At present we are living in the twilight of the Industrial Age from the last century, just as people in 1914 were living in the twilight of the Victorian Age from the century before that. In many ways the 20th century did not really start until 1914, and perhaps it will be in this year of 2014 that we see the real start of the 21st century.
In 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo triggered World War I and a chain of events that dramatically demonstrated the power of the new technologies of that time. It ushered in a new age.
There had been wars before, but what caught everyone by surprise was how World War I became such a point of focus for applying new technologies. They created a new kind of war that was far more deadly and destructive than anything seen before. It marked the start of the Industrial Age.
Now in 2014, I find myself wondering what kind of incident today could draw the whole world into some momentous chain of events. This incident, whatever it might be, does not have to lead to war again. There is already lots of warfare going on at great cost, and it’s producing very little in the way of results. Maybe we are collectively even getting a bit tired of war.
As I see it, the big incident and the resulting chain of events that really marks the start of the 21st century will stir up strong emotions around the world. In 1914, the assassination stirred up strong emotions of pride and national patriotism that drove people and nations to take sides and begin fighting with each other. What strong emotions today could motivate us and drive us to do something other than make war? How could we apply new technologies -- real-time, mobile, social, big data -- to create something more powerful than anything we have seen before?
The new age of this century will occur when we focus on combining the strengths and capabilities of these technologies to create something bigger than the sum of the individual parts. The true significance and full potential of all this technology is not so much to be found in any one technology, but in the synergies that arise from combinations of technologies. Remember, the Industrial Age was not so much about individual factories, railroads, and steel mills but about what happened when all those things were combined into larger, interconnected systems of production.
Diving into the details of cloud computing or mobile devices or social media or big data or some new app tends to miss their larger significance. That significance becomes clear only when we explore what can be created with different combinations of these technologies. In articles this year, I’ll explore interesting combinations and show what those combinations can do when they are applied to specific business problems in areas like marketing, sales, product design, manufacturing, and supply chain management.
Whether the big event that ushers in the new age happens this year, or next year, or the year after, it hardly matters. We can be sure that something will happen, and when it does, it will create a point of intense focus. We face problems that are ecological, economical, political, and social. We feel the increasing urgency to do something more than business as usual to respond to these problems. One or more of them will trigger an incident, and then a chain of events will stir emotions on a global scale. When this happens, we will apply the full power of our new technologies to respond, and in doing so, the next age that comes after the Industrial Age will be born.
The answers we develop for these problems will be made possible by technologies that have already emerged in the last 10 years. Combinations of real-time, mobile, social, and big-data technologies are going to drastically change the way companies organize themselves and perform work in the coming decades of this century. The archetypal corporate cube farm of the late 20th century, that monument to bureaucracy and wasted effort as portrayed by TV shows like The Office, will fade away as companies find other ways to organize and operate.
Now is a great time to be in the information technology biz for people who can figure out how to create powerful combinations of technologies and apply them to solve the problems that confront us. What we now call the Information Age is only a variation on the old Industrial Age, because most companies are still using information technology primarily to improve traditional industrial processes by lowering costs and increasing productivity.
That’s fine, but it’s no longer enough. The new age that this century will be known for is going to create completely new products and services that will enable completely new ways of working and living. Great fortunes will be made by those who deliver those products and services.
I don't really know what we'll call this new age. I’m sure it will be named in some way for the technologies that make it possible, but I think we'll need to come up with a shorter and catchier title than "real-time, mobile, social, big-data age."