For decades, industry analysts, market researchers, academics, futurists, and various other thought leaders have struggled to predict the next big thing in IT. Often, the projections offered are close to or exactly on target. Sometimes, however, they are dead wrong (remember smart cities, business supercomputers, Iridium, and Theranos?).
For the average IT manager or executive, playing catch-up with rapidly evolving technology trends can be a daunting task. “Technology is often influenced by a catalyst that shifts it from a fad to a trend,” observes Mike Storiale, vice president of innovation development and university partnerships at financial services firm Synchrony. “Fads can be easy to identify -- there’s excitement around something new with a potential for disruption,” he says. But fads tend to be short lived, and only become a genuine trend when they create a meaningful, lasting market impact. “It's difficult to predict when a catalyst will come along,” Storiale says.
Any technology that promises significant benefits, yet over time fails to deliver a clear, measurable return on investment (ROI), should be approached carefully, says Ian Campbell, CEO of Nucleus Research. Conducting due diligence is essential. “For example, AI has value, but it’s hard to put your finger on it,” he notes. Much depends on how and where it will be used.
IT leaders must always keep value in mind when analyzing any innovation. “If a technology solution solves a problem with a positive ROI, it will be successful in the long term,” Campbell says. “If it’s tech that's looking for a problem to solve, it will not be successful.” Campbell points to Google Glass as a classic example of a hyped technology that lacked a clear use case. “We said from day one it would fail,” he notes.
RFID is another technology that excited many IT leaders, yet ultimately failed to reach its widely touted potential. RFID was supposed to revolutionize the world by inserting responsive radio tags into supermarket products, vehicle license plates, rare artworks -- even personal documents, such as drivers’ licenses and health insurance cards, The fatal flaw that prevented RFID from living up to its lofty potential were use cases in which the cost outweighed the value -- even at just five cents a tag. While RFID has found a few niche applications, shipping giants such as FedEx, UPS, and Amazon still don’t use RFID tags, opting instead to remain with simple, cheap, and reliable bar codes and, more recently, QR code labels.
To be effective in understanding trends and the future technology directions, it’s important to have reliable sources, advises Chris Scheefer, vice president, Intelligent Industry, at business consulting firm Capgemini Americas. He suggests checking out insights from technology analysts, futurist and trendspotting organizations (such as Trendwatching), and university consortiums (such as the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies).
Venture capital firms are also worth listening to, since they're predicting which technologies will succeed based on their own investments, recommends Paul Heard, vice president and CIO at Zuora, a cloud-based subscription management platform provider. “While it’s hard to predict if any one solution will succeed or fail, if multiple firms are investing in the same space, that technology is more likely to be important in the future,” he notes. “Research analyst firms [such as Gartner] are also worth following, as it's their full-time job to understand the trends,” he adds. Heard also recommends networking with peers by attending industry conferences and joining industry roundtables.
Rene Van Den Bersselaar, CIO and global head of IT at biopharmaceutical company Debiopharm, stresses the importance of building a personal contacts network. Participating in discussion groups with like-minded people can spark great discussions and foster new ideas and relationships. “Additionally, open-source communities. like GitHub, provide great insights and the latest information on new, emerging technology trends, such as DevOps, artificial intelligence, machine learning, the cloud, and software containers.” Blogs, newsletters, and venture capital articles can also provide helpful insight on up-and-coming trends and topics, he notes.
Product roadmaps created by technology vendors tend to offer the least accurate IT trend forecasts. “They are marketing to their strengths and investments versus reflecting the accuracy of where the industry is trending,” says Michael Orozco, managing director and advisory services leader at business advisory firm MorganFranklin Consulting. Also avoid social media pundits, particularly sources with a vested interest in a trend's potential success or failure.
If a new technology appears to offer a strong ROI potential, launch a pilot project, and seek feedback as soon as possible, Heard advises. If the pilot fails you might lose a few dollars, but without trying you could also miss a big win, he notes.