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Technology scouting: How companies can discover what's next

June 18, 2018
Beth Devin, Head of Innovation Network & Emerging Technologies, Citi Ventures

The mainstream adoption of new technologies underpins much of the disruption we see in the world today. Big data, mobile, and the cloud are now household words, and together they enable businesses and consumers to operate in ways that weren't imaginable several years ago. For companies to keep up with the pace of change, a few questions require answers: What nascent technologies will disrupt our world next? How can these technologies be leveraged to build new businesses, engage and wow clients, and improve communities? At the same time, are there potential unintended consequences to consider?

In today's environment, businesses and leaders urgently need to understand emerging technology trends and the opportunities they present. That's why firms are standing up "technology scouting" functions to monitor a range of next-gen technologies and dive more deeply into those areas most relevant to their industry and competitive landscape. Outcomes may include partnerships, investments, acquisitions, pilots of startup solutions, and further down the line, the development of new products and even new businesses.

To produce the best results in an organization, scouting teams should perform four main functions:

Operate a radar

First, they should develop and maintain an emerging technology knowledge base and landscape by tapping into a broad set of information sources, including mainstream media, white papers from technology companies and thought leaders, university research, conferences and podcasts. The resulting landscape "radar" provides a broad overview of a given technology domain (e.g., What is it? How does it work? What are potential use cases?), and indicates what stage of evolution the technology has reached. For example, ThoughtWorks publishes an annual Technology Radar report that provides insights relevant to the digital design and engineering services that the client company provides.

Conduct deep dive learning and analysis

Since scouting can be time-consuming, companies often end up devoting too many resources to simply monitoring for all the emerging technologies on the horizon. To move beyond the hype of new technologies and add value, tech scouting teams need to prioritize what is in and outside the bounds of the company. Scouting teams should first determine which technology areas are strategic to the business and conduct immersive learning to explore how a given technology works in that context, when it may be commercially available, and how it can potentially fuel new business opportunities and build future solutions.

Lowe's, for example, artfully combines storytelling, science fiction writing, and cartoon illustrations to describe and communicate how future technologies might be used in a retail setting. By building out futuristic use cases, businesses can bring technologies to life and begin exploring their potential impact – both the good and the bad.

Gain first-hand experience

Conducting tests and experiments helps businesses move past academic learning to start implementing new technologies. Because cloud-based environments have made access to emerging technology labs easier than ever, businesses are increasingly collaborating with technology partners like IBM, Microsoft and Intel to define and run basic experiments with defined objectives, and then collect and publish results.

IBM, for example, offers the ability to interact with a quantum computer through its IBM-Q website for anyone interested in learning about and experimenting with quantum computing. By building and supporting a community around these efforts and sharing a wealth of information, the company is generating new knowledge about the technology for the industry. Interested parties can collaboratively explore both potential use cases and strengths for emerging technologies, as well as possible challenges and gaps that must be addressed before the technology can be adopted and operationalized more broadly.

Promote and embed

The best outcome of a scouting function is the identification of a limited set of technologies that warrant deeper investment from the business. While the technology might still be early stage, effective scouting can help companies move from experimentation to early adoption. From there, they can identify specific use cases and make investments in the people, process, and technology required to leverage and operate these emerging technologies.

In the early days of mobile devices and apps, enterprises had to invest in training and hiring iOS and Android designers, engineers and testers. Mobile software also required different testing, deployment, security, usage tracking and advertising capabilities. As companies get closer to adopting the technology, tech scouting teams can provide much-needed guidance, advocacy and support.

Forward-thinking companies invest in tech scouting functions not only to stay informed about next-gen technologies and the potential impact on their business, but also to innovate and provide better products and services for their clients. Through tech scouting, they proactively learn about the potential applications of various technologies and can better gauge the right time to get out of the lab and into the market.

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