A futurist weighs in on techies’ tomorrows

Dr. James Canton has made a living out of predicting the future: He’s the CEO of the Institute of Global Futures, a Fortune 1000 advisor, author of such books as The Extreme Future and Technofutures, and an advisor to the new Google- and Nasa-backed Singularity University.

Despite the bleak economy and uncertain future, technology is key to our future, says Canton. Because of that tech workers and IT leaders are in a unique position to create opportunities for themselves. He weighed in on which trends were most important to techies.

One of the key challenges facing businesses today is they don’t always understand how even in turbulent times innovation can be a driver of sustainability as well as competitive advantage. It’s a way to find new revenue and new customers. Use technology as a tool to grow-that is my mantra of how to get through this turbulent time. Many businesses will immediately start cutting back on budgets and IT and cutting people, but that has historically been the wrong way to act to crisis. The right way to react to a crisis, especially this one, is to reassess your IT strategy: Does it drive the business? IT organizations must ask themselves how they can improve productivity and address cost effectiveness as well as leverage innovation for value and profitability.

Web 2.0 innovations for the enterprise represent a fantastic opportunity to serve customers better, manage knowledge, and to be more effective at finding new opportunities. Web 2.0 tools can help us learn about the customers we have now, the customers we don’t have, the markets we serve now, the markets we should be serving. Same for products and services. There are opportunities in Second Life, wikis, integrating new communication platforms such as Twitter and predictive analytics. One huge problem IT can solve for the enterprise is to be able to monetize and make more meaning out of information; Web 2.0 tools are an important way to do this.

To find out which Web 2.0 tools are right for you company, understand which tools your customers are spending their time with. That will lead you to understanding their culture better and also how to touch them better and which Web 2.0 applications your company should be paying attention to.

Another IT innovation is pervasive wireless technology. IT shops should be looking at wireless technology as a way to link customer, partner and company information. Right now everyone has wireless access, everybody’s got a BlackBerry or iPhone device-but these wireless devices have not been integrated into the IT architecture. IT needs to make it so you can access the data warehouse, search for inventory, identify knowledge resources or do group CRM from a wireless device.

I was talking with General Mills about this need to integrate wireless tech platforms so that they’ll be fully interoperable with their global supply chain. We were looking at their global supply chain and realizing that their executives and managers, who are increasingly in the field, need to be able to have more real-time access to actionable data that they can use. General Mills is one of the key companies on the leading edge and they are going to increasingly create this capability.

IT’s Opportunities in the Downturn

This extreme economy presents a fantastic opportunity to be able to refresh, realign and transform the value proposition of IT, but that will mean everyone in IT needs to rethink their role in the organization. So number one is that IT embraces their role as thought leader and visionary. This means aligning IT with the business strategy and creating new ideas that drive competitive value and profitability for the enterprise, and then justifying IT in that light. IT needs to take another look at where the company’s products and services are in light of the corporate mission, and figure out how to find new IT-enabled value to grow the organization.

In this turbulence there are many different innovations other than the traditional ones people are working on like virtualization, SaaS, green IT and other things. Now these are all wonderful and important. But that’s not why someone’s going to keep you around. Someone’s going to keep you around because you’re showing how to migrate a CRM platform to a wiki and you’re enabling the freeing up of knowledge or enabling the organization to realize competitive advantage; in other words, using such tools as enterprise 2.0 or predictive analytics to do better data mining, customer mining or similar to be able to identify where the next market, customer group, product/service extension is.

I’m really calling for IT leaders to be the ones to walk into the CEO’s or other leaders’ office and say, look we’ve identified a new customer group, we’ve identified some new product or service opportunities. We’ve identified new markets that we are not competing in but that we should be, and here’s how it works: then using innovation to go after those.

I think part of the problem that IT leaders are facing is there’s a lot of innovation out there, but the question is, Which is the right innovation to leverage for business and competitive value? You need to ask, What are those key innovations that will create the most value in shortest amount of time. To learn that, invite yourself to visioning and strategy meetings in other parts of the organization that traditionally you don’t talk to as much. If you’re an IT leader who has not spent time with customers in a while, go do that; that is very critical, actually touching and communicating and living with and spending time with customers and what their needs are. But also spending time with the folks in the organization you don’t normally spend time with. What’s happening in marketing? What’s happening in finance? What’s going on in service or product delivery? Understand what their challenges are because that will help clarify for IT leaders what innovations should be created or applied.

A Look Into the Crystal Ball

Different flavors of encryption will increasingly become important. Right now, the largest elephant in the room is that we’re not winning the war on encryption, our systems are still vulnerable. Unfortunately as more of our systems become Web-centric and interoperable, as more things get connected, more systems are going to get hacked. Issues such as identity theft and privacy, inappropriate access to data, even industrial espionage: These are on the uptrend.

You’re going to also hear a lot more about web 3.0, driven by the semantic web, something that will be emerging pretty quickly here.

Also, the mashup of geospatial and GPS. WalMart started the drive forward in terms of RFID and pulled it back, but inevitably this mashup of geospatial information and the very fast evolution of GPS and that colliding with RFID. RFID chips are down to 19 cents, when they get down to 1 cent, you’re going to

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