Catalysts, Inhibitors, and Transformers: Ten Governing Forces shaping Technology

Emerging technologies shape the technology landscape. They create new segments — such as self-driving cars, destroy existing segments — such as GPS trackers, and transform some segments — such as automobiles. As the fates of companies like Kodak, Nokia, Encyclopedia Brittanica, and Sun vividly demonstrate, emerging technologies can make or break organizations. To survive, organizations need to identify, utilize, and sometimes shape emerging technologies. Ironically, just like in war, the worst thing an organization can do is to freeze, dip in indecision, and do nothing.

Emerging technologies appears with a bang, often accompanied by a hype that promises to change the world, vast riches, and to solve the world hunger, making them hard to miss. Judging their fates, unfortunately, is much harder.

The following figure depicts the last few decades’ emerging technologies and their fates.

Unfortunately, all that hyped neither always have an impact nor live up to their promise. Some are not relevant; some die, and some merely survive. However, some wove themselves into the world so well, hiding in the plain sight. Finding one of those early, shaping it, and owning it is a dream of every entrepreneur.

Hence, organizations and practitioners must choose carefully, think long-term, and having decided, act decisively.

This is a problem that has fascinated us. While building “Emerging Technology Analysis Canvas (ETAC),” a framework built to analyze emerging technologies, we examined many emerging technologies, their characteristics, and their impact. We saw many factors deciding the fate of emerging technologies. We saw principle among them, a set of forces shaping, driving, or inhibiting them. These forces represent human’s long-term aspiration and fears learned via application of technology, both in their successes and failures.

Having studied many emerging technologies and their fates, having compared, contrasted, and analyzed causes and effects, we identified ten forces. Let’s discuss those forces.

There are four positive and six negative forces, the former class assisting emerging technologies, while the latter inhabiting the emerging technologies.

Let us explore each force.

Positive

  • Financial Gains, Agility, and Productivity — profit being one of the key goals of organizations, the financial gains need little explanation. Productivity also translates to cost savings. Agility provides the competitive advantages that in-turn can be translated to either cost savings or more profits.
  • Automation — As widely discussed under AI, the cost of human effort continued to rise and automation replaces those costs with either software or robotics.
  • Communication, Integration, and Trust — while building systems, the primary challenges we face are distributed information and distributed decisions makers, scattered across the world. Some information is stored in non-digital media or human memories. Some decisions are made by humans. Improvements in communication (e.g. Web Services, EDI, XML), integration (e.g. ESB), trust (e.g. Blockchain), and human interaction related technologies have enhanced our ability to build systems connecting distributed information and decision makers.
  • Loose Coupling Between entities — Systems does not exist in isolation. The world they serve evolves, and so must systems. More tightly coupled the parts of a system to each other, harder and harder to evolve the system over time. Hence we have seen a wave after wave (e.g., via SOA, via messaging, via Microservices, via API Economy) of emerging technologies trying to improve the loosely coupled nature of our systems.

Negative

  • Lack of Programmers — computers can’t understand humans and need precise instructions. Until this is fixed, programming computers and maintaining those programs need skilled humans trained to anticipate how computers can go wrong. Finding programmers is a key challenge facing most technologies. For example, Big Data technology adoption is limited by the lack of data scientists.
  • Privacy — Modern human civilization is built on the idea of individuals. Hence, we are sensitive to privacy, the ability to control information about ourselves. Many emerging technologies (e.g. AI, Big Data, IoT, Cloud) interacts with privacy, which continues to be a major force shaping technology.
  • Government Policy and Law — as seen with GDPR, the government has the power to shape emerging technologies by regulating, banning, or helping the technology.
  • Complexity — Science is an effort to create simple models to tame complexities of the world. Complexity is the enemy of systems, making them brittle, expensive, and sometimes failures. Inherent complexity dampens emerging technologies. For example, Rogers’ Five Factors, which analyze adoption rates directly, identifies complexity as a factor and even two factors trialability and observability are extensions associated with complexity. On the other hand, technologies have a significant advantage if they can reduce the pre-existing complexities.
  • Security Concerns — Security is a basic human need and fear is often considered as one of the most potent of human emotions. For an example, “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” puts the security at the base. Technologies face stiff friction if they create security concerns, while technologies reducing security concerns have a natural appeal.
  • Monopoly / Vendor-Lock-In — We all have heard the narrative of an organization acquiring the market while killing or buying off the competition, planning to take over the market, and then raise prices while reducing quality and customer service. Recent history shows many monopolies but such degradation is not common. Although fears of monopolies play a role, this is the weakest of the ten forces, most likely. For an example, cloud succeeded despite concerns about monopoly and vendor lock-in.

Sometimes, even the negative forces can act as a positive force if an emerging technology can reduce the effect of the negative force. For an example, blockchain is assisted by privacy and security as blockchain reduce those problems.

Above ten forces provide a powerful lens to scrutinize emerging technologies. For an example, using them as a checklist to think about an emerging technology significantly increase our understanding of the technology.

Hope this was useful. If you liked this post, you might also enjoy the “Emerging Technology Analysis Canvas (ETAC)” and “An analysis of Serverless”. We appreciate your thoughts and feedback through comments or Github issues.

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