The future: coming up ever faster

Predicting the future is a matter of distinguishing between cyclical change and permanent change and knowing the difference between hard trends and soft trends.

That's the view of technology forecaster Daniel Burrus, who visited New Zealand earlier this month and spoke at Auckland University Business School's New Hemisphere event.

Soft trends are based on extrapolating statistics from the past to try to predict the future, whereas hard trends are based on something tangible and fully measurable, Burrus says. An example of a hard trend is the phenomena of aging baby boomers around the world, something that is definitely happening and on which investment or marketing decisions can be based.

Burrus says most "strategic planning" done by organisations doesn't take into account the differences between hard and soft trends and cyclical and permanent change.

"It's really financial planning in disguise," he says.

Many technological changes are hard trends, he says, but the adoption of a particular technology doesn't mean it's being used effectively.

He gave the example of email and videoconferencing, the adoption of which is a hard trend, but then asked audience members to raise their hands if their employer had laid down specific criteria for when to use email, a phone call, a fax or a videoconference.

Few raised their hands, which prompted Burrus to comment that for small companies especially, a clearly defined set of circumstances in which one or other of those forms of communication is preferable "could add a lot of value."

He pointed to surveys which have shown that one of the biggest time wasters in organisations is people sending lengthy emails when it's not necessary.

That failure to fully capitalise on the benefits of technology is one reason it's viewed by some as a commodity, he says.

"When we put out a new technology we make sure it works, like plumbing," he says.

"That's why IT is seen as a cost to be controlled — it's allowed itself to be seen as something that adds value at the lower level."

Burrus says there will be more technological change in the next five years than there has been in the past 15 and he identified many trends driving that change, including computing power, which is still holding fast to Moore's Law and doubling regularly.

Other drivers include exponentially growing internet bandwidth and storage capacity, the proliferation of PDAs and other mobile computing devices and the rise of web services standards such as XML.

Other trends that are further away, but on the horizon include voice recognition, voice portals, voice-enabled applications and voice-enabled m-commerce.

A trend that is closer and already beginning to be seen in the three dimensional web, he says.

Burrus identified several other "techno trends," including WiMax, ultra-intelligent agents, IP video and advanced digital security.

He closed his presentation with this advice: "Make rapid change your best friend, because if it's not, it's your worst enemy."

Burrus runs his own consultancy, Burrus Research Associates and in addition to consulting, publishes several technology newsletters, including The TechnoTrends newsletter. He is the author of the book TechnoTrends and has written several others books on technology.

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