Keys to Embracing Disruptive Technology

In taking stock of potentially disruptive technologies, CEOs should be ready—really ready. Reinhard Fischer, chief of strategy for Audi of America, urges CEOs to “stop denying reality, which is what taxi operators did with Uber. Now Uber has taken about one-third of the taxi traffic in big cities.” Disruption is happening faster than ever. “Before when you talked about technologies coming, you’d name one or two,” says EY global chief innovation officer Jeff Wong. “Now there are 10, and they’re all relevant and important. That’s what’s really changing for the CEO.”

Here are some key pointers for CEOs looking to embrace disruptive tech solutions:
Don’t panic. The world is rife with examples of businesses where technological revolution fell short of its warnings. Early participants in e-learning, for example, still haven’t made money, says Julian Birkinshaw, a professor at London Business School. “Sometimes we forget about industries that haven’t been turned completely, immediately upside down. You have to make an ultimate commitment to new technology, but it’s not like you necessarily have to do that immediately.”

1. Take a long and broad view. Wall Street may demand rapid returns but woe be unto the CEO who concedes wholesale. “You’ve got to try to optimize for 10 years from now, not even just one to two years ahead,” warns Guo Xiao, CEO of the consulting firm ThoughtWorks. CEOs must also broaden their transformation push to encompass relationships with suppliers, customers and other external constituencies. “The greatest success comes through building an ecosystem of alliances and not thinking that the impact of technology is all within the four walls of your company,” says Nichole Jordan, national managing partner of markets, clients and industry for Grant Thornton.

2. Disrupt yourself. Critically evaluate your existing business model much as a hacker would try to take down a cybersecurity network. “Find out what the weak points are that you don’t see so that a disruptor can’t take advantage of them—and so you can disrupt yourself,” says Fischer.

“You’ve got to try to optimize for 10 years from now, not even just one to two years ahead.”

3. Seed early successes. Enable a “culture of testing and learning new technologies, not necessarily passing and failing them,” advises Roger Park of EY. Former Humana innovation chief Paul Kusserow, now CEO of Amedisys, recommends testing technologies with “people in the company who have a very specific problem that a technology could solve—more acute than anywhere else in the company—or who believe that a process needs to be changed and this could help it. Then you need to make sure these people get not only the benefit of the innovation but credit for taking the risk.”

4. Create emerging-tech scrums. EY’s Jeff Wong suggests charging a team with “actually getting dirty with tech and playing with it, trying to address and answer problems.” Audi of America created a “digital team where we pull all the bright young minds that are working on digital topics and merge them with people who do strategy for the long term,” Fischer says. “It’s a little lab where we play around with all kinds of ideas and ask ‘what if?’ questions.”

5. Expect resistance. “There are incredible forces working against innovation” in any organization, Kusserow says. “Technology has to be so good that someone has to be willing to take the risk of restructuring or disassembling an existing process to which their success or maybe their careers may be tied.”

6. Don’t get hung up on a specific technology. Resist the urge to make a big bet on the latest buzzword technology, says John Mullen of CapGemini. “Don’t prepare yourself to chase certain technologies, but [rather] to get better decision making in your organization, because the technologies that pass through your ecosystem are going to be different tomorrow than today.”

7. Focus on building capabilities. CEOs need to see their roles as “building an organizational culture that can rapidly figure out which technologies are advancing, what the paybacks are and what the future leverages of those technologies are in order to determine whether they’re part of the business strategy going forward,” Mullen says. Consider putting tech people on the board and add the CIO to the company’s core management team. “You need to infuse specific technology skill sets in management—people who understand digital as well as your industry,” says Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn, VP and general manager of Cisco Systems. “They need to be embedded in each business unit.”

8. Reckon with legacy IT. A company’s IT base typically must provide the computing horsepower and platforms for embracing machine learning and other data-intensive disruptors. Many CEOs get excited about a shiny new app, “but they shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that existing IT can be an enabler or an inhibitor of new digital services,” advises Paul Appleby, EVP of transformation for BMC Software. “They have to work on how to turn their existing infrastructure into a competitive differentiator. It may not be the exciting piece, but it’s what will allow you to be agile and scale and do so in a trusted environment.”

Read more:
CEOs Who Embrace Emerging Tech Must Prepare for the Challenge of Reskilling workers
Domino’s vs. Ford: Two Tales of Integrating Disruptive Tech

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Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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