When I want to talk about the future, the first thing I do is sit down to dinner.
At my company, we frequently organize small group dinners to generate discussion about the future, particularly the future of technology. I like to invite a cross-section of potential futurists from within 1-800-Flowers.com and the wider technology community. I might ask a new recruit from our web operations team, a manager in customer service, and someone I heard speak on a technology topic at a conference. I might ask members of my Celebrations.com team, a technology entrepreneur I met on the road, and a veteran of my marketing team. These dinners are a mix of youth and experience, technology and tradition. My point is to gather the group and get them talking. Then I sit back and listen and take notes. Because I know I’m watching the future unfold.
Predicting the future can produce a lot of anxiety in business leaders, but I’ve learned there’s a trick to it. The "future" that we, in established companies, are planning for is likely already happening in emerging areas of technology. If you can find the people who are trying, testing, and imagining that emerging technology, they will tell you what the future holds.
I like frequent dinners, but any small gathering will do. I recall one enlightening brown bag lunch I had with the summer interns of the investment bank Allen & Co. I was the invited speaker, but I split my time between gabbing about my own career and asking this group of smart, young ambitious people about the technologies they prefer. They gave me an earful about Twitter (old news), texting (essential!), and Facebook (good social media platform but new ones are coming on strong.) They were happy to tell me what was coming up next. I was happy I’d taken the time to ask.
As you gather intelligence, remember that in order to meet the future you will have to invest in two key (and connected!) areas: technology and people.
Technology as an investment has become a given. In its 2013 Retail Technology Spending Report, eTail found that more than 60 percent of retailer respondents planned to boost tech spending in the next 12 months. Areas of investment include search, personalization, mobile, and social media engagement. A.T. Kearney's 2013 Assessment of Excellent in Retail Operations report found more than 85 percent of respondents plan higher investments in self-serve terminals, mobile apps, QR code-enabled information, and mobile point-of-sale technologies.
The people part of the tech revolution is also critical. Some advice:
Recruit tech-heads. Look for people who love and use technology, whether or not they need to have such skills in their jobs. These are individuals who are thinking about the future on a daily basis. Their experiences will be your crystal ball.
Give them the right kind of space. Sometimes, a new, future-facing idea has difficulty taking hold in an old-school environment. When we wanted to launch Celebrations.com we didn't put the team in our Long Island headquarters but in its own offices in Manhattan. That physical space allowed new ideas to flourish.
Talk to technologists who don’t work for you. Read the blogs, attend the conferences, engage in the social media discussions about what is new and emerging in technology. Don’t wait for the information to trickle down to you; join the digital conversation and soak it up.
The new digital marketplaces will be built by the right mix of technology and people. Invest in both or miss the future.