively about emergent technologies, has made: breadth for depth. But he includes reference lists at the end of each section for those who want to know more. He also provides a significant concluding chapter which examines future challenges for AI, including privacy, disruption and data security.
Digital Detox: The Politics of Disconnecting
By Trine Syvertsen
Emerald Publishing, 2020
As Professor of Media Studies at the University of Oslo, Norway, Syvertsen noticed an interesting news snippet: that the current trendy gift in Scandinavia is a ‘mobile box’. It is, in fact, just a box: the idea is that you put your phone into it and walk away for a day or longer. It made her think about how our relationship with our phone is evolving: from seeing them as essential tools and must-have fashion items to annoying distractions that steal our privacy, time and attention.
The research she conducted reveals how people are increasingly looking for ways to disconnect – or, rather, to set their terms for being online. Many people want to feel more “present” in their non-digital lives; others realised that they had forgotten how to have face-to-face conversations. Syvertsen endorses regular disconnection periods, and suggests methods such as offline zones in the house or workplace, removing notification apps, banning phones from beds, and acknowledging that FOMO – fear of missing out – is, well, silly. According to data from Sweden and Norway, periods of digital detox help to increase work productivity and improve overall health.
And as for the ‘mobile box’? A great idea, says Syvertsen. You can order them online.
The blog section of the Deloitte Australia site has a wealth of useful information, with categories including agility, the economic outlook, COVID-19 responses, leadership and finance. The emphasis is on looking forward, using data from the global Deloitte network. Some of the particularly interesting pieces examine the implications of the COVID-19 crisis for general insurance (under the Financial Services tab), experience as a key aspect of learning (under Innovation), and the connection between skills and wage premiums (under Government). Most of the blog pieces are short but there is usually a link to a longer article or more data sources.
Skills in demand
The latest Jobs Report from Hays Recruitment Australia shows that Management Accountants, Cloud Engineers, Credit Assessors and SEO Digital Marketing Specialists are the skilled people most in demand at present. But the report warns jobseekers that technical abilities are not all that employers want to see. The key factor is for skilled professionals who, regardless of their role or industry, can demonstrate strong interpersonal and creative skills. Employers also want people who can make data-based decisions, adapt well to change and are continuous learners. This is likely to continue, with ‘soft’ skills becoming prerequisites across all job functions and sectors.
Guy Winch is a psychologist and author, and in this interesting TED Talk he examines how to overcome stress and the problems it leads to. He argues that the real issue is what he calls ‘ruminations’, or the tendency to think about work at home – or, indeed, anywhere and everywhere. He advises setting up clear ‘guardrails’, including specific hours and places for work. Another important step is turning off the computer and the phone. He also has suggestions for people who work from home on setting clear divisions. Breaking bad mental habits is not easy but it can be done.
The Insights section of the site of banking giant HSBC contains a wide range of useful articles and podcasts, and it can be searched by industry sector or subject theme. Recent posts in the Financial Institutions section, for example, look at trends in the securities market and how changes are being driven by regulatory issues. An important article by analyst Lucy Acton asks whether sustainability issues will still matter to consumers after the COVID-19 crisis has passed. She concludes that although the pandemic has presented setbacks in some areas it has accelerated other sustainability trends, such as online purchasing and automation.
Innosight is a US consulting firm specialising in helping companies develop and implement innovative solutions. The site provides many interesting articles and reports, with one of the most significant being ‘The Transformation 20’, which ranks companies according to their record on innovation. The report also draws lessons for leaders, noting that the biggest problem for successful companies is often complacency and self-delusion.
The site includes an In Memorium post for Clayton Christensen, a founder of the company who passed away in early 2020. He was one of the key figures of modern management thinking, and the author of numerous books on innovation, disruption, and transformation.
For a summary of the report ‘The Transformation 20’, and a link to the full report, go to: