Race “With” Technology to Maintain Competitive Advantage

“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”–Stewart Brand, founder of the Global Business Network

Technology does not grow in a linear fashion, it grows exponentially. As time passes, this curve becomes steeper and steeper while technology improves at an unfathomable rate. This phenomenon makes technology particularly difficult to keep up with and stay ahead of. Our brains are wired for a linear world; as a result, exponential trends take us by surprise.

The Wright brothers achieved their first powered flight in 1903, marking an incredible achievement in human history. No more than 42 years later, we would use this same technology to drop an atomic bomb with the power of a small Sun. Fast forward 70 years and the computer that runs the clock in your iPhone is more powerful than the one that put a man on the Moon.  Steven Hawking states, “the computer in your cellphone is a million times cheaper, a thousand times more powerful, and a hundred thousand times smaller than the computer at MIT in 1965.” What used to take up the space of an entire room now fits in the palm of your hand and is exponentially more powerful.

This growth is only increasing. Businesses in countless industries are now implementing technologies such as A.I. to remain competitive in this fast-moving technological age. IBM’s Watson currently holds over 100 jobs simultaneously. It can file your taxes, has jobs in call centers, diagnoses patients in hospitals in China, and recently even beat the world champion at Jeopardy by a massive margin. These innovations such as Watson mean competition can come from places you do not expect.

In this machine age, if you are not striving to remain ahead of the curve you are likely already left behind. Wal-Mart is a great example of this. Sitting arrogantly atop its ivory retail tower, Wal-Mart and other retailers were blindsided by Amazon. Humbly beginning as an online bookstore, I doubt the Wal-Mart CEOs or board members saw them as a potential threat or competitor.

This is simply a microcosm of what is occurring in every industry. Netflix and Blockbuster, Uber and the Taxicab industry, Airbnb and the hotel industry, each of these booming companies surpassed their old slow-moving competition with better integration of emerging technologies. All while offering easier access to the masses, saving customers their most valuable resource: time.

With competition arising from unforeseen places, how do you maintain your competitive advantage amidst this rapidly evolving environment? If you try to race against the machines, you will undoubtedly lose every time, their growth is exponential. Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy poses a different strategy: Race with the machines. Machines should be viewed as our teammates for increased growth and process time efficiency rather than our enemies that hinder jobs.

He brings up an example perfectly depicting this stating that the world chess champion is no longer a person; today, a chess program running on your cellphone can best any grandmaster. However, the world champion is no longer a computer either. A freestyle tournament was set up by the former world champion Gary Kasparov where teams of humans and computers could work together. Brynjolfsson goes on to say, “The winning team had no grandmaster, and it had no supercomputer, what it had was better teamwork. They showed that a team of humans and computers working together could beat any computer or any human working alone… Racing with the machine beats racing against the machine.”

Take this idea of teamwork with machines rather than a race against them to heart. Carefully study new innovations and incorporations of technology in various businesses, not only in your own industry but in other unconnected industries as well. You may never know where your next competitor will arise from. See if these technologies can be applied to your own business and daily work processes.

Although not every company has the resources or financial backing to incorporate A.I. into their business, gaining a better understanding of these technologies will aid you in your race with the machines, not against them, and help your business grow rather than leaving it behind in this inevitable exponential climb of technology.

Kelly D. Scott
Chairman/CEO
The world’s leading business advisory and executive coaching organization