Victorian in the Trafford Centre.

How can business keep up with the pace of change?

I forget who originally proposed the idea that if someone from a few hundred years ago suddenly arrived in the world of today, they would probably die of shock.

The hypothesis was that, for much of human history, progress had been at such a pace that someone skipping forward a thousand years or so might be surprised by the change from stone to bronze tools, or bronze to iron weapons, but would adapt fairly quickly; but someone from, say the tribal dark ages of the 6th Century arriving in Tudor England, would have one hell of a shock. A shock, but probably not as big a one as for an Elizabethan turning up in post-industrialised Manchester in the 1840s, and certainly not as big as that Victorian would get if they landed in the Trafford Centre, on a Saturday afternoon, the week before Christmas 1999.

What this observation implies, and indeed history supports, is that the pace of change, socially, economically and especially technologically, has accelerated exponentially, over almost every period in history, to the point where change is now so rapid and continuous, that our lives are almost unrecognisable to someone born just a century ago. And we’re showing no sign yet that we’re even close to “peak change”.

Which means that in ten years’ time, that bewildered look a teenager receives from a grandparent when trying to explain Bitcoin, is probably the same look that a 60-year-old CEO will be giving to their 25-year-old Head of AI, when being presented with a new marketing strategy.

I’m already starting to see in many of my clients – especially the B2B businesses – a distinct generational divide between the Digital Natives and the Digitally Naïve. In discussions around strategic vision and technology, quite often the latter will spend time lamenting the death of privacy, face-to-face conversation and close personal relationships, while the former are busily evangelising about the platforms, the communities, and the panoply of smart devices with which they’ve grown up, and how they should be used to shape the future business direction.

The challenge for businesses, both large and small, is that, while the vast stores of technical knowledge and first-hand experience held in the heads of the older generation are invaluable, without the vision and application of the next generation’s insight and fluency, especially in the lives and expectations of tomorrow’s customers, those old heads will seriously hold you back.

Over the last ten years, the term “diversity” has been subverted to become a check-box exercise; a way to score businesses and institutions on how well they represent the gender and racial profile of their customers and communities. But it matters little whether your Board members are all white men called John, or whether they’re Jamaican, Jewish, or called Janet, if they’re all from the same generation, with similar backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. Diversity is not about what people look like, it’s about what they bring to the table, particularly in how they look at the world, and how it might change and evolve in the years to come. And that’s never been more important than right now.

So, take a look at the make-up of your senior team. How many men and women are there below 30? And how many of them are from different backgrounds, different industries, different countries and cultures to you? Now ask yourself, what can you do to dramatically shift that make-up over the next three years? Not because it’s society’s expectation, but because unless you do, a few years from now you’ll find yourself looking at a whole new wave of global, technology-driven competitors, and feeling like a Victorian in the Trafford Centre.