Beware of predictions from industry pundits

There are only two certainties: Everything industry pundits predict will happen somewhere; nothing they predict will happen everywhere.

Management Speak: We're managing for change.

Translation: We have no idea where we're going or what we're doing.

-- IS Survivalist Michael J. Austin demonstrates his sense of direction.

I been readin' about how the New Economy and the Internet have changed everything. It's pretty interesting stuff.

For example, didja know time and space have collapsed? It's true! Distance doesn't matter anymore, and everything now happens all at once. I read about it online someplace. I went right out and told my neighbour about it, in fact, and everyone at the office agreed it was true.

I've read dozens ... no, hundreds of articles from other Recognised Industry Pundits (RIPs) who have an inside track on the future. These RIPs don't always agree on things, but they all seem to have several characteristics in common.

  • They present decades-old science fiction as brilliant new ideas: Wearable computers, technology-driven social isolation, and ubiquitous computing -- it's all old stuff.
  • They don't worry about consistency. For example, spatial collapse -- in other words, the irrelevance of location -- is merrily juxtaposed with the need for geographic tailoring (to accommodate sociocultural differences), with no concern that the need for geographic tailoring means location does matter.
  • Their trends are ubiquitous. Our whole society, and eventually our whole planet, is going to transform according to whatever trend is currently under scrutiny. We're all going to be more isolated. We're all going to work and shop from home. We're all going to ...

Well, we aren't all going to. Regardless of the trend, social change, or economic force, this RIP knows only one fact about the future: It's all going to be a lot messier and more unpredictable than what we currently imagine.

Consider the automobile. When the Model T first made it affordable to the average American, nobody predicted suburbs, commuting, and shopping malls, or their darker consequences: traffic jams, deterioration of our core cities, and the growth of urban ghettos. Nobody foresaw any of it.

Has the Internet changed everything? Will it?

We talk as if the future happens in straight lines, but it doesn't. The future is always messier and less predictable than RIPs expect. The lines of causation are as tangled as spaghetti.

The Internet is no exception. What it adds to our already complex economy is yet more choice. Because it takes none of our other choices away, there are only two certainties: Everything the pundits predict will happen somewhere; nothing they predict will happen everywhere.

If there's anything at all we've learned about human beings, it's that they persist in being diverse no matter how hard you try to line 'em up and move 'em out. No matter how big your data warehouse, they'll still surprise you.

If the future is going to be messy, how does that affect your current e-business strategy? The answer: Hedge your bets. Target more than one niche. Offer more products. Use more channels, and cross-promote each channel on the other.

Have retail outlets? Add the Web. Are you a pure dot-com? Give your customers more than the Web. Remember when Sharper Image expanded from being a pure catalogue operation to retail?

Here's a prediction: To compete with Barnes and Noble, will eventually have to open retail stores, assuming it survives. Why? The future is messy, that's why.

The future is a Markov process ... a random walk. Every step is random; every step starts where the last one stopped.

This is why anyone who claims they can describe it in a 600-word essay is automatically wrong.

Send Bob Lewis an e-mail at Lewis is a Minneapolis-based consultant at Perot Systems.

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