Is your organization ready for massive change? Have your people learned how to cope with increasingly fast cycle times, escalating ambiguity and avalanches of incoming information? Do you have a Plan B if your current structure proves too brittle?
Futurists warn that we are rounding the knee of an exponential curve of communications, business and technology. It’s hard to imagine change of this magnitude. It reminds me of an experience I had on a recent trip to Abu Dhabi.
Camel stew is delicious, so I tore another chunk from the platter in front of me. The fellow across the table was eating Omani lobster. He was the first non-native to be awarded citizenship in the United Arab Emirates.
Abu Dhabi was settled in 1793. Life was hard. Camel herding, fishing and small-scale agriculture were the primary economic activities. Pearl diving became lucrative at the beginning of the century, but was knocked out in the 1930s by the one-two punch of global depression and the Japanese cultured pearl industry.
In 1958, oil was discovered. The United Arab Emirates sits atop 10 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves. The late Sheik Zayed put the United Arab Emirates in the fast lane, and you can almost see it growing daily.
Fifty years ago, a few scattered huts made from palm fronds sat on the land now occupied by row after row of modern skyscrapers. Camel paths turn into high-speed freeways, dazzling skyscrapers sprout like weeds and green trees and gardens abound. Dubai is about as far from Abu Dhabi as San Francisco from San Jose, and the roads through both the United Arab Emirates and Silicon Valley are bordered with fancy buildings marked Intel, IBM, Oracle, SAP, Microsoft and HP.
I saw a woman covered head to toe in black, but with a cell phone held to her ear. Some women wore all black with total facial coverings, some wore brass nose guards, some half-veils and some wore no facial coverings at all. It reminds me how slowly things progress. But that is the wrong message. Things that look old-fashioned to my inexperienced eyes must appear like science fiction to locals my age. Ten years ago, a woman would not have been allowed out of her house alone.
Had I been born in Abu Dhabi, I would have grown up without electricity or running water in a house without a foundation. I wouldn’t have gone to high school because the country didn’t have any. My father would have herded camels, like his father before him, and his father before him, going back to ancient times.
By the time I was 35 years old, my life would have begun to change. Leaders were importing foreigners to build roads, buildings and infrastructure. By the time I was 50, I would have had a cell phone, microwave oven, condo overlooking the Gulf, flat-screen television, sleek Mercedes, Philippe Patek wristwatch, four-wheel drive dune buggy, kid attending Oxford and several million dollars in my personal bank account.
In “The Singularity is Near,” polymath inventor Ray Kurzweil shows that human evolution has been advancing exponentially throughout history. Until now, we haven’t noticed because we’ve been in the flat part of the curve. Culture is starting to change as if it had succumbed to Moore’s Law. More experience gets packed into every minute.
The 21st century will contain 100 calendar years, and each one of them will contain more and more activity and evolution. In those 100 years, we will experience the equivalent of 200 centuries of progress.
Zooming up the handle of the hockey-stick graph of exponential change, we’re all going to face the disorientation of the older residents of Abu Dhabi. I suspect the United Arab Emirates will be better prepared than the United States for what lies ahead.
Recent research by the ASTD and IBM found that most CLOs are focused on efficiency, but their peers take that as a given. Their interest is in building capacity for the future. That means preparing people for perpetual change. It’s more important than the day-to-day. Ask anyone in Abu Dhabi.
Jay Cross is CEO of Internet Time Group and a thought leader in informal learning and organizational performance. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.