IFS World Conference 2015: Disrupt or be disrupted

Think beyond new technologies themselves to broader landscape shifts for manufacturing and the workforce, IFSWoCo panelists urge

By Christine LaFave Grace

Get on the disruption bandwagon or get run over by it. 

The message has permeated the 2015 IFS World Conference, taking place this week in Boston. Software vendor IFS, based in Linköping, Sweden, hosts the event to showcase trending technologies in enterprise asset management (EAM) and enterprise service management (ESM); this year, the company also is using the conference to launch its new IFS Applications 9 platform.

IFS CEO Alastair Sorbie and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, the latter of whom gave a keynote address Wednesday, both referenced the accelerated pace of change that businesses find themselves grappling with today. "Things are changing more rapidly than ever before," Wales said. And building a world-famous global brand, he added, can be done with unprecedented speed today.

Speaking with Sorbie on Tuesday, Microsoft Vice President for Enterprise Partners Stephen Boyle noted that only around 11% of companies on the Fortune 500 list in 1955 (the first year that list was produced) still were on the list in 2014. Disruption is "coming from everywhere," Sorbie said. That places heightened pressure on businesses, particularly those in industries such as manufacturing and power generation that are dependent on built-for-the-long-haul physical assets and standardization of processes.

But thriving in this new business environment demands agility – the flexibility to respond to change quickly – and also some degree of anticipation, Wales and Sorbie suggested. It's a matter of having the anticipatory acumen to identify not just the technologies that will change how certain tasks are performed but also the profound, landscape-shifting changes that these technologies enable.

"Don't think about the first order of change," Wales said. "Think about what happens because of the change." Wales noted that the construction of the U.S. interstate highway system beginning in the 1950s literally paved the way for McDonald's growth: Better roads meant a more-mobile U.S. population, and many consumers found appeal in spotting a recognized restaurant brand while out on the highways.

It was the proliferation of high-speed Internet access, of course, that allowed Wales' own company to grow: 14-year-old Wikipedia now has more than 500 million readers every month, Wales said, and the site has entries in 287 languages – and Wikipedia's success was achieved without any paid advertising.

Second-order opportunities will "either blow your business away or give you the greatest opportunity you've ever had," Wales said. Sorbie, in his speech Tuesday, cited the runaway growth of six-year-old Uber, the on-demand transportation app frustrating the taxi industry worldwide, and challenged audience members to contemplate what they'd do if an Uber-type opportunity came along in their business. Sorbie and Wales both also urged attendees to consider what a future with driverless vehicles would look like in their industries and for their workforce. (Google has a self-driving car in development; Uber, for its part, this year partnered with CarnegieMellonUniversity to create a new advanced tech center near CMU's Pittsburgh campus that will focus on, among other things, "autonomy technology.")

"The norms of business are changing," Sorbie said. "Typically, people drive cars; trucks deliver goods; trucks stop for fuel. If that changes, how will you deal with it?"

The questions brought up throughout the conference aren't new, but panelists asserted that they merit critical attention, and soon: How will steel manufacturing change if graphene becomes a material of choice in the automotive industry? How might production of consumer goods (as well as where, how and when consumers shop) change if 3D printers for home use proliferate? How could wearable devices including smartwatches and smartglasses aid in workforce management and real-time asset management within a plant?

"If you want to ride the wave of disruption, you need an agile team with agile systems in place and be ready to work like mad" when opportunity comes along, Sorbie concluded.

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