I was (re)watching Season 7 of the brilliant American TV show, Mad Men last night. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you binge all 7 seasons. In this particular episode, the year is 1969 and employees at a Madison Avenue agency turn up to work to find the IBM 360, an icon of innovative computer technology taking-up pride of place in the centre of their ritzy office. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for fear and speculation to drive many of the team (literally) crazy as they suspect that the computer will render them obsolete and they will be jobless (sound familiar?).

As the season plays-out, we are reminded of how computers changed the world of work forever. Of course, many people’s jobs were replaced, but they found new, more valuable jobs. How? well… things got really interesting in the 1970s when advancements in microchip technology led to the advent of the Personal Computer. This was a tipping point for business and, ultimately, the world. Thanks to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Andy Grove (and their amazing teams) the awesome power of computing was now at the fingertips of every executive in America. No longer were insights and space-age data processing capabilities limited to a small team of nerds locked in a glass room. Now, everybody in the workplace could use the power of the microchip to automate boring tasks, explore data and work with immense efficiency. 

Reflecting on this tipping point; I’m struck by the significance of replacing the IBM supercomputers of the 1960s with nimble, more affordable and easy-to-use PCs of the 1970s and how much this has in common with contemporary data analysis in the modern workplace.

It looks like we are at a new inflection point, brought-about by rapid advancements in Machine Learning and the Cloud. This technological shift is about to send us into a brave new world of user-enablement. And the significance of this is just as great as when Don Draper walked past the iconic machine in the middle of his offices in 1969. For example, take a look at the table below:

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Now consider today’s data-enabled world of work. Think about the technology, the teams of people working on detailed analytics and the decision maker at the end of the chain, consuming “reports” and deciding what to do next in a dynamic and highly-competitive environment. We are yet again at a tipping-point where cloud technology, Machine learning and SaaS are set to change the game forever. 

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“I believe that it’s not enough to just take advantage of inflection points in history – you have to accelerate those inflections if you want to achieve huge scale.” Reid Hoffman, founder of Paypal and LinkedIn

As we stand on the shore and look at the inspiring new horizon, what can we expect to see happen next? Here are my thoughts on the changes that business leaders need to embrace in order to scale and make their businesses competitive:

Data Analysis/Analytics will become embedded in every application, every business unit, and every executive’s job description in every business, everywhere. It will become as commonplace as word-processing is today. Some will call it continuous intelligence.

Right now, Business Intelligence is the domain of technical experts.Not long from now, embedded Machine Learning will augment the analytical capability of all executives in easy-to-use applications and in real-time. Insights which are cryptic and often out of context will be replaced with immediate, relevant recommendations provided in plain English to enable every user to have a clear understanding of why things happen in their business.

Embracing this transition towards data citizenship in the modern enterprise will see new companies emerge as market-drivers. 

For simple decisions or actions which need to be taken regularly with relatively low-risk, the machines will take-over and allow people to concentrate on the other stuff (value creation). We’re already seeing this a lot in today’s world of work.

In financial services, this is particularly prevalent. Validating customers’ identities, deciding on overdraft limits and even responding to simple chat-based help requests are all mostly automated. In the years to come, we will see ever more decisions be handed over to the machines in every sector and every business. Regulation will no-doubt need to help us make sense of what we can and should do. 

We won’t all suddenly find ourselves out of work. Instead, new roles will be created and existing roles will adapt to leverage new technologies to drive greater efficiency in the business. Everyone is talking about the 4th industrial revolution and it’s no surprise.

Every time there’s a revolution there is fear and apprehension to offer a counterpoint for the optimism which usually emanates from places like Silicon Valley. But we’ve seen this before and we will see it again. Business leaders who are considerate of the coming changes brought about by new technologies will reorganise their teams, consolidate and ultimately develop new specialist roles to drive continual innovation.

So while Don Draper skeptically peered at the IBM 360 super computer occupying the floor space in his centre office, he had no idea what was to come and how it would change his world beyond recognition. Conversely, when Bill Gates posited that we would soon live in a world with “A PC on every desk”, he was seeing beyond the inflection point. He and the Microsoft team accelerated that inflection to take us into a brave new world where every individual was empowered by their technology.

Let’s all try to peer beyond today’s inflection point and leap forward once more.