I want to talk about a term we throw around too easily: future-proofing.
We can learn from legacy companies that were leaders in the past and are still leaders today. I co-authored a book in 1996 called l’Avantage internet pour l’entreprise (in French) where I identified leaders in their industries. A few are still leaders today, three or more decades later. We will look at one of them in this newsletter –UPS – but first I want to explain why future-planning should replace future-proofing in our language and in our thinking.
(Skip to mid article if you’re in a hurry, and discover what UPS, one of the pioneers in my 1996 book, is doing today)
We have forgotten the defensive tone of future-proofing
Proofing is defined differently in dictionaries, but they all have an underlying suggestion that we can somehow block the future, protect ourselves against it!
- able to resist or repel, to give a resistant quality to
- protect us against impacts to come
- continue to be useful in the future if things change
- not to become obsolete
We water-proof our shoes. We wind-proof our fences. We ice-proof our roads.
Writers and consultants tell us we need to future-proof our organizations.
I myself used the term in 2009 in an article about how to future-proof your intranet by future-proofing the governance. I ran a workshop in 2010 on that theme with an accompanying article in 2010 in “Planting governance seeds”
One decade later, I still believe everything I said back then. But I would use different language.
Today I talk about future-planning, not future-proofing.
Actively planning for the future is positive, not defensive. It means accepting and welcoming changes happening and those to come. Most importantly, it means adopting a future-oriented mindset as we design, redesign and redesign again our organizations.
So, how do we future-plan? One way is to study legacy companies that are still innovators today.
This means scanning the horizon around us, observing what others are doing, even organizations in completely different industries. Unfortunately, when we scan the horizon we tend to focus on young companies, born on the net, or the global giants that have become monopolies in their industry.
There is a lot to be learned by looking at the old-timers–legacy companies– that are still leading the way today.
My 1996 book l’Avantage internet pour l’entreprise included case studies about leaders in their industries, a few of whom are still leaders today, three or more decades later. UPS is one of them.
UPS, a legacy pioneer from my 1996 book
UPS was created in 1907, over 110 years ago, yet has remained at the edge of technology even today. They put their first website online in 1994 and it consisted of a few pages, with a photo of a UPS truck and a list of telephone numbers.
To give a time perspective, 1996 was the year Google was created, 3 years before the first Blackberry mobile phone which came in 1999. YouTube was launched 9 years later in 2005, Twitter in and the public Facebook 2006, and the iPhone in 2007.
Most people alive today did not know the internet back in the late 90’s.
Young people who are 15 years old today, were born around the same time as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. The UPS internet had by then been online servicing customers for 10 years!
Their website quickly became the customer’s door to useful information, which, in the past, had previously been communicated by telephone: calculation of the cost of sending a package, specifying to receive a package at home or at a UPS site, finding the nearest location if you want to send a package.
They had a virtual department they called “Customer Automation” of 30 people, which included specialists in creating and maintaining the site, marketing and legal experts.
That was the UPS I interviewed 25 years ago.
Fast forward to the Immersive Tech Center for UPS today
A quarter of a century later, one of the future-planning people at UPS and had a good conversation. What a change in subject matter, although the spirit is the same!
I discovered Mark Gröb who is the head of the Immersive Tech Center for UPS and has years of experience in VR (virtual reality) and XR (extended reality). I interviewed Mark in my BoldNewBreed podcast.
- On-boarding and the critical chain of learning that makes people confident and comfortable
- Retaining and engaging people and removing the fear of mistakes
- Putting people in charge of their learning, both old and new employees
- Scaling up by enabling others to take control of meeting their needs
- Going beyond smoke and mirrors as an entrepreneur, and knowing your ideas will evolve
Future-planning is different for each of us. We need to find our own path.
I’ll talk about other examples in future editions of Inside Outsider.
My take ways from the UPS case:
- Learning is essential for future-planning and letting people take charge of their own learning makes it even more relevant.
- Avoiding hype and focusing on practical cases in a future-ready context is key.
- When you have a good thing going, you need to scale it up for genuine impact on the future.