We all know how trends change constantly, but technology seems to change even faster all the time, and that makes staying ahead of the curve a job in itself.
Less that 13 percent of the Fortune 500 companies that existed in 1955 are still with us. If that trend continues on a steady curve, every Fortune 500 company we have today will be extinct in 59 years. In 1965 the life expectancy of any company was 75 years. Today it's 15.
It's too easy to stay with entrenched systems, markets or methods, but (as fax manufacturers found just before the advent of email and farriers discovered right before the age of the automobile) not moving with the times can be the kiss of death – not just for your organisation but entire industries.
'Innovation' and 'disruption' are two of the most overused terms in technology today, but the makings and machinations behind them are actually quite simple. Innovation is used in response to disruption, and if you keep the rate of change inside your organisation higher the rate of change outside, there's no market disruption or opportunity you won't be ready to absorb.
To do that, adjust your stance. Put yourself on a 'learning' footing, always assuming there's something else to be exposed to and internalise that can make the IT department better. Involve your people in decision and challenges you're facing – don't assume you have nothing to learn from them just because you're more senior than they are. Organise regular get-togethers with managers and their people across the organisation (or just meet for drinks after work) to ask them about the challenges they face and how they expect or hope to overcome them.
Learning about the trends can come from anywhere. There's a wealth of untapped potential right under your nose – the after hours cleaner might be a computer scientist and you'll have no idea what he or she can do until you take the time to involve them. Every time you talk to vendors, suppliers and customers, make a point of asking what's going to change in their field in the next 12 months, how they're going to handle it and whether you can help.
The end result of all that talking? You'll be a wealth of knowledge about the things that are going to affect your business units and supply chain, but you'll also have the inside track on the solutions, ideas or expertise to apply to them. And when the answer stares you in the face, don't be precious. Be prepared to throw a system or application out the window if something else it works better for the business goals or your customers. Change can be painful, but not as painful as a warehouse full of fax machines when everyone's starting to use email.
But it's about more than just conversations. Put your money where your mouth is by making change appreciation part of the cultural environment of the workplace. Your peers are already doing it. Data services provider EMC makes a habit of presenting problems to staff across business units in innovation contests.
And let's not forget the most successful and innovative company of the new media world, Google. Some of their coolest and most successful products like Gmail, Google News, Google Talk and Google Sky all came out of the famous program of staff using 20 per cent of their time on projects that interested them.
Talk to your business leaders about doing something similar. You might not get them to agree to the whole 20 per cent thing (although plenty of other companies across Silicon Valley do it), but if you can show results from initial discussions, you'll have a stronger case to free up time and resources for it.
Of course, it's easier said than done when live projects and business systems have to be maintained and secured, especially when ever-tighter IT budgets don't allow for complete overhauls as often as you'd like. It might be that you have too much investment in your own systems and equipment that keeps you from being as agile as you need to. When it's time for the next hardware or IT refresh, consider moving more systems and data to cloud or other pay-as-you-go services.
First of all it will make the kind of collaboration that forewarns you about incoming changes even easier to wield across the organisation without a big infrastructure investment. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, you'll piggyback some of the most innovative companies in the world, constantly exposed to their advances and expertise. Providers and suppliers in the cloud world have to stay ahead of trends across a huge number of IT disciplines, and they assume all the financial risk to do so. All that's left is for you to stand in the light of some of the most cutting edge technologies coming to the IT world.