Businesses that want to take the lead in the future need to see beyond 1s and 0s.

Christine is a journalist from South Africa, who has lived and worked in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, covering everything from hard news to art to business & tech. Having been bitten by the travel bug as an infant, Christine finds it fairly easy to uproot herself in search of new adventures and stories. With degrees in both fine arts and journalism, she’s equally interested in visual storytelling as well as the written word. Having been part of three launch teams of three different media startups in her lifetime, she’s intimately familiar with what it takes to get a publication off the ground.

The industrial revolution launched us into an age of bureaucracy. Fast forward to recent years, where we’ve shifted into an age of information, which has changed the way we work into a meritocracy. Over the past two decades, we’ve seen the world’s top companies leveraging the power of information to boost their competitive edge in global markets, and the majority of new businesses have followed suit.

As it stands, data is on the tongue of every company, big or small—and the Middle East is no different. However, according to Julian Birkinshaw, professor and chair of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School, things are on the cusp of taking a different turn. “Big data has become ubiquitous, and so it can no longer guarantee businesses a leg up,” he says.

So, is the information age coming to an end already? And what’s next? In his book Fast/Forward, co-authored by Jonas Ridderstråle, Birkinshaw outlines how business leaders can prepare for the future. Like it or not, the future is already on our doorstep like a proverbial ice age, rendering current business strategy practices obsolete. Birkinshaw calls it the age of adhocracy.

“Adhocracy is opportunistic,” he tells us. “Adhocracy is about action rather than debating. We act, we experiment. It’s more entrepreneurial.”

It’s evident that the world of business, competitive advantage is shrinking, and companies are scrambling to find an edge. And with this, a bountiful industry of advice-givers has grown around the concept of business aspiration. Consultants, academics, and of course, journalists have a plethora of insights on offer on a level never seen before.

You’d think this would catapult the information age into overdrive. Instead, it seems that we’ve hit information overload.

Birkinshaw points out a paradox that has risen from all this. “Despite big data, and on-demand, almost abundant knowledge, we’re now seeing people ignoring facts and data.”

In their book, the authors take quite a different view on corporate success to that of the commonly accepted notions peddled by the majority of experts today.

Birkinshaw and Ridderstråle argue that the case for information technology, big data, and advanced analytics is overstated.

“This alternative view puts a heavy burden on corporate leaders. It demands that they make sense of how the world is changing and figure out what the consequences of those changes might be in the years ahead; it requires them to make changes in how they work…without ‘best practice’ models to follow,” they write.

So how are businesses readying themselves for this fundamental shift in thinking? It has to do with falling back on that primal human instinct—intuition.

PREDICTING TOMORROW

Excerpts from Fast/Forward, provide insights on gaining an evolutionary advantage in an ever-changing environment.

Analysis paralysis

“Information overload at the individual level leads to distractedness, confusion, and poor decision-making. At a corporate level, we end up with analysis paralysis, endless debate, and a bias toward rational, scientific evidence at the expense of intuition or gut feel. These pathologies have a deleterious effect on our companies. They lessen the quality and speed of decision-making, delay action, and engender a sterile operating environment in which insightful thinking is quashed unless quantifiable. As a result, many companies end up standing still, even as the world around them is speeding up.”

Fast/forward strategy

How do you define and implement your strategy? It is the oldest question out there, and many academics, consultants, and former captains of industry have offered their views… So in a world shaped by the paradoxes of progress you need something else, and of course there have been many attempts over the years to frame strategy making in a less linear way—for example with a bottom-up process alongside the top-down one, or as a loop or a set of simple rules, as an emergent process, or even as a garbage can. While these are all valid points of view, we draw inspiration here from an unusual setting, namely how the world of software development has been transformed over the last fifteen years.”

Linking strategy to purpose

Monty Python’s movie The Meaning of Life was released in March 1983. The original tagline read, “It took God six days to create the Heavens and the Earth, and Monty Python just 90 minutes to screw it up.” The movie sought to provide irreverent and humorous answers to the ancient questions of why we are here, what life is all about, and what the purpose of existence is. These are difficult questions to be sure, but they are worth grappling with because in answering them we gain a sense of direction which helps us to make difficult choices and trade-offs. These questions are equally important in the world of business.”