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What are emerging technologies?

It's not just about artificial intelligence.

Emerging technologies

At Cascade Advisory, we work with a lot of companies who are the absolute experts in their fields. They might be at the forefront of developing a new advanced material, or have the best forestry workforce in the country. Yet every single one of these companies has one thing in common: they are all exposed to emerging technologies, whether that’s their sweet spot or not. A company doesn’t have to be a “tech” company in order to be impacted–these technologies are pervasive.

Let’s pretend there’s a theoretical company that is entirely low-tech. I’m talking about no computers, no smart devices, no email, no cellphones, no point of sale software, nothing. This company will STILL be impacted by emerging technologies. It might be that the outside lawyer is using some AI assistance in the work they do for the company.  Or perhaps the company’s taxes will be audited by the IRS’s new AI technologies. When I say no one will be spared, I mean NO ONE. But let’s be honest - if you’re reading this post, you’re not that low-tech. 

It is well past time for companies and organizations to start thinking about how emerging technologies will impact their work.

So what are "emerging technologies"?

“Emerging technologies” is a broad term intended to encompass technologies whose development and/or practical applications are relatively new or still unrealized. The term is often applied to technologies that experts believe will have a fundamental impact on the status quo, changing the future in fundamental ways we may try to predict but not necessarily fully understand. 

If you’re old enough to remember Palm Pilots (like I am, gasp!), you might remember how ridiculous they seemed. In an era when most mobile phones were the size of a brick and barely did their one job of, well, making phone calls, the Palm Pilot was different. First appearing in 1996, the Palm Pilot acted as your daily calendar, came with a nifty stylus and, by 2000, could pull content from the internet. Palm Pilots were the beginning of an emerging technology–smart devices–but despite these advanced capabilities, it felt like everyone used it for nothing more than notetaking and playing games. Many a late night host made fun of Palm Pilots in their opening monologues. While there were some visionaries who had an idea about where Palm Pilots and BlackBerries would lead, few fully understood the way smart devices would change the way we work in just a few short decades.

While smart devices are an obvious emerging technology, the term actually has a broad application. The World Economic Forum has identified ten technologies currently emerging in 2024 that they believe will change the world as we know it, ranging from batteries to generative artificial intelligence to wearable plant sensors. The field is constantly changing as technologies continue to evolve and develop.

Companies should watch emerging technology and decide whether to benefit

The real opportunity with emerging technology comes not from adopting every new technology, but from watching them, assessing them, and deciding how  to benefit. 

Back in 2015, a corporate executive Cascade has worked with was trying to create a cohesive team despite having direct reports scattered across the globe. She decided to hold team meetings on a relatively new video conference system called Zoom. She wanted to ensure the team was engaged, not multitasking during meetings, and bonding through seeing each other and spending time together. She persisted through her team’s discomfort with the new medium and worked through the connectivity hiccups. 

The team developed strong relationships and the ability to collaborate virtually despite physical distance. When the pandemic hit, they carried on without interruption, already equipped for virtual collaboration. Other organizations even came to her team for advice on how to manage this new work environment.

By contrast, another company missed out on virtual collaboration by not equipping the team. This company was mostly located at headquarters, with just a few remote employees. When the pandemic hit, they eschewed participation in all video conferences because of the advice of their legal counsel. No Zoom, no Teams, no Webex, nada. Because they had not prepared to use new technology, they did not have video conference capabilities for a full year after the pandemic started. It limited their ability to collaborate internally and externally during a very difficult time for businesses globally.

Videoconference is a good example, but it’s also an obvious technology with clear applications. Emerging technologies become more difficult to assess when their initial applications feel too abstract or complicated.

A few ways to assess emerging technology

I have a friend who’d been talking with his investor buddy back when laptops first appeared on the market, and they’d both agreed “personal computers are just a phase” because they were annoyingly heavy, operated too slowly, and had little to no memory to do more than the most basic functions. Don’t even talk about the graphic cards–or lack thereof–that made visuals next to impossible. They couldn’t imagine a world in which the technology advanced enough to solve those problems. 

Don’t be that friend.

As you scan new opportunities (or threats) for a company, there are some assessment strategies that can help you determine how to position relative to emerging technology.

  1. Look internally. Assess your workflows and talk to your employees to identify places where a technological innovation may be beneficial. Ask: will the technology actually be useful to how your company functions, or is it just hype? The two biggest mistakes we see companies make is either (1) not adopting a new technology when they should, or (2) adopting too much technology. The goal is to operate the business more efficiently and effectively, which means not only doing more, faster, but also reducing the amount of inputs your employees have to interface with. Sometimes an emerging technology is exciting, yet still not a good fit for your organization. That’s ok. It’s not a “no”, just a “no for now”.

  2. Look Externally. Do market research. Watch your competitors. Are others using emerging technologies to gain a competitive advantage? Are there places where emerging technology may give you an edge, or diversify your offerings that makes it worth the investment? You might want to wait on adapting some emerging technologies, but if your competitors are already moving in that direction, waiting too long could be deadly. Keep an eye on your market.

  3. Experiment. Still not sure if a new technology is for you? Run a pilot test with a single product, a single team, or even a single individual. See if the technology truly offers the benefits it promises, and that it will fit into the workflows your company uses. Don’t be afraid to try something new, though. And don’t discourage employees from experimenting, at least within the legal and cost constraints of your company. Sometimes a new technology, and the accompanying new workflow, will open unexpected opportunities.

  4. Monitor. If you’ve decided to hold off on investing in a new technology–let’s say, personal computers–continue monitoring the technology as it evolves. There may be an inflection point in the development of the technology where it suddenly becomes incredibly valuable to your organization.

The bottom line

Understanding how to engage with emerging technologies can help us future-proof our organizations. We can identify the best way to use an emerging technology by actively monitoring it and understanding its implications as an opportunity, but also possibly as a threat. 

Thinking creatively and strategically about these trends can help you draw on the tech at the right time for your business. But not thinking about them? That’s no longer an option.

Catch our next article on emerging technology, which will cover artificial intelligence (AI) and why businesses (yes, even yours!) should care.

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