Business & finance professor, digital lawyer, restaurant owner, board member & traveler.
The new academic year started this week and, as always, I give my first lectures of the year at the Universidad Externado in Bogota in Colombia. This year, my chosen topic was the opportunities and challenges of doing business in a digital age.
During the flight to Colombia I felt prepared. My presentations were ready and I felt good about everything. As always, I couldn’t wait to discuss disruptive new technologies with the students. I am endlessly fascinated by how new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, big data and blockchain are creating a new world of opportunity.
But something was missing. I wanted to “catch” the digital future in one sentence or phrase. Just one idea that I could start and end the presentations with.
And then, I noticed something on the Futurism website that captured everything in just four words:
“Building the Future Together”
For me, this is the most important thing about the digital age. This is why I embrace the digital world. And this is why I am not afraid of new technologies, such as AI, robots and Big Data.
But, what is “Building the Future Together” and how does it actually work?
For me, this idea of “Building the Future Together” captures two really important aspects of a digital world.
The first is the idea that the future is open. We don’t know where we are going or where we will be in twenty, ten or even five years’ time. This radical “openness” has been created by the exponential growth of new technologies.
It is a great responsibility to have to build a better future, but we live in a world of freedom and opportunity, where talent, imagination and drive matter much more than status, background or experience. We share this “burden” of facing an open future, but we are much less constrained by the past.
This connects to the second key ingredient of “Building the Future Together”, which is the idea of “collaboration”. We can’t build a new future alone. Rather, this is a task that can only be achieved “together” in inclusive groups, communities and societies.
By “collaboration”, I mean any project that involves building something together through a process of co-creation. And new technology has a crucial role to play in facilitating this kind of collaborative activity.
What I love about the digital age is the possibility to interact with people that I don’t know and, probably, never will really know. This creates opportunities for collaborative “co-creation” that I’ve never experienced before.
For instance, I recently posted my ideas about “Education in the Digital Age”. The response was both overwhelming and inspiring.
I received so many interesting ideas, many of which have been incorporated into my lectures in Colombia. I am genuinely grateful to everyone who took the time to engage with the piece.
One important idea that came out of this collaborative experience is the idea of the “influencer” and the special place that they occupy in collaborating in a digital age.
Traditional roles have been disrupted by new technology and this has had an impact on our concepts of leadership.
In a digital world, the role of “boss”, “teacher” and “leader” is being replaced by the idea of the “influencer”. This is a “flatter” concept of leadership in which the “influencer” is a more “modest” figure that seeks to inspire, to motivate and to nudge a “team” or “community” of co-creators, rather than dictate or control subordinates.
The “influencer” of today understands that they too are on a journey of constant learning and that they don’t have all the answers.
For instance, I can see this in my own experience of teaching this week.
I introduced the topics, explained the technologies and gave them my points of view and personal experience, but also referred them to blogs, videos and other interesting websites and perspectives.
It didn’t take long before we were educating each other.
Everyone was engaged. The energy in the room was amazing. We discussed the digital age, the speed of innovation and what it meant for business and society as a whole.
What was really exciting is that we (as a group) came up with new innovative ideas. We worked as a team, encouraging each other to come up with entrepreneurial solutions.
At the end, the students understood what it means to “Build the Future Together”.
They understood that it’s their responsibility to take action, understand the technologies and give “business sense” to it.
The experience also reaffirmed my view of the special role that the “influencer” can play in encouraging people to collaborate in building the future together.
Influencers are everywhere these days. We love watching them (YouTube), reading them (Medium), knowing what they are up to (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat) and being part of their network (LinkedIn).
There is something inspiring about them.
They appear to have found happiness and make a living from doing something creative that they care passionately about.
They’ve found a way to get rid of the middlemen, bureaucratic and time-consuming procedures and processes that often dictate our lives. It appears that they live life to the fullest and it is not surprising that many in the next generation aspire to this kind of lifestyle, rather than that of a stable career in an established profession.
What is most important here is that influencers play an important role in “Building the Future Together”. We all want to engage with them, encourage them and — on occasion — disagree with them, often passionately.
So, in order to deal with the future, it is of the utmost importance that influencers and potential influencers are given the space to be creative, energetic and visionary. This is one way that we can ensure that the future is a better place.
It seems clear that technology offers the opportunity for influencers to be creative and visionary. But, we also need a business model that incentivizes them to do so.
Influencers often post their work for free. The monetization has tended to come from ads and marketing.
For some this works really well, but it also attracts “garbage” or “clickbait” (content just posted to increase views, likes and followers). This is an issue that continues to need attention. Improved algorithms and other technologies are needed to avoid misuse.
But, it isn’t only money that incentivizes influencers. Many influencers are active in business (as owners, executives, etc.). They could be encouraged if the “influencer status” could give them a competitive advantage (attracting better talent, raise more money, creating a flatter and more inclusive “corporate culture”).
University professors and other researchers can also play the role of influencer and this should become part of their reward and assessment system.
Over the last four decades, all aspects of everyday life have been transformed by new digital technologies. Established routines of communication, work, consumption, and leisure have all been profoundly affected. In fact, it is hard to think of any aspect of everyday life that hasn’t, in some way, been transformed.
This is why “Building the Future Together” is so important.
It is important to have some control over the direction of this on-going process of fast-paced social change.
And one way to do this is to better understand the key role of the “influencer”, the value of “influencers” and how “influencers” could be further incentivised.
In a flatter, less hierarchical world, where conventional ideas of leadership have been (or are being) disrupted, the rise of “influencers” is a phenomenon that should not be ignored.
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