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Everything, Everywhere, All at Once: The Evolution to the Era of AI

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“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” ― Charles Darwin

Over a four-decade career in the technology industry, I’ve had a front row seat to an extraordinary sequence of successive innovations that has reshaped how people work and how companies bring products to market. Today, we stand at the precipice of the next and perhaps most disruptive technology evolution yet: Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

By looking back at technology-driven innovations as evolutionary steps, we see how the foundation was laid for where we find ourselves today. This context is necessary to recognize the enabling infrastructure for AI as the next step in our evolutionary journey. And it’s essential background for managing the six competing imperatives consumer product leaders face to adapt their organizations to succeed in this new era. Let’s dive in!

Reflecting on Our Business Technology Evolution

It’s funny - I am as excited about the promise of AI as I was 40 years ago when I entered the technology industry, equipped with an IBM XT.  

Yep, that’s where it all started with me, wielding the power of the ingenious IBM XT! The first “WinTel” computer, powered with Lotus 1-2-3 and Word Perfect. Collaboration was defined by walking around the office with a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet on a floppy disk which I shared with my manager, who had the fancy IBM AT. How the times have changed!

The first wave of innovation that caught my attention was the “Year of the LAN” (local area network), which admittedly took the better part of a decade. Suddenly, printers could be shared, emails could be exchanged, and collaborative projects for small, local teams became more manageable. This initial step laid the foundation for improved productivity within organizations, streamlining communication and information sharing.

The next, and somewhat obvious, wave of innovation came when we started to connect LANs together, connecting workgroups, departments and remote locations in a company. As the need for broader, distributed connectivity grew, WANs (wide area networks) took shape to connect disparate workgroups and even entire factories, transcending geographical barriers and enabling seamless collaboration - more or less. This marked a significant leap forward in business agility, allowing companies to adapt quickly to changing market dynamics and operational needs.

A byproduct of this era was the emergence of a new computing architecture: Client-Server. Powerful servers and an array of enterprise applications fueled a new level of productivity gains. Tasks that once required manual effort were automated, workflows were optimized, and decision-making became more data-driven. The Client-Server era of enterprise applications propelled businesses to new heights of productivity and competitiveness.

Then in 1993 in the midst of the Client-Server wave, we got our first glimpse of the Internet with the launch of the Mosaic browser. While early Internet access was characterized by sluggish dial-up connections with a trusty USRobotics Modem, the march to ubiquitous connectivity was unwavering. As networking infrastructure exploded and broadband became effectively a utility, the Internet permeated every aspect of our lives. And coupled with the rise of smartphones, we now carry the Internet in our pockets, enabling unprecedented levels of communication, collaboration and productivity on the go - anytime, anywhere.

Everything, Everywhere, All at Once: Data as Table Stakes for the AI Era

It is useful to view these technology driven innovations as evolutionary steps, setting the foundation for where we find ourselves today. Elastic compute power, ubiquitous connectivity, interconnected applications and systems, 24x7 availability are all “table stakes”; they represent the enabling infrastructure for this next step in our evolutionary journey, AI. 

Living at the heart of AI is data. Data has become the heartbeat of modern businesses, driving insights and powering decision-making processes. The effectiveness of AI and data-driven strategies hinges on six competing imperatives: 

  1. Leveraging clean data with consistent taxonomies to train AI models 
  2. Ensuring competency of the workforce to leverage AI by closing skills gaps and attracting and retaining digital natives 
  3. Establishing a compliance framework that ensures transparent adherence to ethical AI governance guidelines, 
  4. Shifting IT departments away from delivering projects to viewing technology implementations as an ongoing product releases,  
  5. Instilling a culture where every employee embraces a data-first mindset,
  6. Funding the enterprise to establish the technical footing to respond with agility and speed to market forces 

This last point is especially critical for companies to internalize to remain relevant and competitive as we enter this new stage of technology driven innovation with AI. No longer can digital transformation be cloistered and trapped within an “IT budget’. Digital transformation is an enterprise challenge, which requires investment across the entire enterprise and at every level. 

AI presents an existential threat to consumer product brands and manufacturers. These companies must embrace an “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” strategy to remain competitive.  

Don’t get me wrong. I do realize the inherent hazards of trying to focus on everything. But who is moving with greater speed: you or Amazon? Who knows more about your customer: you or Amazon? Who knows more about your products: you or Amazon? Who has the data to fully leverage AI: you or Amazon? Amazon was one of the clear winners in the last technology era of the Internet. We need to ask ourselves: what tactics will we pursue to tilt the playing field to our advantage in the era of AI?

I want to park the discussion here, as I’m excited to gain more insight into how companies are navigating these colliding imperatives at next month’s Veeva EU Summit in Amsterdam. I have the immense pleasure of hosting a panel of digital transformation leaders at Unilever, L’Oreal and Accenture on the topic “Navigating Digital Transformation in the Era of AI.”  I’m looking forward to following up on this post in a few weeks with practical, grounded insights from industry experts, who can provide a map to navigate today’s accelerating challenges and threats.

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