Watching the stars

Keeping an eye on the megatrends that shape our world is an increasingly vital aspect of the communicator’s job



There’s a new breed of thought-leader out there, scanning the skies for clues to tomorrow’s world

. They are the futurists, consultants, authors and organisational leaders who engage in interdisciplinary and systems thinking to advise private and public organisations on matters including global trends, possible scenarios, emerging market opportunities and risk management. We asked one of today’s most noted futurists, Ayesha Khanna, for insights into her work – and why communications leaders should be added to the list of tomorrow’s futurists.

Ayesha, what questions do companies ask of futurists such as yourself?

They usually want to know about the large technological trends that are going to affect their industry, their employees and their business model, and how can they cultivate a culture of innovation given the changes that are happening around them. They also want to know what’s coming up. For instance they may ask, “How will artificial intelligence fundamentally change our business model” or “What are some of the threats from India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Africa, what are the opportunities in these markets, but also what are the talent pipelines in this market or what are the threats in this market.” So big trends analysis and communication on those, and secondly how can they create that culture within themselves, and pivot themselves to be more future-ready.

Why do organisations turn externally for this advice?

When companies are focused on their own industry and their own everyday needs, it’s very easy to just think incrementally. Clayton M. Christensen writes about this a great deal, the incremental versus innovative steps that a company can take. They are so engrossed in their everyday matters that it’s hard for them to get the space and time to anticipate what larger trends are happening in the minds of customers, in technology and in globalisation. So it’s very helpful for them to invite someone who studies these trends, who has been talking to a lot of companies around the world, to give them that fresh perspective.

Trend: Automation in the work place

Economists agree that automation poses threats to human labour within the next few decades: drones are a first step toward that future. According to a recent report from PwC, Clarity From Above, drones could replace $127 billion worth of human labour and services. Infrastructure and agriculture make up the largest part of this sum – with around $77.6 billion between them – including such services as completing the last mile of delivery routes and spraying crops with laser-beam precision. According to the new PwC report, drones also a cost-cutting measure. Along with infrastructure and agriculture, drones will help tech giants like Amazon deliver packages, allow security companies to better monitor their sites, help producers and advertisers to film projects, allow telecommunication firms to easily check on their towers, and give mining companies a new way to plan their digs.

 How do you help these time-pressed companies communicate about mega trends?

There are two audiences for such communication. One is internal, making sure your employees know that the company is pivoting towards innovative trends and at the same time reassuring them that they are part of it. What happens is that over time, through blog posts, webinars, speaker series, through leadership showing that they are outward looking, the employees feel confident not only that the company is on a long term trajectory but also that they will be part of that growth. The second thing is then communicating to the outside world through multimedia, social media, advertorials and by having your people going out there, supported by people such as myself, and talking about the initiatives that are happening. This positions companies externally in a new light as well. A good example is GE, which was thought of as a very traditional firm in some ways and very America-centric but, because a large part of their revenue came outside of the US, they wanted to be seen much more as a global company and now increasingly as a software company. Its leadership has done a lot of thought leadership in the media, though Instagram, social media, even YouTube, or they’re doing it through partnerships with publications such as Quartz, Wall Street Journal and The Economist.

“You’re trying to explain the changing nature of the world and how you can add value to it.”

How important is reassuring employees about their job security in a more technologically-driven future, where many people are worried that they won’t have a job?

If employees don’t feel that they’re being brought into the process and they’re not being encouraged to embrace this innovation as a cultural change, they see that as a threat to their own livelihood. And we know that great companies are a function of great teams. The experienced employees will feel threatened but, if they are willing to change, companies can take their experience and match it with younger people who may be more in touch with the latest technologies and the needs of the millennials. Pairing them together, building stronger teams and a culture where everybody can work together in creative confidence is very good for the company in the long term.

Another aspect of your work is helping companies create a culture of innovation. What can companies do to set the stage for innovation?

There are great examples of companies that have created incubation spaces where they let people try out new pilot projects. They bring in startups and have hackathons, they also crowd source ideas. Basically this is the notion of open innovation, where say that “We think diversity of opinion and diversity of ideas stimulates everyone and we’re not afraid of it. So we welcome it, we experiment with it.” But the key really is to connect the dots with what employees are doing every day. In most companies, when you start to push them towards innovation, employees worry that not only do they have to do everything in their job description, but now they have this additional pressure of having to participate in these programmes.

Trend: Hyperconnectivity and the quantified self

In the Internet of Things, sensors and actuators embedded in physical objects—from roadways to pacemakers—are linked through wired and wireless networks, often using the same Internet Protocol (IP) that connects the internet. These networks pump out huge volumes of data to be analysed. Pill-shaped microcameras travel through the human digestive tract and send back images to pinpoint sources of illness. Farming equipment links to data collected from satellites and ground sensors can measure crop conditions and adjust the way individual parts of a field are farmed – for instance, by dispensing more fertilizer to areas that need more nutrients. In Japan, billboards look at passing shoppers and adjust their displayed messages to fit the consumer profiles.

How do you introduce innovation into the organisation?

There is a systematic way of introducing innovation. One is through communication, which may be as simple as a newsletter, or inviting external speakers to come in and talk to employees. Or it can be small projects that are then shown at quarterly meetings, for example, in celebration of people who have done something that is considered innovative.

What are some of the main stumbling blocks to creating an innovative culture?

There are a few things. One is a lot of bureaucracy where people are very set in processes and that makes it hard to be agile and nimble. The second thing is that sometimes people have a set view of the customer and it’s very difficult for them to change it, even though the customer is changing because of external events that are happing. And then you have companies, especially global companies, that need to understand the variation in customers because of culture and country. Sometimes they will try to take something cookie cutter-style and try the same thing in another place and then, due to some cultural or language or other intercultural constraint, they wonder why it isn’t working.

What’s the role of leadership in all of this?

Leadership has a lot to do with it, because people like to see that the executive leadership is standing behind new initiatives and encouraging it. The best companies are those where people feel confident that they are going to be innovative because the leadership supports them. If the leadership is old fashioned or very set in its ways then it’s very difficult to have change down.

And what kind of tools can help getting that innovative culture incubated?

There are certain tools for thinking innovatively. Design thinking is the most common framework for giving people the skills that they need to be able to understand creative problem solving. Sometimes it means you tell them something about technology, sometimes it means you take them to executive workshops, all of these help because they take you out of your everyday situation and expose you to other ideas and you can come back with fresh thinking. And essentially that’s where everything comes together, by connecting the dots in a fresh way and applying that to a large base of customers. That’s essentially what innovation is, bringing new value to customers.

Trend: Virtual reality

A visitor to the VRLA Expo event at Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles tries on Oculus Rift goggles. Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Occulus Rift is one of several signs that virtual reality is set to reinvent social and communications platforms as we know it, bringing us even closer to people, content and geographies. A recent example of traditional media adopting virtual reality to create immersive experiences for customers is The New York Time’s NYT VR project, which promises readers the opportunity to “experience stories reported by award-winning journalists, all told in an immersive, 360-degree video experience.” Requiring only a smartphone and a cardboard pair of goggles, the app was a hit at Cannes Lions this year. Lockheed Martin’s Field Trip to Mars used virtual reality to turn a traditional school bus into a Mars-worthy vehicle. This was noteworthy because it had a heartfelt connection with children and highlighted their emphasis on STEM education.

Could a future role of the in-house corporate communicator be a trend watcher in the future?

That’s a great role because communications is really telling the story of the company, and communicating what the company believes in, what its values are. It’s about picking the story back from society and communicating them internally. So this two-way communication, internal and external, is great for companies to have and for it to be partially the responsibility of the chief communications officer. You’re trying to communicate in one direction what the company believes in, what it’s trying to do that’s useful and valuable, and in the other direction trying to explain the changing nature of the world and how you can add value to it, how you can participate in it and how you can enjoy it. For both customers and employees, ultimately the meaning of life comes from a great experience.

Ayesha Khanna

Ayesha Khanna is an innovation and technology expert advising governments and companies on smart cities, future skills, financial technology and emerging industries. She is chairman of Factotum, an award-winning content marketing agency with clients like GE, Goldman Sachs and Accenture. In 2014, Ayesha also served on the Singapore Ministry of Education’s ASPIRE steering committee on higher education reform and applied learning. She is also the founder of 21C GIRLS, a non-profit that provides free coding classes for girls in Singapore.