“After two decades online, I’m perplexed,” American astronomer Clifford Stoll admitted in an article penned for Newsweek back in 1995. “It’s not that I haven’t had a gas of a good time on the Internet,” he explained, adding that he’d “met great people and even caught a hacker or two”. “But,” he conceded, “I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community.”
“Visionaries,“ Stoll observed cynically, “see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms.” Some, he said, are even prophesying a future for “electronic town meetings and virtual communities.” All a bunch of baloney, in Stoll’s words. It will never catch on.
As we come to terms with what’s being described as The Fourth Industrial Revolution, a global all-consuming shift, shaped by dramatic and constant technological innovation, it would be all too easy to dismiss Stoll’s epically false prediction as a sign of simple stupidity.
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But a flick through the history books informs us that even the greatest thinkers are fallible and can misstep in this way. Albert Einstein in 1932 observed that there’s not “the slightest indication” that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. A few years later IBM chairman Thomas Watson said that the world market would be able to accommodate “maybe five computers”.
The automobile and television were snubbed as fads, just as categorically as The Beatles were. And today – if the cliche is to believed – history might indeed be repeating itself, as another big hitter seems to be nonchalantly dismissing the digital world as a cute, nice-to-have gimmick: UK Plc.
Large UK companies may be making a misjudgement of epic proportions by not choosing to invest in new technologies. A report on digital transformation, published today by the Confederation of British Industry and tech firm Oracle, highlights research showing that tackling businesses’ reluctance to adopt new tech could add £100bn to the UK economy.
The data is compelling. Though our biggest companies only make up 0.1 per cent of total businesses by numbers, they generate close to half of all corporate revenues and employ around 40 per cent of the UK workforce. What they have in scale though, they in many cases lack in innovative appetite, and that is starting to bite.
Since 2008, the UK has had a much sharper productivity slowdown than other major economies, including the US, Japan, Canada, Germany and France. Though the UK is a world leader in many respects, we’ve become a reactionary rather than a revolutionary nation when it comes to adoption of technology in business. At a time when we’d serve as a decent punchline for most international political jokes, the last thing we should be doing is compromising our reputation where we can relatively easily avoid to do so.
Aside from the pure financial risk of underestimating, or not even considering, the possible benefits of taking a more digital approach, let’s not forget about safety. Cyber-security is one of those terms that’s become so embedded in our corporate vocabulary that we take it for granted. Large corporations think they know about the importance of effective cyber defences, but do they really? The report suggests they don’t and are in fact oblivious to what could actually happen if they continue to plod along, romanticising about the opportunities of AI and blockchain.
I like to think of young corporations – those that have only been around for maybe 10 years – as the corporate equivalents of millennials. The unicorns especially get accused of being feisty and entitled, slammed for trying to be disruptive (and often succeeding) and dismissed as having limited life experience.
But just as older generations can learn a thing or two from millennials about being open to change, value-driven and innovative, so too the large, traditional PLCs should look to their fresh-faced counterparts when incorporating tech into the way they do business. Technology isn’t the future, it’s the present. It’s not tomorrow’s generation that wants to live and work digitally, it’s today’s.
The demographic that runs corporate Britain is not attuned to the breakneck pace at which the world is developing. But if Stoll, Watson and Einstein can be known for something other than their bad predictions, then there’s still hope for change.