In his 30 years with HP, Todd Gustafson ’86, the President of HP Federal LLC and Head of US Public Sector at HP Inc., has witnessed a world of change in the technology industry. “The single biggest change that I've seen is that the pace of innovation used to be measured in years,” he says. “Today we measure that pace in months and it’s likely that in the not-too-distant future we’ll measure it in days."
"When I was a senior at Bryant, I remember looking at the IBM XT computers and thinking ‘this is unbelievable. Look at what these things can do.’ I remember just being blown away,” Gustafson recalls. “And as I reflect back now, 30 years later, while at the time they really were unbelievable, in terms of their power, their performance, and how they can change workflows and education, it's mind-boggling what’s happened since.”
Gustafson is describing the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), a transformative era of emerging technologies, globalization, and worldwide disruption that is poised to completely upend how we live and work. Preparing for this new future, and the jobs that it will offer, means learning new skills, adopting new mindsets and, above all, adapting to the unknown.
Bryant Associate Professor of Management Diya Das, Ph.D., teaches her students to prepare for an unsettled future, one that is wildly different from what we’ve seen before. “We're entering a phase where the way that we knew the world works, the way that we knew that workplaces are organized, is going to completely change,” she says.
She points to the words of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who recently told employees “we respect innovation, not tradition,” as a sign of this future. “He said that tradition is a bad word in the contemporary world, because you can't sit back and say, oh, this is how we've done things for the last 100 years and this is how therefore we're going to do for the next 100 years,” she explains. “It doesn't work like that, anymore.
“There will be a need for people who can survive, manage, and lead under conditions of uncertainty,” she says. “The skill set that is in demand is the ability to change, the ability to feel, the ability to try, and the ability to be OK with ambiguity.”
Gustafson agrees with that analysis, noting that it takes work to keep up with the pace of innovation, even at an established technology leader like HP. In his business, "Only the paranoid survive," he says, citing the words of Intel Founder Andrew Grove. “In order for us to continue to be successful in the marketplace, we have to constantly leverage what our founders did, which is all about innovation and finding new ways to provide value to our customers.”
MIXING MACHINES AND PEOPLE
“Amazon.com has really raised the bar for our entire industry,” says Brenda Galgano '91, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer at The Vitamin Shoppe, a leading retailer of vitamins, supplements and sports nutrition that has both an online and brick-and-mortar presence. “Today customers’ expectations are that they want everything, anytime, anywhere."
In order to thrive in a competitive marketplace and an ever-changing landscape, businesses need to find something that sets them apart. The Vitamin Shoppe relies on a mix of analytics and the human touch. Highly-trained health enthusiasts, equipped with smart tablets that allow them to access large amounts of information about the Shoppe’s more than 8,000 products work with customers and help them find solutions that are right for them. They are backed-up by big data analytics that help keep track of consumer trends and what their customers like, providing best-fit solutions for both in-store and online shoppers.
“We are using technology as well as really smart people to analyze that data on what customers are buying and draw business insights on how about to best serve those customers,” says Galgano.
For Gustafson, that sort of big data analysis will drive the future. “When you think about the power of big data and the power of cloud computing, the challenge won’t be a lack of information available, but what you do with that information,” he notes. “I think that will be the true test over the next 10 years, and will determine the tools that we need to develop to take advantage of that. It won’t be about what you know, but how you synthesize it.”
BUILDING SOMETHING NEW
Andrew Lenti ’97 is helping to build the tools that will make that synthesis easier. As co-founder and CEO of TOPP Tactical Intelligence Ltd, a European operational excellence consulting firm, he works to provide customized software solutions that assist companies in the end-to-end management of the performance of people, process and technology. This is done via the installation of a continuous digital discipline of cost saving, risk reduction, and talent enrichment built on the fundamental principles of Lean and Lean Six Sigma.
He sees a future of possibility in the technological advances the Fourth Industrial Revolution will bring. “Yes I do believe the robots are coming,” Lenti states. But, he tells us, we should not be afraid.
The rise of automation will free people, he says, to do what they do best. “We as humans need to start understanding our value-add is collaboration,” says Lenti. “Our value-add is problem solving and with technology where it is today, we are only limited by our imagination.”
Our strength, he says, is inventing something new, a skill that’s becoming increasingly valuable. “Maybe 15 years ago, 20 years ago, when there was something that needed to be done, something that needed to be solved, there was a book or a job manual where you could turn to someone who had done it before you. All you had to do was find that resource,” says Lenti. “But now, the beauty of the situation, and I'm living this first-hand, is you can make it yourself.”
That means having the tools to innovate. Das says that tomorrow’s workforce will be tasked with rapidly learning and discarding new competencies to stay relevant. “The computer language you learned is going to become obsolete,” she states. “The work that you were doing may be easily replaced by some artificial intelligence machine. So we are looking at a workforces that is constantly updating themselves and constantly learning.”
“Because technology is changing so quickly, you want to make sure that employees can continue to be most effective and efficient with the technology that’s available,” Galgano concurs. “You want to ensure that they continue to get the right training.”
It also means developing an ability to see the bigger picture. “You can’t just be really good at your own job,” says Gustafson. “If you can’t pivot to your left, pivot to your right, and look behind you on a constant basis, then you're going to miss what's happening around you.”
THE HUMAN FACTOR
Our humanity, Das suggests, may ultimately be the most irreplaceable tool of them all. She references a Bengali expression “Manus Kawra,”or “becoming human,” that describes a process of learning empathy, of developing a sense of the world. “The more we are overtaken by machines and engineering, we will be in the danger of not understanding its full implications,” she says, “We must develop critical thinking and ethical reasoning skills, as well as our capacity to imagine.”
That makes hiring a diverse workforce, with diverse perspective, all the more important, Gustafson believes. “What diversity brings to us is different types of thinking, different approaches,” he says. “It challenges conventional wisdom and, frankly, just makes us stronger. It also truly reflects the global society that we operate within. Because as a company that does business all over the world, it's important that we know our customers and our partners as well.”
That goes hand-in-hand with a need to work together. “Strong collaboration and teamwork is really important,” says Galgano. “You don’t work by yourself in an office or a cubicle these days. You’re working very closely with other people.”
In the end, Lenti argues, technology will remain what it has always been, a tool–one, ideally, that makes lives easier. “The person should not work for the software,” says Lenti. “The software should work for the person.”
When the mix of human and machine is right, he says, it can make a big difference. “By improving the tools people use, we're making companies work better. We're helping employees sleep better at night when they think about going to work, and we're making clients happier with the service they get.”