Maj. Gen. Dale W. Meyerrose, North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command

June 2005
By Maj. Gen. Dale W. Meyerrose, USAF, Chief Information Officer, North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command

Which emerging technology will have the biggest impact on your organization in the future?

This is an interesting question, and if I truly knew the answer, I would be very rich and powerful. However, I am not any better at predicting the future than anyone else. Yet I find this to be a useful intellectual exercise as the alternative leaves us substituting hope for strategy, chaos management for a campaign plan and damage control for daily activity.

I believe the technology with the biggest impact within the next five to 10 years will be one that we cannot foresee right now and that perhaps only a handful of folks have even heard of. Experience should teach us that disruption and the unforeseen of political, technological, economic and societal events shape our world more than do forecasts, predictability or conventional wisdom. History is replete with examples of totally unexpected events changing our existence. One only need remember September 11, 2001, to know that this is true. Therefore, I would argue that success to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the U.S. Northern Command and others is not found by correctly guessing the breakthrough technology but by recognizing from past experience the indicators leading to a different value proposition then having the agility and imagination to change plans to capitalize on the change element. How many inventors envisioned how their discoveries would ultimately be used? Imagine what Bell and Marconi would think if they were alive today?

To illustrate with a not-too-ancient information technology example, consider the first personal computer, the Altair. It was a hobby device with toggle switches as inputs and lights as outputs. The IBM personal computer turned out to be a milestone because its hardware competed separately from the software. From IBM’s standpoint, company officials probably missed the significance of their first personal computer. Initially, their five-year forecast was to sell only 240,000 units. At the time, the personal computer project was not an important effort inside the company. So it was rather stunning later when the personal computer organization took over the word processing division as a business group. But the real disruption was Sun Microsystems’ good fortune to recognize from the start how much more could be accomplished by linking desktops together. This is a clear story of discovering and adapting an invention as culture, business and further innovation molded the impact. How predictable was any of this in the minds of the well informed as these developments transpired?

Many believe that analyzing today’s innovations will somehow lead to projecting future trends. It’s relatively easy to see the after-the-fact impact on life of the Internet, cell phones, fiber optics, e-mail, portable computers, memory storage discs and consumer-level digital cameras. However, I see the key as assessing the right indicators and posturing organizations to be flexible enough to—using a sports analogy—anticipate where the puck is going to be and getting there before anyone else.

I see many in the information technology business rushing to endorse technologies such as computing power and ubiquity, IPv6, nano, cross-domain sharing, visualization, geolocation and wireless. And I’m sure that somewhere in this list exists the answer to the question—what will be important. Yet this isn’t enough, as the biggest determinants of impact are cultural rather than technical.

I offer the following questions to serve as guides when examining these information technologies for meaningful insight into differentiating the possible, doable, probable and important:

• How does a technology leverage network-centric principles?

• Will a technology account for the changing value of information over time?

• Can a technology enhance the framework for a content delivery network in a transaction-based architecture?

• Does a technology improve a staging construct to account for information discovery, access, fusion and dissemination?

There is a tendency to look for monumental developments. I suggest closely examining the small and routine when trying to evaluate the bigger picture. Organizations are the sum of their intellectual capital, efforts and decisions. In that vein, I believe all the hints of the future we need are collectively embedded in today’s culture, activity and plans. The crux of discovering the phenomenal among the mundane is usually the result of an in-depth, rigorous analysis based on facts of the right indicators. The vitality of the organizations I’m honored to be a part of demands that we master this skill in conjunction with our many mission partners.

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