Expected Surprises

For me, the laziest and lamest excuses that senior folk make is ‘we didn’t see it coming’ and ‘ no one could have anticipated that happening’.

In 2006 I attended a series of meetings at a think Tank on the future of Financial Services. One of the meetings asked the question: ‘Do we need greater transparency to prevent future Systemic Risk?’. Within 2 years we found out the answer to that one. Many of the bodies represented have used both the opening quotes from this piece in their defence. Yet we were discussing these very issues 2 years before.

In my blog on the ‘Technical crunch’ I pointed out that we have known about the depletion of IPv4 addresses for more than a decade, yet we seem ill prepared for this coming problem.

Back in 1996, Oliver Sparrow, one of my favourite futurists, then at Chatham House, pointed out that the valuations of the ecommerce companies were already a bubble. In one of his talks he showed how the growth that underpinned the valuations could not be achieved on the timescales envisaged. A combination of legal issues, skills development, delivery capacity, network infrastructure and so on was unavoidable barriers.

I watched with much interest over the next three years as the valuations went through the roof. At one point in the free email developments, a single email address was being valued at around £20,000, so running a service of 30,000 users created a business value of £600m. Talks about a ‘new economics’, a ‘long boom’ and valuations based on multiples of losses were a heady mixture. Oliver’s logic proved impeccable in March 2000.

Oliver was also responsible for opening my eyes to the looming pension crisis 15 years ago.

We know that market booms are followed by busts.

We know if we secure a piece of software, that hackers will seek a new vulnerability.

Of course, we know that there will be an earthquake in San Francisco. The problem is that we don’t know when.

It is not just timing that is an issue, senior folk are often resource rich but time poor. The urgent issues crowd out the important. Furthermore, when there is a dominant consensus, there will always be siren voices claiming the end of civilization as we know it. Who do you listen to? How do you sort out the insights of those outside a cosy consensus?

 Of course there are unforeseeable problems, ‘Black Swans’ in the parlance.

However, there are many issues which in outline we can be prepared for even if we do not know when or in detail, how they will unfurl.

This ‘Expected Surprises’ is the theme of a conference at the end of the month with an outstanding group of folk with a track record (including Oliver) of insight into these issues. I’d recommend it as a challenging day out. See http://www.oxfordleadership.com/Expected_Surprises.

Recently a CIO of my acquaintance asked me a question which I found hard to come up with a convincing answer for him or for me.

‘The rapid developments in IT have been talked about for 40 years or more; yet every time anything comes along my suppliers behave as if it came out of nowhere. They run change control as if new technologies were unexpected. Why?’

If today, we sign a contract for 10 years with a client, what expected surprises can and should we factor in? In my opinion, the reputation of IT/IS could be significantly enhanced if this is cracked.

Thoughts welcomed.

Comments (3)

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  • 1
    Jacqui Hogan wrote on 22nd Sep 2010

    It is very frustrating. I can understand very small businesses focussing on the short term (survival) issues, but surely the bigger orgs should have a longer strategic timescale? Is it to do with a systemic short term thinking pervading both our larger commercial organisations and government/public sector? Or perhaps human beings truly struggle to plan beyond their immediate envionment - technology evolution moving fatser than human evolution? If we can't plan for expected change, what chance have we in preparing for the Black Swans?

    I'd be very interested in the conclusions and recommendations of the conference.

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  • 2
    Frank Land wrote on 22nd Sep 2010

    Your theme will be addressed (at least to some extent) at a panel session at the ICIS 2010 Conference in St Louis, December 12th to 15th. The panelists - Gordon Davis, Howard Morgan, Michel Avital, Jeff Baker, Jim Wetherbe, Frank Land - will look at future directions, and includes a framework for predicting the future from Jim Wetherbe and a plea for the IS community to study the entrepeneurs and innovators from the 'dark' side.

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  • 3
    Dave wrote on 22nd Sep 2010

    There are several frustrating things.
    a) These 'bosses' take massive amounts of money because they 'control' the company and 'make important decisions', 'are responsible' and 'ensure massive profitability' yet as soon as things aren't just bumbling along nicely they suddenly aren't to blame. Note the top dogs in the banks that caused the recent mayhem are sitting comfortably on muliti million pound pensions, share portfolios and massive mansions while the rest of us pay for their mistakes.
    b) Most companies have huge numbers of management layers that are supposed to be able to take care of day to day survival while those at the top determine the over all destination and route. Its a bit like the navy - the admiral decides where to go, each captain steers his ship, each chief engineer keeps the engines running...

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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