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TRANSCRIPT: Is Your Business "Future Proof"?

Contributor: Jon Wetzel
Posted: 02/10/2011
Jon Wetzel
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We're now entering the first world war of talent for the top one percent of really leading edge players, says futurologist and author James Bellini. In this Profit through Process interview with Lean for Everyone blogger Jon Wetzel, Bellini reveals what the war for talent means for businesses, discusses the corporate psyche and why it makes some companies fail, and even touches on what he describes as the biggest shift in global business and economic reality since the industrial revolution.

J Wetzel: Please give us a quick insight into the work and research that you do.

James Bellini: The program for the event will say that I'm a futurologist and author, which is true, and I think people expect futurologists to pitch up looking like something out of Harry Potter, John, but... with a pointy hat and a magic wand and so on. We're not wizards. We work in the corporate sector; we work with government departments or international bodies, professional groups and all the rest. And, really, I see my job as to analysing the major trends that are reshaping the world; the world for business and the world for everyday life. And the most important thing for me is to make sure that people and organisations are what I call future-proof, i.e. they are aware of the things that are changing the rules for business in the next 10 and 15 and maybe even 20 years and beyond. And by being future-proof, you will have, as an organisation and as a person, the... a much greater chance of being successful.

J Wetzel: The economy has been pretty unstable for the last few years and recovery still seems a little sluggish, so what does this mean for the way that corporate leaders should approach their business operation strategy?

James Bellini: You're absolutely right, we've had a massive downturn – it's the biggest in 50, 60 years or more – and we're still struggling, as you say, to get it right and to come out of it, and I think it's still a little bit uncertain. And, really, whether you're an optimist or a pessimist - I'm by nature an optimist, but I also always remind people and delegates and so on of what the great economist of the depression years, of the 1930s, an economist called Joseph Schumpeter, what he always said. He said that when you do get recessions and crises, this is a time for actions, a time for positive activity within the organisation, and what he calls a time for creative destruction, i.e. have a look at your business, have a look at the world around you, get rid of old ways of doing things, old business models, and create new business models, models that are much more attuned to the world that has been changed by that crisis.

So we should be looking now... I think business leaders should be looking at creating a new business model that's probably a leaner model, building stronger relationships with their key talent within the management group. Often the research tells us that when times are tough, senior management spend all their time putting out fires and trying to achieve their numbers and defending the bottom line. And often they do something which is very risky, very dangerous, almost, which is they neglect, they ignore, they forget, they overlook the middle-range talent, the top talent in the middle of the organisation that's going to be the future for that particular organisation. So this is about, I think, to build great engagements with the people who really count in your business; keep them on and build them into the next generation of leadership.

J Wetzel: I completely understand that. In your book, "The Bullshit Factor", you also talk about overcoming corporate barriers. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

James Bellini: I know it's a slightly obscure or odd title, if you like, but I was really brought to think about this subject in this book after Enron and after all the corporate wrongdoings, if you like, of the early part of this century – and I think we could do it again by looking at the banking sector in the past two or three years. What has actually gone wrong? Why do companies behave the way they do, and often behave in a way that destroys them? Companies don't last forever. The average lifespan of a company in the past 50, 60, 70 years is only about 30 years. Whatever happened to Pan American Airlines, for example? At the time, it was the number one player; now it doesn't exist anymore. So I got very interested in why companies succeed or fail, and it's to do, in my view, with the way they behave and the way they see themselves. So I applied... with the help of the pinnacle psychologist, I applied the rules of psychology to organisations. And my start-point was simply to say that any organisation has a psyche – has a psychology about it, has a culture – and if that psyche is unbalanced or out of whack, as with an individual person, then you're going to have problems. It will have blocked emotions, if you like, and they'll be like people unable to move forward, and therefore, less likely to succeed as an organisation. So the book is really about corporate psyche and lots of case studies; some companies that have disappeared, some that are still around, and even companies like Sony that might have problems because they've moved on from the generation that created the company. And so that's really what the book's about: companies, organisations have a psyche; it must be a healthy psyche, it must not be delusional and think it's something that it's not, all those things. Where people go wrong, a company can go wrong as well.

J Wetzel: It sounds like getting this psyche back into shape is a huge challenge that our global community faces today.

James Bellini: Actually, yes. It doesn't look at first glance like a futurology book, but actually, it is part of the toolbox whereby organisation senior managers can actually make their companies more future-proof because what I'm really saying in the book is that a company has to have a healthy psyche if it's going to survive in the future. And what this really means is that senior management, management as a whole, the culture of the organisation has to have clarity, has to have courage, has to have transparency and authenticity, all things that actually cause problems with individuals as well. It's about being real, it's about being ethical. It's about being a sustainable business and really meaning it, not just saying, "We're a green company, we're a sustainable business," simply because it sounds nice or looks nice in the annual report; you've got to do it. And the book, really, as I say, is about getting rid of that old traditional reliance in business on secrecy and on defending your information and not sharing it, and of having a slightly hostile relationship with your customers and possibly your employees because people used to see them as getting in the way, if you like, of running the business. You've got to sweep all that away and borrow from individual psychology, and try and create a much healthier mentality as the company goes forward. So really, it's what I call the authentic enterprise, and authentic enterprises are more likely to survive and prosper in the future than ones who are not authentic.

J Wetzel: To obtain this authenticity, I know that a lot of companies are looking to add on a different type of talent these days in their organisations. So I notice in your bio that you're very involved in talent development associations. And what role do you think that talent will play in driving the organisational performance over the next few years?

James Bellini: You're right; I'm involved with something here called the Talent Foundation, which is a charitable non-profit organisation. We do a little research and thinking around the talent professional marketplace. As a futurist, John, looking forward, I can honestly say that we're now entering what I call the first world war of talent, the global battlefield, if you like, for that top one percent of really leading edge players. And it's being accentuated, this first world war of talent, by the fact that in Europe, for example, populations are static or declining, and ditto in Japan; whereas in Asia, the economies are growing very fast, they're looking for talent, they'll be looking for more talent in future years, and we've got to ask the question, where's it all going to come from? And secondly, we're going through... when we look at talent, we're actually looking at the next generation of talent. And the next generation of talent are the new generation coming through, what we call the digital natives, and they're now totally different from us old baby boomers. The digital natives work in a different way, they're not desk monkeys, they want to relate to each other in a different way, they believe in sharing information rather than hoarding it, all those things. They're more, of course, at home with technology, and so there's a new paradigm of... for managing talent, and they've got to get rid of all the old metrics, all the old measurement systems because they don't really make any sense anymore. And I think companies that get into this properly and work out new ways of measuring and managing the next generation of talent, they're going to be more successful. The ones who hang onto old outmoded ways of managing their people, they're going to have problems.

J Wetzel: Taking that into consideration, what do you think are the top three trends we need to look out for and be aware of in 2011?

James Bellini: As a futurist, 2011 is really almost yesterday. Obviously, it's only a year, and futurists tend to look 10, 20, 30 years out. In fact, looking at the conference programme, my session is called "A Glimpse at the Future over the Next 50 Years and How It Will Affect You", but that's for the conference itself. So looking ahead just the one year, then I would say, to me, we're going to see the maturity, or the maturing, of things like social networks. We all know about social networks, but for a number of years now, many people, senior managers even, have regarded social networks as something that kids do in their free time to communicate with their mates or their chums, and so on. Social networks are actually a key resource now; a key resource for things like innovation, a key resource for marketing, for customer relationship management and all those things. So I think in this year, looking ahead at 2011, I think we're going to see companies, the business sector, increasingly integrating the whole pile of social networks with their everyday management and their longer term strategy, so that's coming of age.

I think there are three. The second area is, really, as we come out of this recession – and it is a bit lumpy, isn't it, it's a two steps forward and one back or whatever – in terms of recovery, I think we've got to get into the idea of how to deal with what I call the cautious consumer.

We've had a consumer boom, particularly in the States and in Europe, for the past ten or 15 years. That's clearly come to an end. We're living in a new kind of era now, much more careful, much more prudent consumers; people who are paying down debt, who are saving more. There's going to be less cash about, and consumers, customers have to therefore be approached and managed in a different way. It was much easier, I think, six, seven, eight years ago to sell your products and services out there to consumers; now they'll be thinking twice or three times before actually making that sale, that purchase and, indeed, purchasing from you.

So the cautious consumer, I think, is going to be around for most of the decade, and management and businesses have got to get used to handling that problem. And I think the third area, really, is, again, another maturing technology – we've talked about it for the last couple of years, but now it's really going to start banking this year and the year after – is of course the whole idea of the cloud, of externalising all your information systems. For a generation now, IT has been on the desktop or in the organisation itself, whereas now it's being pushed further out of the organisation.

Indeed, my prediction, if you like, for the next five, six years is you might actually see the closing of many IT departments, so not good news for IT people, I know, but it will certainly be externalised more. A slight dichotomy here. Larger companies I talk to tend to be a bit worried about cloud and about pushing outward data into an external system and network because they worry about security and other people having access to their information and important data. Smaller enterprises – and I know there are lots of those in the States, lots in Europe, particularly here in the UK, they are the seed point of the future – they're very keen on the whole idea of cloud. They want to get more improved systems, and they know that they probably have less consistency within their companies and they will actually be able to improve their IT power, if you like, by going outside, so smaller companies tend to welcome cloud. Larger companies tend to be a bit reluctant, but I think maybe this year they'll start maturing their own viewpoints there and coming on board.

J Wetzel: Now, without giving away your presentation for the event, can you give a sneak peek at some of the key topics and trends you'll be sharing with us at the conference in April?

James Bellini: Yes. My session has been titled "A Glimpse at the Future over the Next 50 Years and How It Will Affect You", so I'm going to be looking, really, at some of the big gutsy issues that are actually changing the world, John, of what I call the great transition. We are entering a period, maybe in the next five, ten years, the next decade or so, which will see the biggest shift in global business and economic reality since the industrial revolution. And so it sounds a rather grandiose way to say it, but the past couple of hundred years, really, have been dominated by the first stage of developed economies in North America, in Europe and Japan. That's where the trade has been, that's where the innovation has been, that's where all the major world brands have been created. As we look forward, we're going to see a new kind of world in which we bat on, if you like, passes to the new emerging world of Asia, South America and even parts of Africa, and we've got to get used to this in the old developed world. We've got to get used to new trading patterns, new kinds of currency power, new reserve currencies even, and of course, a new family of brands that we're not used to now; brands in the motor car business, brands in clothing, brands in high fashion, brands in consumer products. So we've really got to get very familiar with a completely different outlook for the future where the rules are completely different from what we have been used to in the past generation or so of management.

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Jon Wetzel
Contributor: Jon Wetzel